A Novel By David Hirshberg
My Mother’s Son is a literary novel written as the memoir of a radio raconteur that uses the inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in which he lived as a foil to deal with major issues that affect Americans today – disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It has been purposefully set in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current ‘talking heads’ climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective.
The story revolves around an extended Jewish family in Boston that includes a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands, an uncle and two boys, Joel (the narrator) and Steven, his older brother, who are the sons of the older daughter. From the Prologue:
“Reflected in it is a story with a tale both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood.”
My Mother’s Son also lays bare one of childhood’s essential mysteries: that often, what parents and other adults say is usually what is most convenient for the adults. The opening line of the book, “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth,” introduces the element of doubt at the outset and this is followed by Joel’s observation that sets the foundation upon which the novel is built:
“To a kid, baseball is leather mitts, rubber balls, wooden bats, insignias, pennants, parks and hot dogs. Polio is doctors, hospitals, shots, paralysis, wheelchairs and lowered voices. War is salutes and medals, pretend battles, make-believe deaths, days off from school, guns and parades. Politics is elections, speeches, buttons, flags, handshakes, history and rallies.
These are the things I knew, for sure, in Boston in 1952. They were truths. They were no less true than my parents wouldn’t lie to me, that the mystery of girls would never be revealed to me, that death came only to the old, and that man’s best friend was a dog.
By the end of that year, I can tell you that I still believed the thing about the dog.”
There are flashbacks to the early nineteen hundreds that relate to Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his murdered wife, as well as to his aunt’s flight with her future husband from Germany on the day following Kristallnacht, in November 1938; and others from mid-century such as the seemingly innocuous purchase of a souvenir baseball bat that is the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder. Joel’s prescience and ability to put disparate things together lead to the discovery of an unimaginable family secret.
The current action is played out in 1952 when the Korean War is raging, there is a major polio epidemic, a young Irish congressman is running for the senate against an entrenched WASP and the sports world is being turned upside down with the move of a baseball franchise out of the city. It is post-War America, on the cusp of dramatic changes that Joel muses about near the end of the book in 2012:
“Our American culture has been profoundly changed and one can arguably trace the center of this shift to the time immediately preceding and following 1952, allowing us to view this year as the prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration.”
While the book’s themes are serious, provide historical insights and give pause to thoughts about present-day America, it is entertainingly written with humor, vivid description and crackling dialog that captures the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) voices without caricature.
The manuscript is 121,000 words. It is a work of complete fiction; there is neither a character nor a scene that is remotely related to anything that deals with the author, his family, friends or acquaintances.
The title is a play on words that does not become apparent until close to the end.
My Mother’s Son
Prologue — The yin and yang of my life
When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.
They tell others that they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.
That, as you devotees know, is how I opened each radio show five nights a week for forty-seven years. I write it down now on the anniversary of my last show as I glance at the walls of the studio, where they taped up a photo of me from each year, a mélange of shots that arrested a moment of time, but they appear to be a film strip if you sweep your head from beginning to end, taking in all the pictures, a short reel that exposes customs of dress, grooming habits, and attitudinal stances—the outsides, the two dimensions that others recognized when they saw the me that they thought they knew. I’m all too familiar with these men, some of whom I loved; others, well, let’s just say I’ve taken my leave without rancor but sometimes with embarrassment. No, I don’t deny the veracity of the glossies, the snippets that captured me with mustache, clean-shaven, long-haired, crew-cut, with wide lapels (thank God, no Nehru jackets), thin ties, aviator glasses, contacts, tie-dyed T-shirts and cashmere sweaters, often wearing the red-and-blue Braves cap, the Boston Braves that is, which meshes nicely now with my speckled beard that still has a wisp of reddish strands, a trick designed to fool me into thinking that I’m younger than I am.
I acknowledge the optimism behind the first one, the 1964 headshot where I’m still in my army uniform, having mustered out only a couple of weeks previously from active duty in West Germany. I’d gone to my first interview wearing it, perhaps to impress the station boss; he was, after all, a high muckety-muck in the reserves, having won ribbons in Korea, but the real reason I wore it is probably more mundane, given that this was still the era in which it was said that girls liked men in uniform.
He listened to tapes of some of my shows from Armed Forces Radio. Then, suppressing a smirk, I presented documents to him to bolster my case, including an article in the Berliner Morgenpost about my private meeting with the president after he gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the prior June. Prominently displayed on the page was a photo of him smiling broadly at me. I could tell that the station manager was impressed. He asked me if I had any other things that would support my candidacy for the position. I retrieved an article that came from my college newspaper my senior year, 1961, which featured a picture of me with a famous radio humorist sharing a beer at a local hangout, where I interviewed him about his stories that captivated young and old alike, regarding his time growing up in the Midwest during the Depression and afterward in the War years (when it’s capitalized and used as a standalone word, it always refers to World War II). And finally, I handed him an amusing piece from my high school paper that reported on a discussion I had in 1957 with my dog, a black Lab, who was lamenting the fact that the Russians sent dogs into space and all we sent were mice. It contained a shot of him with a caption underneath that said, “Depressed that he couldn’t be Muttnik.”
I got the job.
I can recall the opening of my first show without resorting to any notes: “On May 10, 1952, when our soldiers were bogged down in a war in Korea, our doctors were battling the polio epidemic, and our elected officials were assaulting each other in a political campaign, my brother Steven and I surreptitiously witnessed a shakedown that enmeshed us in the events of the day in a way that affected us for the rest of our lives. I was twelve and a half and my brother was fourteen.” I’ve spent the intervening time between then and now giving tidbits of what happened that year, intermingled with other observations about actions big and small, parochial and ubiquitous, that’ve occurred since those days.
Most studio visitors take in the pictures on the wall chronologically, examining closely, pointing, noting something in the background, muttering to themselves, stepping sideways a few feet, wash, rinse, repeat, engaging me in small talk about some particular thing that catches their attention, usually relating it to an event in their lives. Once a year my brother would take the occasion to bring a new photo; he’d step back, alternating peering between it and me and it and the other shots, and give the imperceptible head bob, which intimated that he could differentiate the glint from the prior year, the presentation as opposed to the pose, the body language that only he could interpret.
When the last photo was hung a year ago, Steven’s intense scrutiny of the sags, the creases, the squint, the distractedness that’s unambiguous to a sibling, was a signal as obvious to me as a Morse code SOS. It’s time, life was tapping out, dot dot dot, to say good-bye, something that he’d just done, having announced to his partners his intention to wind down his appointments with patients by the end of the year.
I wondered if what my brother noticed was caused or exacerbated by my recent finding of a trove of handwritten papers that’d been nestled within the inside pocket of a valise, stashed in my house for almost thirty years, the keepsake that reminded me of a trip my aunt had made more than seventy years earlier, now exposed as the chintzy vessel that housed the real treasure.
I initially misinterpreted my brother’s advice as a call to retire, when in fact he was simply urging me to walk away from a daily grind, a two-hour radio show five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday from eight to ten. From your letters and emails you marveled at my ability to riff for 120 minutes, seemingly off the cuff, a stream of consciousness about my life, starting with when I was a kid, right after the War, with my friends Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, Frankie, my brother, our respective love interests Zippo and Susie, The Guy on the Radio, and my dog—adults making guest appearances, certainly never getting star billing. I take pride in your encomiums, thank you, but it wasn’t as if I made it all up extemporaneously. I’d get up early, come into the studio before anyone else—solitude in moderation can be an ally if you get along famously with your conscience—and establish an endpoint from which I’d work backward, a deductively logical reverse process that served me well, a way in which to come up with an outline, the sinew that was all that was necessary to begin construction of the body scaffolding for my soliloquy.
A few months ago, Steven accepted a dollar-a-year position at the university hospital, coordinating efforts to better understand and treat post-polio syndrome, the legacy of the epidemic that we thought we’d conquered, only to be fooled years later in the same way the balloon of our unbridled optimism following the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 had been pierced by the Korean War in 1950. Witnessing him make the smooth transition into a new role eased the process for me to do the same, and that shouldn’t have surprised me. He’d led the way for me throughout my childhood, and while I was grateful, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my admiration for him was further enhanced as I recognized that no older sibling had been there for him, the curse of the firstborn.
Yes, the last picture on the wall was the trigger for Steven to offer that I, too, move on, which I did halfway through 2011. At first, my agent suggested that I go through the station’s archives and pull out my favorite shows from each year, have them transcribed and edited, a surefire way to deliver a product to members of my audience, a built-in group numbering about 250,000, the result of national syndication that brought my show far beyond the Boston metro area. While this might’ve made sense financially, it was something I could’ve done while still at the station showing up five nights a week and didn’t reflect the change that my brother and I both felt was necessary.
After my last broadcast, they were kind enough to allow me to come by the studio to write, at dawn, when it was uncannily quiet, a perfect setting, the only sound being the sporadic whoosh of the air-conditioning kicking in, generating an autonomous shudder, my body anticipating the cool blast that would remind me it was summer, a necessary cue to a person who’s in a space with no windows and no other stimuli other than what he conjures up on his own. With each shiver, I’d get up and pace, much as I did when the green light went on and the young woman in the control room provided the nod-smile that indicated the lavaliere mike pinned to my lapel or collar was live, a silent admonition to remind me not to clear my throat, crinkle paper, or talk back to her when she’d occasionally contact me through the earpiece.
Many times, in the middle of a program, I’d glance over to the wall opposite the photos, where I’d hung my Braves baseball cap and a souvenir bat, the former highlighting fond memories of going to the park with my friends, the latter being the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder, these two objects together bringing forth a sobering juxtaposition of the yin and yang of my life.
But there’ll be no more control room signals, no more hushed voices in my ear, no more green lights, no more writing the outline for a two-hour show. No, that’s all behind me. Now it’s about act 2, a bit of uncharted territory. I feel like Marco Polo, whose mission was clear but who couldn’t tell you much about the outcome until he finished his journey.
So I start by staring into a mirror that I’ve hung next to the most recent picture on the wall. Reflected in it is a story both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, marines, theft, girls, and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood.
I told my brother that unlike my radio shows, here the adults take stage, front and center, exiting only when they depart, leaving behind their legacies, forever in the penumbra of my imagination and displayed through my actions, behaviors, and wants.
“You are your mother’s son,” he said definitively and presciently, “so despite the fact that I’ve been there all along, I don’t know what you’ll reveal or withhold or how you’ll interpret your life.”
“My mother’s son,” I said in a way to hear the phrase in my own voice. “Is that a double entendre?”
He smiled as he cupped his hand around my neck, a wordless gesture that conveyed both affection and recognition that it was the perfect time to take his leave.