I’d like to take you back in time to a completely different world — June 1933, Bronx, New York, where a young woman is struggling through an arduous labor. She delivers an infant that the medical staff believe to be stillborn. In their haste to minister to the mother they quickly dispense with the baby girl, placing her, as family lore would have it, in some type of basket or receptacle. After several moments, a cry is heard, and the doctors and nurses realize that this baby is indeed alive.
That baby was my mother, and as the story goes, her cerebral palsy arose from the difficult birth and from traumatic brain injury she sustained due to being thrown into the basket. Whether apocryphal or not, this birth narrative, of an abandoned baby crying from a basket to let everyone know that she is alive, exemplified my mother to a T — until her last days on this earth she was a ferociously determined person with a tremendous energy for life, demanding to be heard, to not be dismissed, and to be a part of the vibrating pulse of humanity.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological birth defect impacting motor and speech skills. My mother had a lifelong severe speech impairment that made it difficult, if not impossible for her to be understood by most people. It was almost like she spoke a different language, and my father and I were the only two other people on the planet who were fluent in that language. As one of her doctors commented, “I need to learn to speak Dorothy!” As a result of this speech impairment, and of her severe walking gait and limited fine motor skills, she was often either ignored or mistaken for someone with limited cognitive abilities. She was much more isolated in her life than she should have been, and then she ever wanted to be, because by nature she was an extremely warm, gregarious, funny and wise person.
Back in the 1930s, most babies born with severe disabilities like my mother’s would have been institutionalized or otherwise hidden from the world. To their credit, my grandparents took my mother home, showered her with love, and tried to give her as normative a life as possible. She was sent to public school, but unfortunately she was “passed through” without ever really learning anything. She learned to read as an adult.
An only child, she was extremely close to both of her parents, but particularly to her mother, who tragically died at the young age of 49, when my mother was 22 years old. She never really got over this loss; the two defining moments of her life were the death of her mother and the birth of her daughter.
Even as a young adult, my mother’s resilience was in full force. Although shattered by the loss of her mother she went on with her life, becoming a homemaker for her father and continuing to attend all of the social and other programming for disabled people that her mother had connected her to. It was at one of those programs that she met my father, who was also cerebral palsied.
When my mother and father announced that they were getting married, her family discouraged them, concerned that they would not be able to manage on their own. In fact, they managed quite well for fifty-four loving years. Their disabilities were symbiotic: my father had no use of his hands, so my mother cooked, cleaned, fed him, and helped him with his activities of daily living. He in turn was her translator, advocate, and breadwinner, thanks to his long career as an urban planner for the federal government.
My mother was determined to have a child, just like other women her age. But her father and step-mother deeply opposed it and for years she was afraid to take this huge step without family support. Eventually her maternal instinct overrode her fears, and after nine years of marriage she became pregnant. Her family used every means available to pressure her to have an abortion. My mother politely but firmly said “No, thank you.” She would laugh to hear it, but my mother was one of the great feminist warriors — through the life she lived, she demonstrated the profound importance of human self-determination. In a society that at that time tolerated and even condoned the routine sterilization of physically and cognitively disabled people, my mother stood up for her rights.
More than anything, though, my mother was simply a wonderful Jewish wife and mom, a New Yorker through and through —- family, love, laughter and Yiddishkeit were the cornerstones of her extraordinary life. She was a very proper, dignified person. Her house was always immaculate and beautifully decorated, and she was always well-dressed. Each Friday she would go to a salon in our Sheepshead Bay neighborhood to get her hair done. She would then go to our local bakery to get a challah and desserts for Shabbat. She maintained strict order in her daily routines, in order to assert as much control over her life as she could: Mondays was meat, Tuesdays was fish, Wednesdays was meat, Thursday was dairy, and on Friday we had steak for Shabbat dinner because it was easier and faster for her to cook than chicken.
My mother’s deep Jewish identity found expression in the traditions she maintained and in how she raised her child. The kosher home, weekly Shabbat meals, strict observance of Passover, sending her daughter to Jewish day school through 12th grade — these were seminal achievements of her life. The Friday before her death she was already finding it quite difficult to speak. As dusk fell she pointed to the electric candlesticks on the table in her nursing home room, to tell me to light them, which I did. She then said something that I couldn’t understand. I kept asking her to repeat it, and finally, completely frustrated, she mustered all of her energy and said, “The bracha. I’m saying the bracha!” And together we said the Shabbat candlelighting blessing. It will always bring me joy to know that we benched lecht together on her last Erev Shabbat on this earth.
Most of all, my mother adored her family. Her three grandchildren were the lights of her life. One of the happiest moments she ever experienced was the bar mitzvah of our eldest son several months before she died. She was bursting with pride and joy. Several people commented to me that they delighted in seeing my mother happily dance in her wheelchair at the party. Despite, or more likely because of, the tremendous suffering and hardship she had endured in her life, she relished and was grateful for every blessing she was granted and every happy moment she lived to realize.
At my mother’s funeral, my husband offered perhaps the most eloquent observation about her impact on everyone who knew and loved her: “To really get to know Dorothy Franklin was to understand that the most profound impairment in the room was usually not in her speech, but rather in the misperceptions of those who heard it. She was one of the greatest gifts of my life, someone who would teach me more than the most polished orator ever could about love, about heart, about dignity, about grit and so much more.” We, her children and grandchildren, will always strive to honor and uphold that powerful legacy.
Guila Franklin Siegel is an attorney and Jewish communal professional. She resides in Potomac, Maryland.
More from The New Normal here.