Last Tuesday was the 112th anniversary of my mother’s birth. Belying surface impressions, there was more than one of her.
Blanche Finkle Perlstein was a middle-class Jewish housewife with a successful husband (Morris); a well-furnished apartment in Queens; a mink coat and lots of jewelry. She loved opera and Broadway theater. But . . .
Mom was a big fan of the early kids’ TV show “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” (1949-55 ). And while she spent some childhood years on a farm in Connecticut where she rode the family’s horse bareback, as an adult, she wouldn’t go near a dog.
When Mom flew to San Antonio where’d I’d been stationed at Fort Sam Houston to meet Carolyn, she dressed elegantly, hair and makeup perfect. She then presented my fiancée with a potato grater (we still have it) and a jar of schmaltz—chicken fat. Although price was never an object when she shopped, she procured “souvenirs” from her airline flights.
Lately, the duality of human nature has been popping up everywhere. The nonfiction book Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott, a New York Times “10 best of 2021,” presents a very bright young African American girl, Dasani, and her family as they experience homelessness and destitution in New York. Dasani’s parents struggle with drugs and alcohol. They steal to survive. The family is continually broken apart.
Yes, Dasani’s mother exhibits all the problems critics of anti-poverty and drug programs—too often failing—rail against. But she loves her children fiercely and wants them to live better lives. Born into different circumstances, she might have been applauded as a wonderful mother like mine.
A violent, mercifully short novel, At Night All Blood is Black (2021 International Booker Prize) by the French-Senegalese writer David Diop, portrays a Senegalese soldier fighting for France in World War One. Alfa Ndiaye is a bright, sensitive man. Also a homicidal torturer. You don’t like what he does yet you like him. Split personality? Alfa’s body ends up being taken over by the mind of another man.
Of course, we have politicians who refuse to publicly acknowledge ugly truths while revealing their awareness in private.
The United States also has suffered from a split personality—and not because it hosts opposing political values. A democracy is meant to do that. Rather, the Declaration of Independence (1776) proclaims, “all men are created equal.” Yet slavery had been a colonial institution since 1624 and effectively remained an American one until the Civil War concluded in 1865.
I make no claims to having a single, unified personality. I’m an introvert (like my father) whose inner extrovert (that was my mother) struggles for dominance and usually falls short. I read serious books and periodicals, and write serious (and entertaining) fiction. I also love TV’s The Simpsons—although as satire, The Simpsons is serious stuff—and admit to exhibiting a sense of humor accurately described as adolescent.
By the time I became a father, I realized how complicated my own seemingly simple parents (raised by immigrants) were. The older I get, the more complicated I see myself.
Being human isn’t easy. But recognizing that each of us possess a multi-faceted personality, and that we might not always find clear-cut answers to complex questions about ourselves, can ease the burden.
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