My Mother and Edith

My Mother and Edith

Edith Wharton and my mother, Rachel Silberstein, could not have been further apart. Edith Wharton was from one of old New York City’s wealthiest families, polished, bred and educated in the polite though confining drawing rooms manners and society of America’s 19th century. My mother had immigrated in 1948 from the other side of the globe, from a country Edith Wharton’s own work had never reached or considered as part of its scope and concerns – Palestine.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. At the other extreme, my mother was born in 1922, and raised in a five room limestone house with no bathrooms except for the outhouses in a wilderness of pine trees, the daughter of a Jewish clerk, in a place where there were only nameless streets, and who, later, at 14 joined the Jewish underground in the war-torn streets of early Palestine. I have often envisioned my mother from her early photos: a voluptuous young woman in a cotton dress with white lace neckline and sandals, smiling widely inside a limestone arch against shadows of barren and cratered hills. My mother left her native Jerusalem to marry my American father in 1947. Like many of the young woman fiercely trying to escape the confines of a war society, my mother leapt into her marriage with my father impulsively, and though, perhaps, the first years with him were romantically thrilling to her, I am sure, later, their marriage was not a happy one. I do not think my mother ever read Edith Wharton’s novels, English was always hard for her, and I am sure she did not feel she would be welcome in a prose about early, privileged Americans, a Christian society that did not include many immigrant or Jewish families.

The Mount was the house Edith Wharton designed during a time of great unhappiness in her marriage. Built in the Berkshires, standing amid the vast New England green lands, hills and quarries, it seemed an architecture embodying a woman’s self and struggles. The outside acreage with its walled gardens and views of the Berkshire hills could not have been further from the vista of Palestine ‘s sun-scorched fields and rocks.

“I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms,” Edith Wharton once wrote...

There is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

Edith Wharton also wrote in The Writing of Fiction that a writer shouldn’t write for their audience or for themselves but instead write for the “other self.” The “other self” is the inner artist for whom the writer is always in “correspondence”.

My mother took a trip to the revived Mount on my insistence, when I visited her one day in the Berkshires. Standing as she was in 1980 on Edith Wharton’s famous estate, five feet two, round, with the deep worried eyes of woman recently widowed, my mother’s face beamed with a warmth only brought on by the privilege of an intimacy with a kindred soul.

Had they both met in a subconscious spatial world defined by rooms and gardens?

Looking up at an ornamental plaster ceiling, my mother excitedly began her travels through Edith Wharton’s world. Following an interior hallway, which was as much an emotional interior hallway as a real one, my mother walked the ground floor with its drawing room, library, and den, up a flight to Edith Wharton’s boudoir and bedroom. A terrace façade wrapped around to the north side, leading to a Palladian staircase and the formal gardens.

Edith Wharton had her formal "coming out" in 1885 and soon after she married Edward Wharton, an older man from a wealthy Boston family. She built The Mount during the time of her husband’s nervous breakdowns. His emotional illness drove her into debts and sorrow, along with his sexual indiscretions with other lovers.

My mother bought a house in the Berkshire, an old a “Gibson girl” house, after my father died. My father had suffered a stroke causing irreversible brain damage in 1969. As my mother struggled to cope with the tragedy, she grew progressively estranged from the affluent Westchester society my father had introduced her to as a younger woman. After he died, she moved away from the sprawling colonial house we had lived in for years when my father was well.

Both Edith and my mother felt alone in a society where an unhappy marriage isolated them cruelly, and, later, as single women, that alienation widened.

As my mother had reformed herself and her destiny through the creative furnishings and interior decoration of her new Gibson home, breathing in the fresh Berkshire winds and salve from the hills and quarries, she had mirrored Edith Wharton’s work to create the spatial details, harmony, of her own vessel for independence and self-reinvention, The Mount. And perhaps, too, their invisible but ageless communion and alliance was an answer to one of the questions I have always had about art, about the internal emotions that go into the architecture of creating a novel. As I followed my mother who, like an eager child who had finally found home again after a long exile and sojourn, watching her in the long corridors under the arched ceiling, the terrace steps to the gardens, Wharton’s theory grew more profound. My mother died last year. I like to think The Mount had heard my mother’s footsteps in the “innermost room”. I like to think my mother’s soul found a correspondence with a great writer and was, at last, not alone.

-- Leora Skolkin-Smith (19/04/2012)

Readers Comments

  1. Alix Shulman says... Thursday 19 April 2012

    charming, provocative piece, confirming my long held belief that , given imagination, anything can be fruitfully compared to anything.

  2. Alix, thank you!

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