For years my mother, Sally, lied to me. I always knew that she wasn’t truthful about her age, but until my father died I never knew the extent of her deception. Then I learned that my mother, who had long declared that she was many years younger than my father, was almost the same age as him.
She’d always been much older than all of my friends’ mothers, but, to her credit, I could never tell. No one could. Sally took great pride in her appearance, and the roots of that obsession were no mystery. It was all about struggling to fit in.
Keeping up appearances
She was born Sara Czernenka in Russia in 1914, and fled from pogroms there, arriving in Ellis Island with her mother and brother in 1922. They moved to South Philly, where she grew up, and was immediately labeled a “greenie,” an immigrant fresh off the boat. She didn’t know the language. She had few clothes. She had no toys, not even one doll, and no bed of her own. She grew up to the knowledge that, for women, looks and youth were the path to belonging and success.
Yes, Sally was a stunner; her beauty a major asset. When she dressed up, you might not be able to tell which movie star she looked like, but some famous actress’s name would be on the tip of your tongue.
In tribute to her beauty, an ex-boyfriend, a “mad man” who worked in advertising, made her a Valentine lined with photos of the all the Hollywood femme fatales he thought she resembled. Printed across the top it read, “I see you everywhere I go.”
When I was a child playing with the old clothes in my mother’s closet, I stumbled upon it. How I loved that card! I was proud of and amused by my lively and alluring mother who, at one time, had been pursued by multiple suitors: Bill the muscle man; Barney the intellectual, whose glasses were so thick she called him The Blinde (“the blind one” in Yiddish); and many others.
She wasn’t able to teach me how to be the man magnet she was, but she did teach me to care about my appearance. Back in the late ’60s, every season, my sister, mother and I went to the neighborhood high-fashion store for girls, Gigi’s, where I got to pick out a new wardrobe. With the help of my mother and my older sister, I was the first girl in my class to wear a miniskirt, bell bottoms or whatever else was in style.
Reinvention in America
My mother tried, with less success, to imbue me with her precepts about age. Once I reached my twenties, a time when I was still excited about each year on my path to maturity, she urged me to start subtracting. But I couldn’t be bothered with her calculated approach to aging.
She managed to keep up her age charade until 2001, when Ellis Island records went public. Since Sara Czernenka, nicknamed Sarushka, was born in Russia without a birth certificate, she’d always been free to lie. But online records finally exposed that she came to the U.S. when she was 8, not 3; and gave birth to me when she was 39, not in her early 30s.
For my mother, life in America was about reinvention. She strived to become what her grandmother called a “Yankee Doodle,” a real American. So when she became a citizen, Sara Czernenka turned into Sally Cherner and lowered her age to 26, though she must have been older by then. She even gave herself a new birthplace. No small town for Sally — she chose Odessa, the birthplace of Russian Jewish intellectuals, and the city where my grandparents had studied. But the shtetl she was from, Bilogorutka, was as far from Odessa as Poughkeepsie is from Chicago.
Some things you never forget
By the time of my Ellis Island discovery, my mother was in a Jewish nursing home near Trenton, suffering from dementia. At first, she held on to the essential aspects of her personality — her passion for grooming, her love of learning and Jewish culture, and her garrulousness — but over time, she began to disappear.
The first time I visited after finding out her real age, I blurted out, “I know how old you are. I saw the Ellis Island records.” I probably could have used more tact, but the truth amazed me.
Her face dropped. “You’re not going to tell anyone?” she asked. Being young was so important to her, that despite her confusion, she didn’t forget her deceit and never would.
Her defining traits, like her fixations with age and appearance, which had once annoyed me, now comforted me. They affirmed that behind the confusion, my beloved Sarushka was really there.
She may have forgotten what ravioli were, she talked about two husbands when she only ever had one, and she sometimes thought she still had a baby, but certain things were the same or almost the same.
Before she went to the nursing home dining room, she’d reapply her lipstick; and when I visited, she’d give me a big hug. Where once she was big busted and full bodied, now I could feel her bony frame, but her enthusiasm remained large.
She’d light up whenever I visited. “Lisa, Lisa! Lisa is here,” she called out to her aide. No one has ever been happier to see me. But then her first words would be “Why don’t you move your hair from your face?”
My long, wavy hair contrasted with her short, teased helmet, which the nursing home beautician kept perfect with a weekly wash and set. Her hairstyle, even her hair color, was frozen in time.
When I was younger, her constant attempts to control my appearance had irritated me. But now her love was so palpable that her criticisms didn’t bother me. I was happy to find in them a glimmer of the mother I long loved.
That glimmer remained until she died nine years ago. Now my mother only exists in memory. On a day when my hair is messy, I can hear her say, “Brush your hair.” And just as she once did, I find myself reapplying my lipstick throughout the day. When asked how old I am, I hesitate, but then I smile and tell the truth and think about my mother.
A version of this essay first appeared in Philadelphia Stories.