An Embarrassment of Riches

I think I know a thing or two about embarrassment. I was born into a small and peculiar class of people: children of immigrants from war-torn Europe. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I guess by the time they came here, they had many more things to think about than fitting in – things like learning the language and making a living from scratch. Things like forgetting everything about where they came from and starting life anew.

Still, their style spoke of nothing more than where they came from. My father wore a suit every day, in an age where most Dads sported “leisure wear” – T-shirts, polo shirts, khakis, jeans and sneakers. He wore a starched white shirt under his suit, and a tie which was tacked to the shirt with a bar or circular pin. On his head, whenever he left the house, was perched a hat – straw in for the summer, felt in the winter. A real hat, the kind that Frank Sinatra would wear. With a ribbon band, and often a little feather.

When I went off to camp, I thought other kids would have parents like mine. After all, it was a Jewish camp, and I’d thought that most Jews had parents who had survived the Holocaust. They did, in my poor immigrant’s neighborhood, but my parents had splurged so that I could have a season of fresh mountain air, and among the middle class parents on Visiting Day, they were the only ones who looked different. My father in his suit. The feather on his grey straw hat. My mother in sandals, with socks. Socks!! That look was stylish where she had grown up, in Kaunas, Lithuania. It was not as stylish that summer at camp, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Years later, due to my parents’ constant nurturance and support, I was able to go to Yale Law School. Graduation day was bittersweet. It was, of course, a huge and unique accomplishment for my family (due to the war, neither of my parents had even been able to finish high school), but a source of ambivalence for me. On the outside, I fit in with the other graduates. We were all smart and savvy, newly-hatched professionals. But on the inside, I was different. When I looked at their parents, I saw tall men with full heads of silver hair (my father, though well-built and handsome, was 5’7”, and bald under his hat). The mothers were elegant, soigne women, with blond, smooth hair and hairbands. I saw grosgrain hairbands. Plaid hairbands. Velvet hairbands. My mother’s hair, unbanded, blew around in the wind. She was not wearing sandals and socks that day, but her dress was flowery in a way that only the late Queen Mother would understand. And she was talking to me:

“Sonia’le!” I saw her hand waving a little cotton handkerchief. She always had these in her purse; they were always white, with little embroidered flowers on the corners. “Yoo hoo! Sonia’le!” She was using an old endearment for me, the “le” on the end of my name a caress.

From amidst my peers, I answered, “what, Ma?” We were about to march forward and receive our degrees. I wanted to blend in with the others.

“Are you hungry, Sonia’le? I brought you a nice banana!”

Reaching into her bag, she brought out and flourished a soft, sad fruit. She had probably carried it from home and brought it on the train trip to New Haven. In her past, people had died of starvation. Here, at the Yale Law graduation, no one was starving. Everyone, graduates and their parents, seemed rich and complete and sophisticated. The banana did not fit in, nor did my doting, unself-conscious mother.

I spotted a Kennedy kid, one who would later become a reporter, filming us graduates. Her brother was in my class, and as her camera panned the crowd it must have captured me, looking at my parents, caught between shame and love.

Years later, it is the love that remains. The realization that these people – with their tie-pins, hats, and hankies – were the richest treasures I’d ever have. Better than an Ivy league degree. Better than a million dollars or being famous. Better than anyone, or anything I’ve ever known in our status-conscious, style-conscious world. And I am nothing but proud.