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Happy Birthday Gertrude!


My mother would have been 106 years old today. She died in 2005, just past her 90th birthday. Here’s a photo I took of her at her birthday party.

Gertrude Heimoff

For the celebration, I created a three-day event. A lot of people flew in from around the country. We went through a boatload of lox, believe me!

I had a tough relationship with Gertrude. The communication between us was never easy. I think my gayness was the cause. Of course, I was in the closet for the first three decades of my life, and it was hard for us both. I suppose she never could wrap her head around my lifestyle–she, who had a crush on Liberace! Even after I came out to her (my father had already died), she never accepted the fact. She didn’t stop loving me, but she couldn’t talk about it, and it remained a point of contention between us for the rest of her life.

I resented her for it. At the same time, I understood, or tried to. Her generation, I told myself, had been raised to think of homosexuality as “the love that dare not speak its name.” It was unnatural, sick. And to think that her only son would never give her grandchildren!

Yet I always recognized the deep, abiding love I had for Gertrude. I had gone through an intense Oedipal period as a little boy, and to this day I can remember laying in my crib, thinking of her, and the most profound waves of love and trust would engulf me. That love never went away, not even when we could hardly talk to one another.

I was always proud of Gertrude. When we lived in The Bronx, she was the only mom I knew who had gone to college, who had graduated with a degree and was holding a professional job. (Gertrude taught at a Junior High School in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem.) All the other moms were housewives—nothing wrong with that!—but Gertrude decided she needed more in life than to sit on park benches all day long and gossip with her friends. The extra money also helped, obviously.

I moved my mother out here to California in the late 1980s, to a nice independent living community in San Mateo. She was wary at first—“how will I make friends?”—but she was a very social person, and soon she had plenty of friends. Whenever I dropped by to see her, she was playing bridge, or canasta, or mah jong. She also volunteered, to the end of her life, for the San Mateo County Democratic Party, stuffing envelopes and that sort of thing. She was a passionate, lifelong Democrat, and it is from her I inherited the same persuasion. When I was a little boy, there were two “gods” in our household: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. Gertrude loved Bill Clinton (as did I) and she loathed George W.; in fact, if he came on the T.V., she would mute the sound. I’m sorry she never got to see Barack Obama. She would have been head over heels about him.

Here’s one of the last pictures I ever took of her.

It was during the 2004 presidential campaign against George W. Bush, and you can see her little Kerry-Edwards button.

Gertrude was born in Oklahoma in 1915, when it had been a U.S. state for only eight years. Before that, it was Indian Territory, and I’ve always been astonished that her parents, immigrants from Russia, chose to settle there (around 1908) instead of New York City or some other urban destination for the Russian Jews emigrating to America at that time. I mean, Russian Jews moving to Indian Territory? What was that all about? Sadly, I never asked my mother why her parents did that. They both died well before I was born, so I never knew them.

Her father, incidentally, helped found the first Jewish synagogue in Oklahoma. Gertrude herself was a secular Jew, not particularly religious. When she was dying in her final days, at Mills Peninsula Hospital, I asked if she wanted a rabbi. “You be my rabbi,” she replied. I did the best I could. I stayed with her to the end and was actually in bed with her (sleeping at her feet), when she died. Something very mystical happened at that moment, which I have shared with my family, and while I can’t prove anything, it suggests to me that the soul survives death, in some way.

So Happy Birthday Gertrude! You led an amazing life. You were an accomplished woman, in a day and age when women for the most part stayed in the background and strove for little more than to have children and run a home (again, not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Life didn’t give you everything you wanted, mom, but you were patient and accepting of the difficulties. You never, ever complained, not once. It wasn’t your style. I sometimes wished you had. But you kept your hurt inside you, put on a brave face, and were kind and decent to everyone. Wherever you are, I wish you peace. Maybe we’ll meet again one of these days.

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