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Continued from A world in turmoil

It seems that all I touch goes awry.
All I desire to do fades with the setting sun.
Realization of my dreams passes me by
Deeds I start to do are left undone.

Patricia Dillon, 1942

Herman’s letters and cables to family in Germany went unanswered. He agonized at the thought of his brother and other family members living the grim news that blackened the front pages of the papers and blared from stentorian radio broadcasts. Besides worrying about family abroad, Herman and Norah were vexed by an intransigent daughter who seemed always to leap to the left when a right turn made sense, a daughter who had again descended into depression, locking herself in her room and mooning over another lost love.


As I consider my late-blooming mother from this side of a new century, I am plagued by doubts. Her writings reveal a headstrong, analytic, young woman with above average intelligence and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances. So why did she flounder so miserably in her early to mid-twenties? Of course the western world did not nurture women to be strong, independent and capable beings, able to manage themselves, a company, or a country. My mother was raised in a sheltered environment that presupposed her union with a fitting male who would cement her place in society and provide all her creature comforts. But she was not that woman. She was opinionated, argumentative, and unwilling or unable to compromise.

There are countless examples of other women of her generation who straddled continents, who overcame prejudice, hardship, and ostracism, and who rose above negative prospects to become respected leaders in their fields of interest. Take Bella Kaufman, for example, whose youth mimicked Yry’s in many ways. She emigrated from Russia to America at the age of twelve, learned English, became a high school teacher and later, a New York Times bestselling author.

Austrian born Hedy Lamarr was, besides being a talented actress, a self-educated inventor who helped develop a secret communications system that is tributed with helping foil the Nazi war machine.

Rachel Carson, although born in America, was nearly the same age as Yry and yet she found it within herself to buck sexism in the scientific community to become an aquatic biologist for the US Bureau of Fisheries, and later become a renowned and prize-winning nature author.

Is it possible that my mother shared with me an inherently debilitating flaw? Did she lack an imagination? Sure, she wrote poems and stories—but none of what remain appear to contain one whit of originality. They are all blatant coppings of her own story, told and retold with different character names and plots that tread the same well-worn path. Was she, like I was as a young woman, incapable of imagining that she could successfully compete in that wide world of male dominance? Was she paralyzed by her father’s apparent wealth and generosity? I can account for my mother’s rudderless position at the age of 27 in no other way. She was not a lazy woman. But she was stubborn as all hell and impetuous to boot—traits she constantly warned me to overcome.


Herman suggested college, work at some other office, work at a bookstore. His suggestions failed to move her. Worse, his prodding infuriated her and devolved into painful arguments. Norah tried to interest her in trips to the art museum, or social clubs where she could meet new friends and get out of the house more. But stubbornly she hibernated in her room, hemorrhaging on paper.

It was time for a complete change of scenery. Norah wrote to a friend whose husband had invested in a cattle ranch in Wyoming. With America fully involved in the war, able-bodied young men were sucked out of the workforce and into the armed services. Claire agreed to take Yry in and give her a taste of Wyoming. There was plenty of work waiting for her.

Yry’s demeanor transformed the instant she heard about the proposal. At last she was to have a real adventure! At last she could see for herself the wonders she’d read about in so many books, the landscapes her father had written about on his trips across the country.

The tandem celebration of Herman’s birthday and Yry’s great adventure called for an exquisite meal at the Gotham Restaurant. As usual, the Maître d’ greeted them warmly, addressing each by name and seating them at a special table. Nick had come to America from Greece nearly 50 years earlier. He’d worked his way up the ladder from his first job as a busboy. His uncanny ability to remember names and his affable personality were the perfect skills that clinched his key position. Now he was an institution; a Gotham evening was incomplete without Nick’s merry greeting. He ushered them to a table and suggested the perfect celebratory Champagne.