Dora Stein could be described in many ways — a devoted wife to Jack for almost sixty years. A mother of three. A proud grandmother. A “career woman.” A teacher. A volunteer. But mostly, and all of her life, my mother was a fighter.
It may sound silly to think of a tiny woman, who probably never had a physical altercation as a fighter, but she was.
When she was a little girl she almost died when her thyroid became overactive and she had to have a large chunk of it removed. It slowed her down enough to save her life, but not too much. She still managed to skip a grade or two and got into Hunter College of the City University of New York — the Vassar of CUNY. Her own mother didn’t see the point. Why did a girl need to go to college?
But my mother fought that attitude. And her whole life she was proud of being a “Hunter Girl.”
She majored in Math and it never to occured to her that “girls” weren’t supposed to be good in math.
When she met my father — no slouch in the intellect department either — she held her own. He proposed on the first date. She wisely neither said yes nor turned him down, but waited until she got to know him a little better. They married and she became, before it was a children’s show, Dora the explorer — following him as he was transferred in the army, working as an accountant at a time when “girls” weren’t supposed to be accountants — even going to one job as “D. Feldman”. When her ruse was discovered and she was told, “You’re not an accountant. You’re a girl.” My mother replied that she was a girl AND an accountant.
At a time when the movies and television offered the stereotypes of the perfect housewife or the lonely career woman, she chose to be a working mom, a phrase which didn’t even exist, settling eventually on teaching as a career. It didn’t occur to her to do otherwise. It was pragmatic — she wanted a good life for her family and she wanted to work. She didn’t need to wait until Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to know there was more to life than ironing your husband’s shirts. You could get that done at the laundry.
It must hardly seem revolutionary to anyone under forty, to raise your daughters to believe that they could do anything and there were no limits imposed by gender — but at the time when she was raising her children — it was hardly a given. She raised her daughters to excel and always with the idea that they would someday go to college, and that having a career was as important for her girls as it was for her son.
Dora always fought for her family and for what she thought was right. In 1956, when a neighbor complained about my father’s having his business in their new house, Dora went to City Hall herself, to the office of Mayor Wagner, to get the certificate of occupancy changed, making it clear and legal that the home could be used for a business.
When the Vietnam War was raging, my fiercely patriotic mother joined in the protests, going with her teenaged daughter Anita to Washington and taking me — at age 10 to the Moratorium in New York City.
Dora never stopped fighting. She didn’t fight time in the way some do with plastic surgery or potions. She kept herself busy. My father complained that after she retired from teaching, she worked even longer hours as a volunteer for Hadassah, turning his old examination room into her office space, learning to use the computer to create newsletters and fliers.
She fought coronary artery disease for years.
She and Jack lost his fight with cancer, but even that didn’t defeat her. She wanted to be independent, but accepted she couldn’t stay alone in her home and moved into assisted living, where she kept active. She volunteered as a tutor with elementary school children. She met sister Hunter girls, and enjoyed Yiddish club and Boggle and discussions on current events.
The last few months were hard for her. She took a fall and fractured her pelvis, but she fought her way back in physical therapy even though it wasn’t easy for her. She was determined to remain independent. To stay out of a nursing home. Her only real fear was losing her mental agility, which she never did. She was still aware of the world around her, keeping up on current events. One of her hospital stays coincided with the President’s speech on health care, and we watched it together on the little set in her hospital room.
The last time I visited her in her apartment, she was showing Craig and me old photographs and the book about the Spatts — she was as proud to be a Spatt as she was to be a Feldman or a Stein, and still talked about working for her very successful uncle Sam Spatt what it meant to her that he believed in her brain.
Even, after her stroke — she was fighting. She made her wishes clear. Like Jack, her humor could be laced with irony. When Anita told her that it was ok to stop fighting, that the fight was over, Dora looked at her and asked, “Did I win?”
She came from a crowded railroad flat in depression-era Williamsburg and went to college, became an accountant, a teacher, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, and a volunteer. She traveled to Israel and Europe and even Alaska. She saw Paris and the Grand Canyon. She saw all of her children graduate college and go on to graduate degrees, one of her grandchildren become a lawyer and all of them get into good colleges. She sustained a marriage of almost sixty years. She had a good life and died with her family at her bedside. Yeah, Dora. I’d say you won.