My mother's trouble with dubious authority goes back at least as far as her one-girl crusade on behalf of Abraham Lincoln. The authorities she antagonized on Abe's behalf were her history teachers at her Nashville junior high school, back in the late 1920s.
"Some of them were Confederate war widows," she says. "All of them were old biddies. And they said horrible things about Lincoln."
In response, young Miss Estelle Rothstein dared to point out that Lincoln was a hero up North, at least in New York, which her family would visit every summer in their trusty Model T. (According to family legend, this was the car in which mushrooms mysteriously took root and grew on the floor of the back seat). What's more, she continued recklessly, Lincoln had been right to abolish slavery.
This was not what her teachers considered a helpful intervention.
It came as no surprise, then, when she lammed out of Nashville shortly after finishing high school and hightailed it to New York. To this day I don't know anyone who hates country music as much as Estelle; for her, it conjures up memories of the racist, anti-Semitic backwater she endured throughout her girlhood. She didn't escape all of Southern culture, however: 70 years later, she remains loyal (or addicted, take your pick) to Coca-Cola.
The New York my mother settled into was the hothouse of 1930s "isms"; she was part of the Old Left when it was young. Her ism of choice was the democratic, anti-Communist and somewhat pacifistic socialism of Norman Thomas. She went to work for institutions (some still with us, some forgotten) that embodied those values -- the War Resisters League, the League for Industrial Democracy, the Ladies Garment Workers Union. She made friends in the movement who remain her friends today. And she met a young law student and activist, Joe Meyerson, with whom she fell in love and got married. World War II then took my parents to California (my dad spent the war with a unit that deciphered Japanese code), where my mother remains to this day.
Perhaps the most indelible political image I have of her from my childhood and adolescence is her nightly quarrels with Walter Cronkite -- the newscast, not the man. My parents liked Walter Cronkite; if they hadn't, Estelle would have had nightly quarrels with Huntley and Brinkley. My mother's arguments were with the gallery of rogues who paraded across the newscasts of the '60s -- segregationist goons such as Bull Connor and George Wallace; Ronald Reagan, the gentlemanly but far-right actor who bewilderingly became California's governor in the mid-'60s, and, the hardiest of perennials, Richard Nixon. When these characters and others like them popped up on the evening news, nothing they said went unrebutted by my mother, emphatically and instantaneously. I'm not sure whether to commend such a course of conduct to parents seeking to turn their children into columnists, but in my case, it obviously took.
Estelle's antipathy to dubious authority continues to this day. A little over two years ago, she began raising the imperative of impeaching George W. Bush in virtually every phone conversation I had with her. With the Republicans controlling the House, I pointed out, this was an impractical solution; moreover, at that stage of his presidency, I wasn't convinced that Bush had committed any impeachable offenses.
Estelle was undeterred. On one occasion, while on the phone at her home, I reached for a notepad to jot something down. There I found the day's shopping list -- some veggies, Coke -- and below that, the words "Impeach Bush." She does not lack for focus, my mother. And in time, what with lying us into a war and exempting the United States from the laws on the treatment of prisoners, Bush dwindled into the president my mother had pegged him for all along.
My mother did not leap from a plane when she turned 80, but in preparation for her 90th birthday celebration this weekend, she will drive the usual 70 miles to her hairdresser. (She overnights with friends, then drives back the following day.) She was born at the very moment when the 20th century truly began -- Henry Ford had just perfected his assembly line, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was already planning his trip to Sarajevo. What with Hitler, Stalin and some notably wrongheaded presidents, it has not been the greatest of centuries, but Estelle's active antipathy to dubious authority -- not to mention the love and irreverence that have suffused her personal life -- has brought her through a rocky epoch unbroken and unbowed. Happy 90th, kid.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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