Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 16, 2008

Reflections on my mother’s death

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Me and mom, from the mid-1980s

When the phone rang just after midnight on Monday evening, I knew what to expect. It was a doctor at the Catskill Regional Hospital in upstate New York informing me that my mother had just died in her room in the geriatrics ward. She was two months short of her 88th birthday and probably died of heart failure, although the doctor could not be sure.

I went upstate on Tuesday morning and returned Thursday evening, a few hours after the funeral. For those few days, I was immersed in grief and cried repeatedly. As a generally self-contained personality, I was surprised by how hard my mother’s death hit me. Over the years, I have spent summer days on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean near an old friend’s house in Rockaway. There is a strong undertow there and inexperienced swimmers drown every so often. I am not much of a swimmer and never venture much more than 50 feet into the turbulent waters but occasionally a powerful wave will wash over me and knock me off my feet into the ocean, where I struggle momentarily to reach the surface. That was what my grief felt like this week.

They say that the personal is political and that can’t be more true for people in my age bracket who were radicalized by the war in Vietnam. Now in our sixties, we find ourselves grappling with the problem of caring for aging parents. I wrote about this for MRZine a while back. Here are the first two paragraphs:

In May of 2004, my mother finally went into a nursing home after three years of mounting health problems. Many baby boomers besides me have also found themselves coping with the difficulties of looking after aging parents who can barely care for themselves, just as they near retirement age. It is analogous to the burden one assumes in raising a child, but without compensating joys. This generational drama involves intense personal and social pressures. Inevitably, questions of one’s own mortality, too, are posed for the middle-aged son or daughter of a parent struggling to remain independent. When you reach sixty, as I have, you begin to realize that you too are susceptible to failing health. You are also confronted with major economic challenges, since the costs of care for the elderly are enormous in a capitalist society racing to eradicate the last vestiges of the welfare state.

In years past, elderly parents were taken into their children’s home. With the breakdown of rural life, this is no longer the case. Capitalist society is very good at turning people into individual economic actors but even better at destroying traditional bonds of solidarity and support.

On Tuesday I went up to my mother’s room and sorted through her papers trying–unsuccessfully–to find an obituary that she had written just for the occasion. I ended up writing one myself:

Sullivan County Democrat, May 16, 2008

Ann Proyect
Journalist, 87

Ann Proyect passed away on May 12, 2008 at the Skilled Nursing Unit facility at Catskill Regional Medical Center, where she always felt at home during her final years. She repeatedly paid tribute to the compassion and the expert care she received from the staff. She was 87.

Ann, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., moved to Woodridge shortly after the end of WWII with her husband Jacob who predeceased her. She was very involved with civic life in Woodridge, serving as an officer of Hadassah during the 1950s as part of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state.

Ann was also very committed to Jewish values, especially as reflected in the reform Judaism of Temple Sholom in Monticello where she was an enthusiastic member of the congregation for over 20 years. She worked closely with fellow congregant and close companion Victor Gordon in organizing yearly yard sales to benefit the temple.

She was also a journalist who wrote a regular column about Woodridge for local newspapers, including the Sullivan County Democrat at one time.

Ann was well-known for warmth and generosity as well as her sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that sustained her over a lifetime.

She was predeceased by a son, Allen. Her son, Louis Proyect is a resident of Manhattan and a longtime employee of Columbia University.

Although I loved my mother dearly, her Zionism did drive me crazy. No matter how many times I asked her not to bring up Israel, she kept returning to the subject. Just a few days before she died, she mailed me a large envelope full of clippings from the local newspapers. Sandwiched in between such items as the status of Bald Eagles on the Delaware River was an article making the case for Israel. I told my wife that my mom was up to her old tricks.

It was clear that I had inherited her zealotry gene. Where she had devoted herself to an idealized Israel of kibbutzim and trees growing in the desert, I was just as stubborn in my own devotion to a socialist ideal. And, like my mother, I could be gracious to people who agreed with my vision and just as prickly when they did not. As the rabbi told the congregation during the funeral service, my mother was never shy about telling people what she thought. Neither am I.

From the minute I received the phone call Monday night to arriving at the cemetery, I was beside myself with grief. But not long after the coffin was lowered into the earth and the last shovel full of dirt placed on top of it, my spirits began to lift. A sense of closure lifted me from the ocean’s water.

It dawned on me later that the funeral service was the first of any kind of Jewish liturgy that I had participated in since 1970 when my father died. Obviously, I was obligated to go to a synagogue in such circumstances. This time around I paid closer attention to the sermon since I had a lot more emotional investment in my mother’s life than in my father’s, a cold and remote figure. The rabbi kept stressing how my mother would be with God now, an idea that obviously holds little water with me.

But I realized that whether or not she was six feet under or up in heaven, the experience of praying in her memory meant a lot to her fellow believers and even to me, the life-long atheist. As part of a ritual that the Monticello, NY Reform Synagogue she belonged to, attendees surrounding the burial plot were invited to take turns shoveling in some earth which the rabbi likened to a parent tucking their child into bed.

As Marx once said, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

In a life sometimes filled with tragedy, my mother turned to religion to help her with “real suffering”. In a life filled with political engagement, I found myself consoled by a religious ceremony that had little to do with my own analytical and materialist core beliefs. As such it was therapeutic.

I can’t say that this experience has turned me into a believer, but in years to come I will certainly be tempted to recite the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish on May 12th each year, the day of her passing: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.”


  1. Louis,

    Your sincerity and thoughtful post about your mother is appreciated. Even as mature adults we are all partly little children and our parents loom large forever in our psyche. Your deep emotional response to her death shows how alive you are.

    In the context of your description of her funeral your use of the famous, and very beautiful quote from Marx takes on special extra meaning.

    Comment by Philip — May 16, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  2. Lou, sorry to hear of this news. You touch upon many of the issues that are worthy of discussion on such an event… the sense of sorrow, the issues of caring for adults, the breakdown of systems of support, and so on. And you end most appropriately with a consideration of religion. As always the Marx exposed to me by those of you who have studied his works and can quote or explicate his writings in a larger context, is much wiser and perceptive a person than the one you see in the sound-bites that are oft repeated. In this case, we are used to hearing “religion is the opiate of the masses”, but the rest of the quote that you provide, and your own musings in the last two paragraphs, give us a more sensitive and respectful view of the lives of the religious. A reason why I (an atheist) find more common cause with a possible religion Left than I do with the rabid New Atheists (e.g: Dawkins, Hitchens).

    On a personal note, my wife and I have been grappling with these issues of adult care for a while ourselves. Our parents live in India, in many ways the land (especially today) of the raw capitalism that conservatives here drool about. Our parents are getting older (my dad died in 1995) and we would like to help with their day to day lives, especially with regard to health care. But that is only half the story. We have two children now and it saddens us to see the difference when our parents make short visits to the USA and the times when we are back in our insular, highly organised and compartmentalised middle class life. We believe a return to India and family would benefit not just our parents but also the two of us and our children.

    Comment by ravi — May 16, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  3. I wrote about this for MRZine a while back.

    Was this before you and Yoshie fell out?

    Comment by Ajit — May 16, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  4. It was before we fell out over Iran but I had a beef with her about this article. She sat on it for months before I finally told her not to publish it because I was tired of the delay. It was only then that MRZine published it, pretty much without my permission.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 16, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  5. Condolences on your loss, Louis. And also, appreciation and respect for a complex and moving post.

    Comment by Ken MacLeod — May 16, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  6. I would like to send my deepest sympathies at the loss of someone you loved – my sincerest best wishes goes out to you and your family at this sad time.

    Comment by Courtney Hamilton — May 16, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  7. Heart felt condolences at your loss, Louis. I will be thinking of you.

    Comment by Kurt — May 16, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  8. My condolences, along with my thanks for your wise and perceptive post on the subject.

    Comment by Nathaniel — May 16, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

  9. Having been raised in the same township as Louis, I knew his mother when I was a boy. I loved his her because she loved me along with other deprived kids she knew through her son. She was the first outspoken white anti-racist I’d ever met and, unlike many people in our predominately Jewish community, treated local poor Christians with respect.

    Yes, I came to learn as an adult that Ann’s politics concerning Israel could be exasperating. However, on other issues her worldview was often progressive. Despite their political differences, Ann’s influence on Louis both because of her activist spirit and her strong support for her son were evident.

    I can picture Ann living in Israel as a strong Zionist yet offering to babysit for the harried Arab woman living down the street or making after school sandwiches for her neighbor’s poor child. She was a woman with a big heart and will be missed.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 16, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  10. My condolences, Lou. Thank you very much for your thoughtful remarks about your mother. I know what you mean by the description of your grief. It was exactly the way I felt when my mother died some years ago.

    Comment by e. ahmet tonak — May 16, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  11. My condolences. I myself lost my mother this past March 4th to complications from ovarian cancer. She was 55 years old and in pretty perfect health otherwise. However she was very obssessive about her job and waited till the end of last year before she went on full time leave. For the last few months of the year she worked part time at he white collar job trying to show up her corporate hatchet lady boss who had been trying to terorize mom into quiting. By the time she quit full time at the beginning of the year she started to go slowly but surely down hill. The last few weeks of her life were pretty unpleasant as I got to experience first hand living at home while trying to finish a master’s thesis.

    During the last few months of her life I resort to prayer and bible reading. In my intellectual sphere I am an agnostic but I guess growing up with religious teaching and feeling helpless still makes me sometimes turn to the spirtual world in times of crises. Of course the praying and bible reading didn’t work. One of my mom’s sisters told me that she was “angry at god” for letting mom die. Certainly one has to wonder about a world where my mother does so many good things in the world and dies whereas persons with greatly evil character survive and enjoy great rewards in this world.

    Comment by Chris Green — May 16, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  12. If parents are to be judged by how their children turn out, then your mother must have been a great lady. My condolences for your loss.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — May 16, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  13. Louis,
    I had a similar experience when my brother died. I dont believe in any life after death, but he, in his graciousness perhaps, wanting to spare us some of the feeling of loss, said “don’t worry about me, I’ll be out there (pointing to the Pacific where his ashes were later scattered) swimming with the Humpbacks.” He was a naturalist, and so this statement was natural and predictable, for him.

    But I’ve clung to it, believe it in some sense and still get comfort from it, and might even consider it for myself when the time comes.

    Comment by plato's cave — May 17, 2008 @ 4:15 am

  14. My condolences also, and appreciation for the compassionate post from Louis.

    There is one passage that puzzles me, tho’:

    “Where she had devoted herself to an idealized Israel of kibbutzim, I was just as stubborn in my own devotion to a socialist ideal.”

    Unless I miss my guess, Louis’ mother probably thought of the kibbutzim in terms that would be recognizably socialist. Am I wrong?

    The kibbutz movement, until recently, and however distorted by the Zionist connection, was a large scale attempt to realize socialist ideals, one from which, as far as I can see, there is still something to be learned.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — May 17, 2008 @ 5:05 am

  15. Louis, I am sorry for your loss. I was on the edge of crying while reading this and your article in MrZine. I realized that isolation and disdain are the destiny of old people in the present state of affairs. In fact, I am now extremely scared of our inevitable end: not of the natural conclusion of mortality, but of the misfortune to live too long than this world tolerates.

    “I’m getting used to grow old to the world’s hardest art,
    to knocking at the doors for the last time,
    to non-stop separation.”

    I can understand why your mother clung to her Jewish identity in her last days. The verses above are from Nazım and the word that was translated as “separation” is “ayrılık” in the original which also signifies the condition of opposition. With being up against the threat of disintegration from society, both biologically and spiritually, perhaps Judaism was the only bond that came to her aid. Perhaps she was knocking the doors for the last time.

    Please forgive my audacity and accept my condolences.

    Comment by Memet Çagatay — May 17, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  16. Lou:

    My condolences on the death of your beloved mother. I am now also an “orphan,” having lost both of my parents. My father died in April 2006. One thing I was quite frustrated with was trying to get an honest assessment of his condition from the doctors and social workers in Pasadena (he had no relatives nearby). I managed to get him into the VA hospital here in Milwaukee so he could be near family in his final days, but he passed away after six days. It was a very upsetting experience, not least because I never had a close relationship with him. He walked out on my mother and me when I was four and I never had any contact with him until I was in my twenties. In the meantime he had started two other families in succession. I’ve had some contact with two sisters, who both grew up in England, who have similarly conflicted feelings about our dad. While he was physically present while they were growing up, he was usually drunk or otherwise disengaged. Still, I think we all managed to rise to the task and do what we could for him in the end.

    While I no longer have to worry about taking care of my parents (my in-laws being gone also), since my wife and I are getting close to retirement ourselves, we have to concern ourselves with not being a burden to our children.

    Comment by John B. — May 17, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  17. Louis,
    My condolences on your loss. Your piece brought back all too vividly the night I received the phone call informing me of my own mother’s death. I admire your ability to reflect on her life, and your lives together so lucidly so short a time after the jolt. For myself, the first paragraph transported me back to that painful night and the flood of emotions are still so intense, I lack coherence to my thoughts.

    Comment by Robert W. — May 17, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  18. Hi Lou: Sorry to hear about your mom passing away. I know she was an important part of you, and your life. I liked the piece you wrote about her, and your feelings. All the best, Ted

    Comment by Ted Zuur — May 17, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

  19. Please accept my deepest condolences to the loss of your mother.

    Your note is a moving tribute to the memory of your mother. May she rest in peace in her final sleep.

    Comment by Tanweer Akram — May 17, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  20. My condolences.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — May 19, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  21. My condolences.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — May 20, 2008 @ 4:43 am

  22. My father’s death last year had the opposite effect on me in terms of materialism/religion. Perhaps I should say I had a good relationship with my father, who was a good working class man, nice and friendly as the large wake turnout attested to. Anyhow, he had a stroke when I was in the house with and it took me too long to realize he had one and get to him. By this time I am sure he had much brain damage and he passed back into a more primal state of mind right before dying, which was more Darwinian than holy. The funeral parlor buried him with a rosary around his hands, which is a ridiculous sight if you knew him. Archaeologists centuries from now digging up his casket would probably think he was very religious although I doubt he ever held rosary beads in his hands in his life. The tombstone people put the old (old as in 1700 years old) Catholic imperialist initials IHS, In Hoc Signo Vinces – Under This Sign Conquer, which I don’t like, but that can be more easily changed. Despite our good relationship, the idea that I will die and be with him again in heaven, without the troubles of this world and in a pure, loving relationship without the alienation and travails of life is not only foolish but also mocking of the hard work and suffering he went through to provide for us, as it is part and parcel of the Sisyphean generation to generation religious superstitious nonsense that interferes with the actual removal of alienated society, authoritarianism and so forth.

    Comment by L — May 21, 2008 @ 6:55 am

  23. Sorry for your trouble.

    Comment by D.J.P. O'Kane — May 21, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  24. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Comment by Binh — May 21, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  25. Very sorry for your loss, Louis. Humans are so lucky to have Moms. I miss mine so much.

    Comment by Linda J — May 21, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

  26. Thanks for an excellent essay, Louis. You have my condolences. Your thoughts on your mother’s death make me wonder what I’ll feel, if anything, on the passing of my parents (if I even get word about it). My parents are/were (since I’m not sure they’re still living) right-wing Mormons, and my father was an aerospace engineer and corporate honcho who was proud of his work of developing and designing weapons, such as the F-16 and the B-1 bomber, actually believing that he was aiding the “defense” of his country. Needless to say, ever since I started to turn leftward during the Viet Nam war, and especially after I began studying Marxism, and then became a confirmed atheist, we didn’t exactly get along. When my father eventually got tired of not getting the respect from me that he thought he was entitled to, I got the boot, with no particular protests from the rest of my family.

    Anyway, thanks again for a thought-provoking piece, especially that beautiful quote from the Old Man. The succeeding sentences from him deserve to be quoted as well:

    “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

    Comment by Doug S — May 23, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  27. A touching story, Lou, Condolences.

    Comment by Harvey K — May 27, 2008 @ 9:25 am

  28. Sorry for your loss, Lou.
    Certainly hopes this experience helps you to realize that God loved your mom, and He loves you too.

    Comment by Pat E — May 29, 2008 @ 12:32 am

  29. Louis, your mother was a kind and generous woman. Yes, she was an accentric and very opinionated, but she truly cared. She was one of the few people in the area who recognized the writing talent of my older brother, Murray. She wrote a heartwarming paragraph about my summer job at the Post Office, when I was 13 years old! Despite the incident with the 50 cent piece, several years earlier! Do you remember?

    A few years ago during my visit to Woodridge, I stopped by her house on Maple ave. and spent some time with her. She gave me a few books on religion and some insight into the human condition.

    It was time well spent. I will miss her!

    Comment by marvin mednick — May 29, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  30. Dear Louie–Lucretius, that great materialst, atomist Roman, watching the cataclysm that hit the city from a hill top, talked about “the tears in things.” Lachrymae rerum. Your words recall this image to me. No matter how far away one stands from the suffering of the world, the inherent sorrow of impermenence, thereis no deeper response than the one from a man or woman who opens to it without the boiler plate of an agenda, religious, political or otherwise. The open heart is simply that–open. And yours opens in this moment–opens wide to remind me again of what that feels like. I share this moment with you
    Fondly, Paul

    Comment by Paul Pines — June 10, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  31. its very sad to hear about news

    Comment by doctar, — September 4, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  32. […] it turned out, I had plans to do this without any prompting from Victor, as I stated not long after my mother’s death.  So yesterday my wife and I went down to Temple Shaaray […]

    Pingback by Kaddish « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 3, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  33. Dear Louis, After being referred to your blog for the Duncan essay, and making a comment, I started wondering about Ann. Could she still be alive? So the magic of Google brought me here. It’s been a year since she died, but it’s not too late for me send sympathy wishes to you. I remember Ann so wel, my fellow journalist after all!; in fact I also remember Jack especially his barrel of dill pickles. My mother died in July of 2000; my father died in 1974. If you use Google for “Rae Young” plus “Glen Wild” you will have a chance to read my mom’s obituary , which I wrote (of course!).

    Comment by Allen Young — May 5, 2009 @ 4:37 am

  34. Louis,
    One day shortly after I moved to Woodridge, I went to a community event where I did not know anyone. Your mother immediately came over to me with a great big welcome. I felt out of place and it was a relief to have someone come over to me. We became friends from that day on.
    I know how much she loved you and how proud she is of you. I think of her often.

    Comment by Susan Leventoff — May 12, 2011 @ 1:26 am

  35. […] years ago, I wrote about the passing of my mother. At the time, my feelings were overwhelmed by grief and the article […]

    Pingback by A ten year Kaddish for Ann Proyect (1921-2008) | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 15, 2018 @ 5:42 pm

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