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Our mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, was born 112 years ago today during the reign of King Edward VII. She was a true Edwardian, born in the basement of a row house in the White Chapel section of London, near the wharfs. Her mother, who had lost two children to measles, my uncle and aunt, was on her way back to Russia from Buenos Aires where she and her husband, my grandfather, had briefly owned an unforgiving farm too rocky to plow. Mother and child left England in a few days to return home to Russia.
My mother has been gone almost 52 years, leaving us at the age of 60 after a 2-year illness. I was 20 years old when she died. My sister Sheila was 25 years old.
She came to this country at the age of six and grew up in East Boston, Massachusetts. She worked in the family grocery store as a young girl, scrubbed the floors of the apartment behind the store where they lived, did the laundry, and took care of her two younger brothers.
At 15, she was hired as a cashier at a local fish market and competed with the policeman on the beat in doing square root. She desperately wanted to go to college, but she was told it wasn’t necessary for a girl. She helped put her two brothers through Northeastern University. She took business courses at Fisher College before it was a college, applied several times to the phone company for a job until the receptionist advised her not to apply again because she didn’t have a chance at a job there with a name like Katziff.
Eventually, she was hired by the Joseph P. Manning Company in Boston where she became a full-charge bookkeeper and did $1,000,000 worth of business a year over the phone.
She married our father, Harry, because he was smart, had a nice complexion, was up on current affairs, and had a sister who went to college. They both agreed that if they had daughters, they would go to college.
She could bake only brownies and chocolate cake before she was married, but she turned into an accomplished self-taught home cook and baker. She taught her two daughters to cook and bake as soon as they could reach the kitchen table.
She was a “Lion” mother with the heart of a “Lamb.” She would leave notes at the kitchen table for us along with a piece of Dutch Apple Cake or some Pinwheel Cookies, when we came home after school and she wasn’t there because she had gone to Boston. She expected the best of us, but if we didn’t do well on a geometry test, she’d tell us not to worry in her note and sign it, “Love, Mommy.”
She never bragged about us, and she told us that if we did something well, other people would tell her about it.
She nursed her elderly mother, who was bedridden and terminally ill, took care of two young children, and shoveled coal when our father was on a business trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan, during World War II.
She started the Sisterhood at our local synagogue, was active in town affairs, and never turned a hungry man or woman away from our front door. We never knew who would be sitting at our kitchen table joining us for lunch. The Orthodox Jewish man who collected for the Jewish charities overseas was often found in our kitchen. Dressed in his black frock coat and wide-brimmed black hat, he ate his meals at our house because he knew our mother was the best cook and baker in the neighborhood.
Our mother was a second soprano; she took four years of classical piano and could play it by ear taking requests from family and friends; and she was known as the prettiest girl in Winthrop.
During her final illness she was on the sixth floor of the New England Medical Center, where our father was the Director of Pharmacy. The sixth floor was then reserved for VIPs or seriously ill patients. I studied in a chair in her hospital room while I attended Northeastern University.
Shortly before she died, one of the nurses came by on a sunny April afternoon to offer us tea in bone china cups. My mother and I had a brief chat over our tea, and she said, “Someday, Marilynn, you are going to be a great writer, but I won’t be here to see it.” I stood in a corner of the room where she couldn’t see me, and I briefly cried. I wiped my eyes, took my seat, and picked up my teacup. “Be careful with that cup,” she said. “It’s bone china.”