More than a century ago, Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis proposed establishing an annual celebration "to revive the dormant filial love and gratitude...

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“Who She Was:

My Search for My Mother’s Life”

by Samuel G. Freedman

Simon & Schuster,

339 pp., $25

More than a century ago, Mother’s Day founder Anna Jarvis proposed establishing an annual celebration “to revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth.”

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Talk about opening a can of worms.

Many kids don’t have any trouble showing love and gratitude to their mothers on a regular basis, of course. But Jarvis might have had a guy like Samuel G. Freedman in mind.

The firstborn son of Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, Samuel was just 19 when his mother lost her protracted battle with breast cancer in 1974. She was only 50. Samuel was in his sophomore year of college at the time and, as all young men are wont to do, he already had been disengaging himself from his mom. After Eleanor died, he briskly moved on with his life, becoming a journalist, a professor at Columbia, an award-winning author, a husband and a dad.

But arriving at his own midlife made him feel curious, regretful — guilty, even. He suddenly wanted to get to know his mother, realizing that the sum of her life was far more than the conventional wife-and-mother role he had ascribed to her for so long.

Freedman used the full extent of his reportorial skills to interview surviving friends and family members, sleuth through records and unearth letters and photographs. This volume tells what he found.

Freedman does terrific work in re-creating the half century that his mother’s life encompassed. The pages crackle with sensory detail and nuanced historical context: the Great Depression and World War II had a profound impact on the choices available to Eleanor and her generation.

But this is no smarmy hagiography of a dearly departed mom. Freedman draws a vivid portrait of a passionate and ambitious girl who tried to manipulate her way out of the Bronx and away from her dysfunctional Jewish immigrant family, first by using her brains and, when that didn’t work, her beauty. Despite having been class valedictorian, Eleanor forfeited a college scholarship to find work when her father couldn’t support the family during the Depression.

At the same time, Eleanor’s maternal relatives hadn’t been heard from since Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and her mother’s anxiety over their fate cast a lasting pall over the household.

Without a college degree, Eleanor counted on finding a husband as her ticket out. But the attack on Pearl Harbor marched all of the eligible bachelors off to war. They came home eventually, but then Eleanor threw over a series of devoted young suitors for impossible choices. An Italian Catholic beau was rejected by her fiercely Jewish mother, and the man who became Eleanor’s first husband turned out to be a philandering liar.

The possibilities of midcentury America proved elusive for Eleanor.

Time and again, she faced disappointment and heartbreak. But time and again, she rebounded.

In 1953, Eleanor divorced the philanderer and turned around to marry the man who would become Samuel Freedman’s father.

Curiously, the author breezes through the last third of his mother’s life in a final, slim chapter titled “Dying.” Freedman has already been dismissive about the college degree(s) his mother eventually earned.

In this final chapter, he characterizes her appetite for classes in music and art as dabbling. He is bemused by her work as a civic volunteer. He allots a mere half-sentence to her efforts as his Cub Scout den mother. He even discounts his mother’s final blessing when, in her will, she thanks her children for having helped give her “a good & happy life.” And then in an epilogue, he talks at length about how unfulfilled her life was — that after she was valedictorian at age 17, everything else was a downhill slide.

Poor sod. In holding his mother’s life up to the harsh measuring stick of professional success, Freedman fails to comprehend the magnificent intangibles that his mother really valued.

“Who She Was” shows us a portrait of a vibrant woman who had disappointments, dealt with them, moved on and continued to grow. It’s a pity the author cannot really see that himself.