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11-21-Hartsuyker—Mother's Daughter
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2005 blog


My Mother's Daughter provides
a rich memoir of Lower East Side, November 21, 2005



Alice Hartsuyker, My Mother’s Daughter, Delta Printing Solutions, 2005, 313 pages, $20.

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

A cousin once visited the Lower East Side tenement where Aileen lived with her children and suggested that she “move uptown and be with your own kind”—that is, with other members of the extended Irish-American family. 

Aileen responded diplomatically that she had a job on the Lower East Side.  But, according to author Alice Hartsuyker, “what she didn’t say, and which I knew, was that she preferred to live in a Jewish community. She loved the people, but mostly loved the respect for learning, all those adults going to night school, the children going to Hebrew school after public school was over…”

By the time this episode occurs in Hartsuyker’s memoir, My Mother’s Daughter, we are not at all surprised by Aileen’s decision.  For the most part, Hartuyker’s memories of her aging, time-worn, and grimy immigrant neighborhood are suffused with pleasant recollections of the Yiddish culture which surrounded her—and which for a while even included her as a “Shabbos goy.”  Earlier in this book of warm essays, Hartsuyker had related that her mother was “the only Gentile in an all Jewish women’s group” that met Tuesday nights at the Henry Street Settlement.  With these Jewish companions, her Mama found true friendship. 

“They were concerned with neighborhood and political issues but besides supporting uplifting causes, they had a comradeship that was lovely to see,” the author recalled.  “Those women cared for me when she was ill and when our situation became dire. She loved the Jewish community and when she died, one of the club members, Molly Weinstein, planted a tree in Israel in my mother’s name.”

A color reproduction of the tree-planting certificate in the American Bicentennial National Park in Israel is included on the book’s dedication page.  It is dated September 20, 1977, in memory of Aileen Veronica Scott.

Except for this certificate, we might have thought that Hartsuyker’s mother was known as Aileen O’Mahony, because it is the struggles, superstitions, adventures, and high-spiritedness of the O’Mahony clan that fills most of this richly sentimental memoir about Hartsuyker’s life during the Depression years. 

The man of the last name “Scott”—presumably Hartsuyker’s father—is banished from the pages.  One possible explanation guides our understanding about how the author felt about her father, that being the very title of the book: My Mother’s Daughter.  By what circumstances Aileen was left to raise her children alone, we don’t know—but we come away from the book convinced that whatever traumas her marriage had suffered she did a remarkably good job raising her children.

For Jewish readers, these essays open a window upon Irish immigrant life, through which we also can see a mirror in which our own immigrant roots are reflected.  A neighbor, Bella, was known for malapropisms that might have made the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn sit up in self-recognition.  “The president became Franklin Rosenfeld, women wore pessicoats, and she observed that ragtime music was worthless, else why would they name it after a schmatte?  We all liked her because she lacked malice and was generous-hearted.  She gave me my first matzoh spread with chicken fat….”

Delightful, also, is Hartsuyker’s girlhood memory of an upstairs neighbor who awakened from a Friday afternoon nap to find she had forgotten to turn on the apartment lights, and now Shabbos was upon her. The Orthodox woman called from her window to the street, summoning Hartsuyker to come upstairs to the apartment. 

“She stared intently at me and then shifted her gaze to the light switch. When I didn’t respond immediately she repeated those glances accompanied by a slight twitch of her head….I flicked the switch so that the room was lighted and noted the look of relief on her lined face. She then fastened her gaze on a small saucer full of pennies that lay on a sideboard, back to my eyes again then she glanced at the dish. I finally understood, picked up a penny and left.  When I went downstairs to my own home in the dusky light, I told my mother about the incident. She said something about the letter of the law that wasn’t exactly clear to me.”

This book is well worth having; it may be ordered through Hartsuyker’s website,