editorial
Volume 29, Number 3

The Personal is Political:
In Remembrance of My Mother, Marlyn R. Schepartz
July 14, 1931–January 22, 2019

Fred Schepartz

the people's song book cover

One of my most prized possessions is a volume titled the people’s song book, which includes a foreword by Alan Lomax but, more importantly, is autographed by Paul Robeson. My mom got the songbook, along with the Robeson autograph, at a fundraiser for Henry Wallace during his 1948 run for president with the Progressive Party.

Paul Robeson signature

My mom at the time was all of 16 or 17 years old. At such as tender age, I can only imagine what kind of impression the Wallace campaign had on her, because it wasn’t just about attending this one event; her older sister, Sylvia, worked on the Wallace campaign.

Of that particular event, I mainly remember Mom telling me that Paul Robeson was quite charming. I, however, have to believe that the experience had a great influence on her. The Party’s platform in 1948 was extremely progressive and way ahead of its time. It addressed a wide array of issues and included support for the desegregation of public schools, gender equality, national health insurance, free trade and public ownership of large banks, railroads and power utilities. Imagine the idealism and optimism of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign on steroids.

Such a profound politicizing experience can affect one’s perspective for an entire lifetime.

To be clear, Mom was no Red. She was a liberal Democrat, a feminist and an active member of her synagogue, which was on the progressive end of Conservative. In many ways, the synagogue was ahead of its time, especially in terms of participation of women.

My mom was a force of nature. She was strident in her views, possessed strong opinions and had no problem speaking her mind. Mom was not one to back down easily.

But also, Mom was an artist. She earned a fine-arts degree from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Following her graduation, she taught art at junior high schools in Camden, New Jersey and Levittown, Pennsylvania. Slender and just a little more than five feet tall, Mom had to address challenges to her authority from high spirited students. Her successful efforts earned her the moniker Rubenstein Frankenstein.

Marlyn Schepartz graduation

Mom met Saul Schepartz on a blind date. They quickly knew they had something special. They got married. Mom left teaching behind to raise a family.

But she never left her life as an artist behind. Though she did not do much in terms of fine art, she lived as an artist for most of the rest of her life.

Or as my Dad so wonderfully conceived as her epitaph on her burial plaque:

In Everything There is Art

Anything my mom held in her hands was a tool to make art, be it a pen, pencil or crayon. A knitting needle, crochet hook, embroidery needle. A kitchen utensil, a pot or a pan. A digital camera or a computer keyboard.

I believe that for Mom, her political and artistic world view was deeply intertwined with her personal perspective and experience. The idealism of the Progressive Party and its subsequent incarnations was not about left vs. right; it was more about right and wrong. It was about a moral imperative to be fair and just to our fellow humans. It was about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And it was about having the strength of convictions to speak out in the face of injustice.

And it was also about expressing herself through art, sometimes simultaneously.

In the 1970s, when American Jews attempted to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jews to emigrate in the face of a long-term human rights crisis, Mom was asked to create a large sign to be posted outside her synagogue with the words “Free Soviet Jewry.” Mom’s sign was quite stunning, with large, red letters that dripped red paint. The synagogue objected to the symbolic dripping blood. With great reluctance, Mom painted over the drips.

Certainly, my mother’s perspective had a great deal to do with how she raised her children. Even as little kids, my parents took us to political rallies, as well as art museums though it took a long time for me to learn to appreciate art and enjoy going to art museums. I know she knew I was bored as hell, but she kept at it.

From my mother and my father, I acquired a strong sense of justice and a strong desire to speak out and fight for causes I believe in. I know my parents were proud of my efforts fighting Scott Walker and his ilk over the last eight years, and I have to think my mom was quite gratified to witness us finally taking Walker down.

A good parent is both a friend and a teacher.

The last time I saw Mom was less than two weeks before she died after a relatively short battle with lung cancer. During this visit, I told her about how I recently made a gratin and how the recipe I use as a guideline calls for buttering and flouring the pan.

This is a bit tricky. First, you have to coat the entire surface of the pan with butter. Then, you need to drop a generous amount of flour into the bottom of the pan. You maneuver the pan so the flour comes in contact and sticks to the buttered areas on the bottom of the pan. Then, while holding the pan above a trash can, you tip it on each side and let the flour slide along the entire area of each side, rotating the pan until all sides are coated.

Mom taught me how to butter and flour a pan.

I told her that I think of her whenever I butter and flour a pan.

“You were interested,” she replied.

She helped me bake a cake for a baking contest at my elementary school because I was interested. She took me to a bead store because I was interested, which led to me making bead necklaces that I tried to sell. She bought me a recorder and a guitar because I was interested, though it turned out I wasn’t interested in the work to actually become a musician.

She and my dad paid for me to attend college and earn a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was supportive when I decided to forego a journalism career in order to write fiction.

More recently, she was extremely supportive when I announced an interest in going back to school to study to be a paralegal. In fact, when I said I might delay entrance into the program, Mom emphatically said no, I would not do that. She said they would give me any support I needed.

And that was that.

Going back to school in one’s 50s was not the easiest thing in the world, but I was carried by the inspiration of my mom doing the same in her 40s, which led to a career working at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

I know Mom was very proud of me, and that always means a great deal to a child, even when that child is a mature adult. I was very touched to find, while clearing out drawers and cabinets in a wall unit in their house (that is being sold because they had just moved into an apartment in an independent living facility), stacks of my manuscripts, along with a bunch of back issues of the print version of Mobius, including the very first issue from October of 1989, which I had lost years and years ago.

My mother wasn’t perfect. Well, nobody is. Certainly, she could be moody and a bit depressed. But I did learn very important lessons from her, which upon reflection I know were lessons she learned from the Henry Wallace campaign, from her parents, from her sister and brother.

The personal is political. And granted, I know that I’m stretching the definition of this term. It just seems to me that being a decent percent, in and of itself, is to a certain extent, a political act.

In a nutshell, if you think you’re a social justice warrior, but you’re also an asshole, well, you’re not really a social justice warrior.

Or, in other words, to quote Che Guevara:

The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.

When I look back at the Progressive Party’s 1948 platform, as well as subsequent progressive party platforms, I realize that these ideologies are fundamentally rooted in a powerful sense of justice tempered by strong feelings of compassion and empathy.

For me, it comes down to good, solid values that I learned from my mother and my father. What would Mom say? Be a mensch!

I miss Mom a great deal. I know I will miss her every subsequent day I walk this Earth. But I also know that I carry the best parts of her with me and always will.

Marlyn Schepartz & Fred

~

A brief epilogue to my last editorial: Scott Walker before leaving office once again proved that given half a chance, tyrants and dictators will, well, act like tyrants and dictators.

Mere hours after putting my editorial to bed, Walker and his merry men called a lame-duck session under what turned out to be a false pretense to provide aid to Kimberly Clark, a longtime Wisconsin manufacturer that threatened to close a Wisconsin plant.

The legislation never addresses Kimberly Clark but passed a series of bills to restrict the powers of incoming Democratic governor and attorney general Tony Evers and Josh Kaul. Oh, and for good measure, they passed a voter suppression bill to restrict early voting, despite the fact that a court had struck down a nearly identical law.

The same federal judge struck down the voter suppression bill. Meanwhile, four lawsuits are pending against the laws restricting the governor and attorney general's powers.

The scorpion always stings the frog that's helping it across the lake, even if it kills them both. The scorpion can't help it. It's in its nature.

And tyrants and dictators cannot help themselves. It's in their nature.