My mother's name was Rose. She had reddish-brown hair and looked Irish. (I used to tell people my real name was O'Hara, that Weintraub had been invented for business purposes.) She grew up in Brooklyn, where she had been as cloistered as any of the nuns at St. Mary's. I don't think she had been anywhere or done anything before she met my father. Like a lot of the Jewish women of that era, she went straight from the house of her parents to the house of her husband. The first time she ate a lobster—I remember my father bringing the forbidden sea monsters into the house—she tried to crack the shell and sent a claw sailing across the room. What did she care about delicacies? Protecting us, keeping us from the suffering of the world, that was her task. She did not want us to know about the existence of hospitals, let alone mortuaries. If I had a relative who suddenly stopped coming to the apartment and I asked, "Where is Uncle Dave?" She would say, "Dave went on a trip." Then, three years would go by and I would ask, "What happened to Uncle Dave?" And she'd say, "Oh, Uncle Dave died years ago."
She was a beautiful woman, with all the magical powers we boys attribute to our mothers: She was always there, watching and praising, supporting, loving, beaming. She was parochial, scared of a lot of things, but fought through her fear for our sake. She was afraid of heights, as I said. She was also afraid of cars, airplanes, restaurants, basically the whole world beyond New York City. Her struggle—the battle between her fear and her desire to raise sons who were without fear—was dramatized on a trip we took out West, when my father decided we should take the tourist train to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. We got our tickets, took our seats, and around and around we went, up Jacob's Ladder to heaven. My mother was smiling and nodding the entire way, but her knuckles were white and tears streamed down her face. It said something about human will, or about a mother's love, or maybe it was really about the stubbornness of my father, who said, "We're doing this, and that is all there is to it."
His name was Samuel, and he was the perfect match for my mother. Where she was parochial and nervous (most comfortable inside the apartment), he was worldly and sophisticated (most comfortable out in the world). He was a salesman, and had been on the road since he was fourteen. She worked as a secretary in his office. He had crossed the country a half dozen times before they met, had friends in dozens of states, was welcomed everywhere he went. He used to return from trips with stories and souvenirs. Postcards, trinkets, tchotchkes—the romance of these things lingered in the apartment. If I caused him trouble later on, if I banged into him while trying to get free—and believe me, I was a big, mischievous pain in the ass—my father can blame himself. He was the one who filled me with dreams of the greater world. I simply wanted to see what he had seen.
My father was in the jewelry business. He bought and sold gems. Following years of struggle, he started to do okay after World War II, when refugees began to arrive from Europe, many with a stash of jewels they needed to sell. My father began as a kind of middleman, but ultimately built a thriving business.