He was eight years old. A telegram came from the hospital, and since his
father, a Russian immigrant, could not read English, Morrie had to break the
news, reading his mother’s death notice like a student in front of the class. “We
regret to inform you …” he began.
On the morning of the funeral, Morrie’s relatives came down the steps of
his tenement building on the poor Lower East Side of Manhattan. The men wore
dark suits, the women wore veils. The kids in the neighborhood were going off
to school, and as they passed, Morrie looked down, ashamed that his classmates
would see him this way. One of his aunts, a heavyset woman, grabbed Morrie
and began to wail: “What will you do without your mother?
What will become of
Morrie burst into tears. His classmates ran away.
At the cemetery, Morrie watched as they shoveled dirt into his mother’s
grave. He tried to recall the tender moments they had shared when she was alive.
She had operated a candy store until she got sick, after which she mostly slept or
sat by the window, looking frail and weak. Sometimes she would yell out for her
son to get her some medicine, and young Morrie, playing stickball in the street,
would pretend he did not hear her. In his mind he believed he could make the
illness go away by ignoring it.
How else can a child confront death?
Morrie’s father, whom everyone called Charlie, had come to America to
escape the Russian Army. He worked in the fur business, but was constantly out
of a job. Uneducated and barely able to speak English, he was terribly poor, and
the family was on public assistance much of the time. Their apartment was a
dark, cramped, depressing place behind the candy store. They had no luxuries.
No car. Sometimes, to make money, Morrie and his younger brother, David,
would wash porch steps together for a nickel.