Elida Telfeyan died on Friday. She was 97 years old. She died after a short illness and a full and rich life. Elida was my mother, and she was the person who, more than any other, influenced me in my most formative years to become the man I am now.
She was also a partner for sixty-six and a half years with my father, who, at the age of 91, predeceased her by twelve years. They were a prototypical power couple in the community of Great Neck, New York, my dad a highly respected practicing physician who really made house calls, and my mom a leader in PTA and church affairs. I would often marvel at how remarkable they both were.
Elida was the intellectual. Dad was brilliant, to be sure, but it was Mom who was always reading esoteric books and studying up on the latest news in the world of the arts and literature, sociology and politics. She was a die-hard conservative who, in my most formative years, taught me the perils of socialism and the strength of a free market economy. She and my best friend would regularly get into arguments about the merits of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she despised. I wholly agreed with her side of the argument, until I didn’t.
And then, ultimately, Mom didn’t either, as she moved, inexorably, away from her political roots. By the 1988 election, after seeing eight years of her conservative philosophy put into action by Ronald Reagan, she had given up on the Republicans. And then she absolutely fell in love with Bill Clinton, thereupon becoming a “proud Democrat,” as her letter-sticker return addresses proclaimed.
But that was the way Mom approached everything in her life. She never stopped learning. She had probably been influenced by her mother, who was also an intellectual. Zarouhi was an orphan from the Armenian Genocide, who came to the United States as teenager, married another Armenian refugee, and with him started a new life in Jackson Heights (in the heart of Queens, New York). Their lives all took a big hit when my mother’s brother was killed in World War II. I was born three years later, and given his name, Edward Haig. Mom always considered her brother’s death the greatest loss she had ever suffered, and in me, and my three siblings who followed in two or three year intervals, I think she found a way to sublimate the pain of that loss by devoting herself to our development.
When she had turned 50, the last of her four children having finally “left the nest,” she decided to get her bachelor’s degree. (She had only completed two years at Queens College when—at the age of 18—she married Dad and moved with him to Chicago where he was a medical student.) She completed the work on that degree, graduating Summa Cum Laude from Adelphi University, and then went on to get a Master’s in Public Health Administration (with highest honors) before she turned 60.
But that was Mom. She always wanted to understand something new about whatever it was that was breaking news, before that term even had gained relevance. Her nightstand would often contain as many as six different books she was reading at any one time, and she devoured each day’s New York Times, and each week’s New Yorker magazine. She was a big fan of Russell Baker and Scotty Reston in their day, Frank Rich later, and Maureen Dowd in more recent years.
It was because of her that the Times became my first read every morning. She also introduced me to her favorite literature. There were the political novels of Allen Drury, Kazantazakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters,” and, of course, all six of the novels by Jane Austen, Mom’s absolutely favorite author. By her death, she had read each of Austen’s novels at least a half dozen times.
It was also because of her that I developed my love for cinema, and the theater, and classical music. I remember many nights, as a child, when she would take me to the opening of a new film (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “North by Northwest”) or to an Old Vic touring production of a Shakespeare play or to a D’Oyly Carte staging of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. We’d attend classical music concerts, ballets, operas, and throw in a few museums just for good measure.
In the years before emails and the Internet, I would often receive newspaper articles she felt I should read on anything from the opening of a new production of Hamlet to the threat to democracy posed by the likes of William Kunstler (Google him). When I told her, during my first year of law school, that Kunstler was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be, she threatened to disown me. She didn’t. Years later, we laughed about those days as she took pride in the civil rights work one of her grandsons (my younger son) was pursuing in his legal career.
So that was Mom: feisty and opinionated, yet loving, caring, and always open to new ideas and to a better appreciation of all that life had to offer.
In the last meaningful conversation I had with her, during our annual Thanksgiving visit last year, she suddenly described the kind of teacher I am. It came up after I explained that I had brought a bunch of grading with me that I was committed to completing before Jeri and I returned to Sacramento. I was somewhat dumbfounded as she completed her description, for she had nailed it, even though she had never seen me teach or interact with my students or heard me speak about my approach.
“Mom,” I said, “how did you know that’s how I teach?”
She smiled. “You don’t think I know my own son?”
She was my soulmate, the kind that only the best mothers can be.
Thanks, Mom. Rest in peace.