Reprinted from ....
A Mother Reconsidered
My mother, Helga Hoenigsberg, died one year ago after almost 93 years of life. I had dreaded her death from a very early age and wondered how I would ever cope with this great loss.
I had clung to her after fleeing Nazi Germany with my family, leaving behind a beloved nanny, Anna. We arrived here in early 1939 when I was 3 ½. We lost all our money and possessions, but thankfully came to America with our lives and, as my mother described it, "We were well-dressed beggars." We were very fortunate because having a Jewish father, certain death awaited us had we remained. I was not to learn till years later the very large role my mother had played in our escape.
I would like to share how the way I saw my mother changed and made for a larger seeing of reality and a greater respect for her.
This dramatic change occurred through my study of the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 and taught at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. I learned that it is how we see the first representatives of reality that we meet, usually our parents, that will largely determine our attitude to the world.
My mother made much of me as I grew up in Brooklyn. I was quite a spoiled child with the feeling that the world and my mother existed to serve me. I also saw the world as confusing as my father, Robert Hoenigsberg had horrible outbursts of temper and my mother just cowered with fear. I was confused and later I learned from Aesthetic Realism, that, over time, I had made a choice which so many people make, to manage an unkind world that I didn't want to know sufficiently. This bad attitude did not help in the coming years in how I saw everything including marriage and motherhood.
I started to have consultations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and my trio of consultants gave me kind criticism to have me see my mother better. They asked me this important question: "Do you think a whole book could be written about your mother and you would be one character among many others?"
What a shock, a revelation and an eye opener!! They explained everyone's deepest desire is to like the world through knowing it. But every moment in our lives we are making either that choice or the choice to have contempt, which Eli Siegel defined as the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." I started to see my mother differently--with more good will.
One of the ordinary ways I learned that people have contempt for other family members is that they don't want to see how someone is related to other things. In consultations, I was given many thoughtful assignments about my mother, for example, "How do her various neighbors see Helga Hoenigsberg?" or "Give her relationships to things and people starting with the letter A to the letter Z and many more." I started to have a wider, kinder view of who my mother was and a sense of wonder about her I never had before.
One of the principles of Aesthetic Realism as stated by Eli Siegel is that: "Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself."
I wanted to see how the opposites were in my mother. As I asked her many questions, the rich relationship of past and present in her became clearer to me. What did she care for? What were her regrets as she looked back on a long life. She told me many events of her early years which included living in many foster homes because of her parents' divorce and how she felt at each new place trying to fit in. Some foster parents were kind, others quite cruel. She regretted that she didn't stand up in a graceful way for things, which were true, including later, with her husband and went instead for being liked and pleasing people.
Her past experiences were a large influence on how she saw people today. I could see how the opposites of strength and grace were fighting in her. Interestingly enough, she loved trees which puts these opposites together so beautifully in a strong upright trunk and graceful leaves.
She told me the dramatic story of how she and her husband Robert were arrested on a train, separated and taken to police headquarters in late 1938. While waiting on line, a German officer whispered in her ear, "Don't let your husband sleep at home tonight." They would arrest all the Jews that night and send them to concentration camps.
She went to the home of her father, a professional oboe player, who was out of town at the time. His housekeeper refused to take them in because to harbor a Jew was to risk one's own life. My mother insisted and they stayed there. She was so proud of that moment and told me this was one of the only times she remembered where she stood up for what was right and by doing so, saved her husband and her family. On another day, she went to police headquarters to find out some information that might be useful and while waiting in line, she heard a police officer say to someone ahead of her that anyone holding tickets to leave Germany after a certain date could no longer leave the country. She immediately went to the phone to let her husband know because in order to escape, he had to change and insert an earlier date on the tickets. We barely got out in time, thanks to her.
As I started to know Helga Hoenigsberg with more accuracy, I felt a sense of composure. I started using her to know and like the whole world.
A few days after her death, I wrote a letter to Ellen Reiss who is the class chairman of Aesthetic Realism. She is carrying on the work of Eli Siegel since his death in 1978. In the letter, I said, in part:
Because of my study of Aesthetic Realism, I met this day with grace and a care for the world… an ease I never thought would be possible. I hope I have seen my mother better in these years… She thought so.Now, one year after my mother's death, I live with many memories, sculptures she herself created, some of her furniture and her paintings. I know that I am on a continuing journey to know her ever more deeply.
Classes on art, music, drawing, poetry and many others plus seminars, dramatic presentations, special events and consultations take place at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation at 141 Greene Street in New York City. Web site: http://www.AestheticRealism.org. Phone 212-777-4490