I am posting this blog on September 1, 2021, what would have been my beloved mother’s (“Z”L) 104th birthday. It is with pride and love I announce the publication of my third book, Fradel’s Story.
What better way to start off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, than to publish a new book? Fradel’s Story, my third book since 2016, is especially sweet as it was co-written with my mother, Frances Cohen.
Ever since I could remember, my mother was the family storyteller. Give her an opening, and Fran, or “Fradel” as she was known to her close family, would regale any audience with family stories any audience with stories of her grandparents’ and parents’ lives in Russia, her early years of marriage to “My Bill” Cohen, their life in small towns in the North Country. She told of raising four children, watching them leave for college and for marriage, and their returning with her grandchildren to visit her and my father in their beloved cottage on Lake Champlain.
As my parents got older, my mother realized that she needed to record these stories. We never were one for video cameras and tapes, so she began jotting them down on lined paper, usually the five by eight notepads. The writing was messy, with words misspelled and whole sections crossed out, but she began to keep a written history.
In 2006, after a number of health setbacks, my three siblings, our spouses, and I insisted that my parents sell their condo in Florida and move back up north That May, they moved into Coburg Village, an independent living facility only four miles from our home.
Soon after moving in, my mother called me to tell me she was joining Coburg’s monthly writing group to finally finish all those stories she carried in her head and on those scraps of paper. When she brought her first story to the group, her accounting of why she and my father moved to Coburg, she was surprised to find that the group enjoyed her writing style. “They loved my story, Marilyn!” she told me. “They said I have a real flair for storytelling!” After that, my mother’s voice in phone calls after the monthly Wednesday meetings was filled with pride.
Mom rarely had difficulty finding a topic and writing it down with pen on paper. However, the group leader requested that the stories be typed so they could eventually be published in the semi-annual collection and distributed to Coburg residents. My mother asked me to type them. While I was at it, could I, “My daughter the English major,” do some proofing and minor revisions so that they would read more smoothly?
Thus began our five-year collaboration. Every month, about a week before the group met, my mother would give me her hand-written story. I would do some editing, including spelling, grammar, and even some tightening of the narrative. Her oral stories evolved into polished narratives,— funny, poignant, sad, and sometimes painful, but always entertaining.
When my father passed away in November 2008, my mother’s contribution for December was an open letter to my father. She wrote that she was moving into a smaller apartment down the hall. “Wherever I go, you also go in spirit,” she wrote. Grieving quietly, she continued with her life at Coburg, going to the concerts, visiting with friends and family who were always stopping by to see her, and continuing with her writing. All the children asked her to write about our births and early childhood, but she always postponed those stories, focusing on the Old Country, her childhood, her Bill.
On December 22, 2010, my mother had a heart attack. The doctors recommended hospice care and living her remaining time to the fullest. She complied, enjoying visits and calls from the children, grandchildren, her extended family, and the many friends she and my father had made in Coburg and in their lifetimes. She kept writing.
In February 2011, with my sister Laura and me sitting close by, my mother shared her story, “The Birth of My First Child,” with her writing group. She described her joy in having a beautiful little girl and her fears that she would not be able to be a good mother. The last words, written in pencil on the bottom, were “To be continued….” She died four weeks later, the day of the club’s March meeting.
I had made a promise to myself that one day I would gather her stories in a book. When COVID-19 shuttered so many of my activities, I decided that it was time. Over the past eighteen months, I have worked on editing, filling in the gaps, and finally ordering the stories in chronological order to make the book flow smoother.
I too had family stories, articles I had written over the years capturing memories of our old Victorian in Upstate New York, our cottage on Lake Champlain, my father’s obsession with boats, bugs, and bats; my mother’s words of wisdom; my siblings’ accomplishments. I decided to include those in the book.
By this March, I was ready to send my first draft to my editor, Mia Crew. She was responsible for formatting the book for paperback and Kindle format as well as inserting the 80+ photos, many of them family pictures that dated back to 1914. Fradel’s Story has been launched on Amazon, in time for my target, September 1, what would have been my mother’s 104th birthday.
My parents were not wealthy people. They had little of material value: a wedding ring, my Grandmother Ethel’s engagement ring, two beautiful, framed pictures of my father at thirteen and my mother at six, a few nice dishes. As my siblings and I sadly dismantled Mom’s apartment, my daughter was surprised that I wanted so little. “It’s okay, Julie,” I said. “I have her stories.”
And now, I can share them with my large close knit family, with an incredible network of friends who personally knew my parents or knew their legacy, and hopefully hundreds of others who may find their own lives reflected in this collection.
Marilyn and Fran at Coburg Village, Rexford, New York, October 2006.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.