My Mother Told Me the Whole Story

In Yiddish: Mayn muter hot mir dertseylt di gantse geshikhte.

by Thomas J. Scheff  (January 2012)       


My mother came from a poor Jewish family who had emigrated from Russia to New Orleans. When their father disappeared in the Alaska Gold Rush, all the children were put to work. Their mother couldn’t find work because she spoke only Yiddish, no English. And she still didn’t when I was a child. When my family visited her in Gladwater, Texas, where she lived with her daughter Hannah and son-in-law, Leslie, she and I played the card game Casino in Yiddish, give or take.

My mother was yanked out of school, which she loved, before she had finished the fifth grade. But she was a reader, so she educated herself. She read everything she could put her hands on, including the classics. She also sang while accompanying herself on the piano.

She sang Broadway hits, like "Summer Time" and "It Ain’t Necessarily So," spirituals ("Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen," "Deep River"), occasionally Yiddish, like "The Greenhorn Cousin," and grand opera. Her songs were less for me than for the house at large. But I liked them anyway. However, I might have liked the arias less than the others. I couldn’t understand the Italian (nor could she). Also, I was not impressed by the way she thought she was imitating a prima donna, tossing up her head, fluttering her eyelashes and rounding her lips into an O. I am guessing that she never actually saw an opera, neither live nor on film. However, on Saturday mornings our radio was always tuned into the Texaco Opera Theatre.

She would also tell me stories based on her wide reading. She may have read me children’s stories like Winnie the Pooh, or at least talked about them. I’m not sure, because my memory mixes in my reading them to my own children. There is only one story that I clearly remember, because she told it many times. I certainly couldn’t have understood it, but I liked it anyway. It moved me, both then and now.

It was my mother’s recasting of the ending of Faust. Apparently she read Goethe’s version, both Book I and Book II, but not liking his ending, may have made up her own. In Goethe’s story, Faust was bored with his life. He was a scholar, but felt he was getting nowhere. One day as he was staring at the bookcases in his office, he heard his name called. “Who calls me here in the dust?” (A great line!). Turning around, he saw only a little dog. But it was the Devil in disguise, offering him a life of unending pleasure. The cost would be that when Faust died, his soul would belong to the Devil.

Faust was inclined to accept, but he added a small provision: he must find a pleasure so intense that he would want time to stop, “to linger awhile.” The Devil accepted, and took Faust on a pleasure tour over the entire world, up and down all of history. He introduced him to days and nights filled with wine, women and song, including some of the greatest beauties of all time, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and many others.

But Faust quickly sated on a life of nothing but pleasure, so his soul was saved from the devil when he died. But in the end of Goethe’s Book II, he dies a miserable death. The Devil was annoyed not to get Faust’s soul, so he assigned minor devils to torment him every day until the end of his life.

Apparently Mom didn’t care for this ending, so she seems to have invented her own. In Goethe’s version, Faust dies as he was walking along the seashore in Holland. His tormentors are there, as always, but Faust is trying to ignore them, talking aloud to himself about possibly helping the people in this little country. Since he is being tormented, his death is not a happy one.

In Mom’s ending, she picked up Faust walking by a seashore, but there are no little devils in her version. Faust is free of the devil, on his own. He is still hopelessly bored with teaching, so he doesn’t know what to do with himself except to walk aimlessly around Europe.

Along the seashore in Holland one day, he hears loud cries coming from the dike along the ocean. Investigating, he finds that the dike has broken. The villagers are trying desperately to save their village and farms.

Faust joins them, working day and night to help hold back the flood. The tide and the wind are so high that the workers are in danger of drowning if they don’t succeed. By the time the sun rises, they have secured the dike; the village and farms are saved.

Cold, hungry and exhausted from their effort, everyone goes to the local tavern, taking Faust along. Inside, after food and drink, they crowd around Faust to thank him, the stranger who endangered his life coming to their aid.

But Faust isn’t paying attention. He realizes that, exhausted and in danger, forgetting himself to serve others, he found the intense pleasure he had been seeking, to the point that he wanted time to linger awhile. This story also has lingered with me to this day, nearly 80 years later. I think it may have also have influenced my choice of career and calling.

I have searched through various versions of the Faust legend without finding this one. Could my own mother have invented it?

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