The Mother Lode and Mrs. Maisel

By Caroline Aaron

There is a knock at the door. “We’re ready for you.” I slip into my pointy high heels, position my Juliette hat, grab my gloves, pull at my girdle and open my dressing room door. A production assistant is stationed outside, waiting to escort me to the set. I have been on hundreds of sets, wearing all manner of clothes, over my long and varied career, but today is different. Today I am stepping onto the set of The Weissman’s apartment, the home of the titular character Midge Maisel in the series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I too am Mrs. Maisel, not the Marvelous one of the title, but Mrs. Maisel nonetheless. From the moment I set foot inside their apartment, I am not only going to work, I am also going back in time. Everywhere I look, there are signs of my own childhood triggering memories. Today we are shooting a scene where the two families are having a dinner together in honor of the Jewish holidays. I grew up a nice Jewish girl in the late fifties, sitting around this exact same holiday table year after year for the breaking of the fast after our Yom Kippur services. The director calls action and Shirley begins her relentless questioning of whether the table flowers are real–“they are so beautiful they don’t seem real.” And now I am back riding with my mother to pick up the centerpieces for our holiday table. The flowers are glorious, arranged in the heirloom vases that my mother had dropped off at the florist earlier in the week. Our Zelda is Gladys, she is black not white, and instead of light fare to reintroduce our digestive systems to food after twenty-four hours of fasting, we dive right in to Gladys’ fried chicken, collard greens and a Jell-O mold with cherries and nuts. We were twice a year Southern Jews, certainly not devoted temple goers and no one fasted as I remember except between lunch and dinner. But I loved those holidays. Growing up, the High Holy Days were a chance to wear your very best. That meant a new dress for me and my sister and, in my mother’s case, her full-length mink came out of storage. I remember the day my father brought home that coat. It was mythic. As my mother modeled it, I whispered to my father, “Can we afford that?” In my seven-year-old mind, a mink coat was on par with owning a castle or a private plane. He wisely replied, “We can pay for it, but that’s different than affording it.” Of course I had no idea of what he meant until later when I became the poster child for living above my means, buying and paying for things I could in no way afford. When I put on that full-length mink Shirley wore as part of her summer wardrobe in the Catskills, I go back and feel my face buried in my mother’s mink as I sat next to her in temple on Yom Kippur. For some reason the Jewish holidays are never on time. All I heard growing up was “the holidays are so early this year,” or, “the holidays are so late this year.” But whenever they arrived, even after I was long gone living my grown up life, I always wanted to make my way home to be at that table. And now that table is gone so I am grateful to be sitting here at this fictional family’s break-fast, revisiting my unusual childhood and remembering my extraordinary mother. 

From left to right: Josie, Nina, Sam and Caroline Abady 

I was raised in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy, the home of The Daughters of the American Revolution, the Antebellum South. My mother was born in Macon, Georgia and grew up in Selma, Alabama, a true daughter of the South. She made her way up north to attend Goucher College, at age fourteen, and her destiny presented itself on a blind date with my father. He was ten years her senior, a Lebanese Jew, a war hero, who had settled in Richmond by way of Curaçao. They fell in love, settled in Richmond and raised their three children there. The South of my childhood was segregated, separate water fountains and separate bathrooms. Lawns, impeccably manicured, where white crosses were often burned. Conspicuous wealth was considered crass and good manners were the ultimate sign of class. Jews, few in number, were a little more welcome, only because one could not identify them on sight. However, Jews, like blacks, were forbidden to live in the best residential neighborhoods and kept out of country clubs. When I got married in 1980, my mother had to ask a friend to pick up our wedding cake. She had ordered it from the best pastry chef in Richmond, who happened to work at The Country Club of Virginia. The club was restricted and no Jews or blacks could enter the property. My mother, like all women of her generation in the ‘50s, raised children, played cards and did volunteer work. But she was frustrated by the narrow boundaries of being a housewife. She fed herself with education, earning two masters degrees and even enrolled at TC Williams School of Law at The University of Richmond as the lone woman. She was a lawyer, minus the passing of the bar exam, when her sheltered life exploded with the sudden death of my father. She was thirty-eight years old and left to raise three young children alone. My father died in July and that September my mother began her new life. She had to go to work, but despite all her education there were no jobs for a woman, a Jewish woman, a woman alone. The only exception was Virginia Union University, an all black institution on the wrong side of town. She was the only white person on campus. Her first day on campus she walked by a poster that said, “work hard, study hard, or they will call you boy the rest of your life.” She knew she was the “they,” but growing up as a dark haired Jewish girl in the thirties and forties in the Deep South, she understood. She too knew the pain of being the ultimate outsider. 

Michael Zegen as Joel Maisel, Kevin Pollak as Moishe Maisel and Caroline Aaron as Shirley Maisel

Within a couple of years she was promoted from associate professor of sociology to Vice-President and began to raise funds from the Jewish community to support programs to expand the university. The Jewish community came through in one way. They were willing to write a check but not to fully integrate lives. Generous from a distance was a beginning, but not nearly enough for my mother. The Richmond of the 1960s was a divided city. Broad Street, the main thoroughfare downtown, had two sides. The black side was lined with pawnshops, cheap clothing stores and the bus station. The white side had wide striped awnings and shiny washed windows and nicer stores. It was the safer side, the more comfortable side, the side of the street that even seemed cooler on humid summer days. This was our side. One Saturday my mother dressed us up for a trip downtown. My sister and I in crinoline dresses with white gloves and my little brother in short dress pants with suspenders. A trip downtown usually meant a special day of shopping rounded out with hot chocolate and cookies at The Miller and Rhodes tea room. But this Saturday was special in a new way. My mother led us to the black side of the street to take a walk. As she guided us, people stopped talking and made way for us to pass. I stopped breathing until we reached the other side. She wanted her children to know what it felt like to be stared at and pointed at and made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted in your own city. You cannot just write a check, you have to take a walk in someone else shoes to really understand another life. I often said I was raised by a woman who was a cross between Amanda Wingfield and Emma Goldman. Virginia Union may have been the beginning of her career as a civil rights activist, but her passion for justice began long before. One day in Selma, when she was eight, she saw a white policeman savagely beat a little black boy for drinking out of the white water fountain. She begged him to stop and when he didn’t, she jumped on his back and bit him. The beating stopped but my mother was arrested and hauled off to the local police station. My grandfather had to bail her out. This was the beginning of her life’s pursuit to unite divided communities. The race riots of the 1960s brought about white flight to the suburbs. Downtown became desolate and decayed. My mother got busy and convinced the city of Richmond to allocate money to revitalize the area. With funds in hand, collaborating with black community leaders, they created street festivals, opened theaters, and brought live music to Richmond’s abandoned downtown. Merchants were seduced with tax breaks to open up again in the area. The plan worked, and blacks and whites, young and old, came together to have fun. In her words, “There is no room for territorial imperatives. Cooperation, inclusion and where appropriate, joint efforts are the order of the times. We must seek a more humane environment where diverse people productively come together to live, work and recreate.” The Big Gig was inaugurated, a music festival which attracted fifty thousand people annually, and Friday Cheers, a free weekly concert for the price of a beer. Local artists were showcased and there was a free New Years celebration in Festival Park. Blacks and whites coming together to dance and eat and celebrate, finding out everyone had more in common than what divided them. Despite the skeptics, there was no violence, the combustion of these two groups never ignited in anything except applause. 

Caroline Aaron as Shirley Maisel

There was still a lot of work to do but she felt things were changing. She helped elect the first black governor of Virginia, Doug Wilder. Children no longer sing Dixie to the Confederate flag in public schools anymore. Class elections cannot be held on Jewish holidays, as they once were, no matter how small the Jewish enrollment is. I asked her once what had been the most defining part of her life and she said being a Southern woman. Her starched dresses, white gloves and mandatory “yes ma’ams and no sirs” may have defined her, but the six-pointed star she wore around her neck is what guided her. When she died, Festival Park was renamed in her honor, The Nina F. Abady Festival Park, and she was named one of the hundred most important Southerners of the millennium. She defied all expectations of a ‘50s mother so I didn’t have a stay at home mom like all of my friends. I had a working mother, a mother who was never the chaperone on school trips or the president of the PTA. But what I did have was an example of passion and permission to pursue my dreams. In her will, after her list of bequests, my mother wrote this to her children: “I hope that I leave you something much more valuable than things. I hope I have left you the talent to be dissatisfied with the world you see and the skepticism to mistrust the answers you hear. I hope I have left you a moral capacity to feel pain–where others may be hardened to it; to give love–where others may be stingy with it; to make change where others may be frightened of it; to find joy–where others may be blind to it; to respect and cherish–where others may be ashamed of it. All of my other bequests mean little.” I doubt that Shirley Maisel and my mother would have ever sat around the same card table, but they come together in me, sitting down with the Weissmans and Maisels whenever the director calls action. 

About Caroline Aaron

Caroline Aaron is a professional actress who is well known to theatre, film and television audiences. She made her Broadway debut in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and later appeared in the film. The following season, she starred in the Jose Quintero/Jason Robards’ revival of The Iceman Cometh. She next starred in Mike Nichols’s Broadway smash comedy Social Security. Mr. Nichols directed her on film in Heartburn, Working Girl, Primary Colors, and What Planet Are You From? She returned to Broadway starring in I Hate Hamlet. Caroline headlined the West coast premiere of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig and was honored with both a Helen Hayes and Dramalogue Award. Her latest Broadway outing was in Woody Allen’s comedy Honeymoon Hotel. On film, Caroline is a frequent collaborator with Woody Allen. She played his sister in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry and worked with Mr. Allen in Alice, Bullets Over Broadway and Husbands and Wives. She has appeared in over a hundred films, including Hello, My Name is Doris, 21 & 22 Jump Street, Beyond The Sea, Just Like Heaven, Nancy Drew, Sleepless in Seattle, Edward Scissorhands, Anywhere But Here, The Big Night, and Bounce among others. Her television work includes Madame Secretary, The Good Fight, The Millers, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, all the CSI’s, all the Law & Orders, Two Broke Girls, Sex and The City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Transparent, and Episodes among others. Currently, she plays Shirley Maisel on the hit television series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her first play, “Such A Pretty Face,” has been optioned and will open Off-Broadway in the fall of 2019.