As Mental Health Awareness Month ends, a reflection on the ambiguities of love and loss
Voice of Southfield Silenced for Eternity.
That was the title of my mother’s obituary. And this was its lead sentence: She loved Southfield. Above all else, journalist Jackie Klein loved her city.
“Above all else?” That was pretty extreme, even if Southfield gave her fewer headaches than her real family and she didn’t have to put it through college and graduate school. As a small-town newspaper reporter, my mom wrote hundreds of articles and columns about local goings-on for the Southfield Eccentric, the daily newspaper serving this Michigan suburb nestled in the shadow of its more complicated sibling, Detroit.
It’s been 20 years since that obituary appeared, almost enough time for me to stop mumbling about “above all else” in my sleep. Almost. She was, after all:
The seasoned reporter and columnist with a cigarette dangling from her lips as her delicate fingers danced across the typewriter keys. The tales of Jackie Klein are legendary around the newsroom. She was from the old-school, when the jokes were salty and the editors’ desks had a pint of whiskey in the top drawer.
I wonder if she felt she had that kind of power at home. After she died, all I was able to feel was the void, that she wouldn’t be here for my daughter’s first birthday or experience the joy of watching her grow up. I never stopped to think about the city she left behind: her other family – the one that was more functional.
In life, Jackie endured more than her fair share of personal tragedy, with the loss of her husband and son in the same year, and then her daughter. She fought her own battle with breast cancer. But Jackie’s positive attitude and sense of humor and dedication to the profession remained intact.
Aside from a few vacations and short stays at the psychiatric hospital, my mother wrote through those tragedies – two deaths by suicide. Wrote through, but not about. I wish she had because I have so many questions that only she could answer: “Was my dad struggling? Did you know what was going on while I was away? What was Keith (my brother) going through?” She controlled the narrative; that was her way of coping. I wish I had realized that sooner because I resented not having my mother’s motherness through those dark times.
She stayed put, even when most of her white, Jewish friends packed their bags and headed for other cities, complaining that the neighborhood was “changing.” Jackie liked how the neighborhood was changing. And she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, often writing columns critical of the “white flight” she saw happening around her in the 1980s.
Several years after my father and brother died, my mother finally moved out of our family home – too many ghosts of Chanukahs past. But her new apartment was close to our old house – she never considered leaving Southfield. I was proud of my mother for walking the walk, but I was also ready to leave. The grass truly was greener over there because those people could afford gardeners. Jackie became like Norma Rae with a typewriter, continuing to fight for her city, even as the infrastructure began to decay around her, up until the final weeks of her life.
Through it all, she fought to navigate her burden of past tragedies so she could actually function as a mother and a writer and a human being. Her strength was legendary. That woman managed to wake up every day and make it all the way through. Sometimes with humor and perseverance and sometimes just running out the clock, but she did it. And that’s something.
As her former editor wrote: “I think she will be remembered as a caring journalist who wasn’t afraid of the big story.”
Southfield was not a hub of big story activity, but if there had been a Watergate or an insurrection or a civil war between rival suburbs, I truly believe that my mother would not have been afraid to be embedded amidst the suburban wreckage. Although she was dedicated to both her career and her family, I think work was where she shined and felt confident in her abilities. As a guilt-ridden working mother, she wanted to be in two places at once – but really couldn’t be.
Along the way, she managed to maintain some family traditions – especially the Jewish holidays. The ritual was that Maxine, our housekeeper, would come over early, cook the meal, set the table, and slip out unobtrusively. My mother would later return home from work, race into the kitchen and throw on a pair of oven mitts. Sweating and exhausted, she would place the brisket on the table, mutter “Oy vey” and serve everything with the conviction of someone who had been slaving over a hot stove all day. Her stove was an electric Smith Corona – each word a tasty morsel waiting to be mercilessly devoured by an eager reader.
The holidays were a great opportunity for her to practice her denial and convince herself that we had forgotten she worked during the day, and that no one ever noticed she was gone. The weird thing was nobody ever said anything. It went on like this for my mother’s entire motherly life. It became part of the holiday tradition – as open to interpretation as the blowing of the shofar.
If denial was the result, guilt was the lingering cause. If I, as a survivor of the same tragedies she endured, constantly ask the questions, “What did I miss? What more could I have done? Why didn’t I…” I can’t even imagine how she went through each day. Was she a good enough mother? Was she a caring wife? Was work an escape from the problems at home? If the answers came out as No, No, Yes – then that guilt must have been impenetrable.
In her last column for the Southfield Eccentric, published May 9, 2002, Jackie’s sense of humor showed no signs of waning, although her body was starting to give out. “Age is only a number and I’m unlisted,” she wrote…Now Jackie’s voice will be heard only through old, yellowed newspaper clips, in which she captured the story of Southfield with her mighty pen for more than 50 years.
Her gray metal file cabinets brimmed over with those yellowed articles–preserving each moment to be revisited at any time.
Although my mother clearly wanted to do it all, very few people can. I truly appreciate my mother for trying.
Once I started writing and making films about my family, I almost breathed a sigh of relief reporting that my mother died of cancer. It was sort of a shift away from the family legacy of suicide. Not that one is better than the other. I’ve often been asked if it’s better to be prepared than to be blindsided. They both suck: You can prepare for a camping trip, but death, not so much. Once the person is no longer here, they are just gone.
The process of dying is awful, but it leaves a modicum of hope: Maybe there will be a miracle. But dead? No such luck. Suicide invites a host of unanswerable questions whereas the word cancer is a record stopper. I lost a brother and father to suicide and a mother to cancer. They left holes that will never be filled.
Rest in peace, Jackie, you will not be forgotten.
Above all else.
Lisa Klein is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and mental health and suicide prevention advocate. She lives in Los Angeles.
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