My Mother: A Lebanese American Woman’s Life
Friday January 08, 1999
My mother Salemi (Celia Ann) Zogby died last week at the age of 92.
The headline in the local Utica, New York newspaper, “Zogby Matriarch dies at 92”, told only part of her story. She had been, to the end, a leader of my extensive extended family. But she was also a leader in her community. An educator of two generations of Uticans, she shaped the lives of thousands of young people who passed through her classrooms.
Her story was that of a Lebanese American woman committed to religion, to family, to education and to service of others.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of her father’s coming to the United States as an immigrant from Lebanon. My mother was born eight years later, 1906, in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. It was there that she was educated, worked and spent the first third of her life.
She had always been an independent soul. Early on, we heard from some of her contemporaries that when she was asked to address her high school graduating class, she tore up the speech that had been written for her and delivered, in her own words, a commentary on women’s rights.
My father, who immigrated from Lebanon at the age of 25, was extraordinarily proud of this strong woman. He initially proposed marriage to her when she was 19. At that time, she said no. She wanted to become educated, to develop herself. She did not, as she put it, want to sit back in the kitchen while the men solved problems in the living room.
And so she went to school, worked to support brother Salem through law school, and worked in the family business through the Depression and World War II. Nineteen years later, when she was 38, my father returned to ask her again. This time she said yes.
In 1944, they married and moved to central New York where my father’s mother, four brothers and two sisters had settled and opened businesses. Through all of her years in that community, my mother’s leadership role in the family and community was never in question. For my mother, leadership came through service to others. Her education and her wisdom, and the support of my father, made her a recognized problem solver for the family: whether it was preparation of legal papers, language training for recent immigrants, or providing care, guidance or advice to cousins, nephews or nieces.
My father died when we were still young. Despite the pain and vulnerability, my mother, like so many other strong women, rose to the challenge and provided us not only support and inspiration. She also kept alive for us the memory and values of my father. She continued her work as an elementary school teacher, and she remained active both within the family and in community organizations. My mother spoke three languages, and her conversations were liberally sprinkled with colorful Arabic proverbs (always preceded by “as my mother always would say”) and, in equal measure, quotations from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Spencer and the like. She taught three generations of Zogbys four centuries of family history and would captivate any audience with her delightful stories of the early Arab immigrants to America.
She was above all, a mother to my sister, Selwa, my brother, John and myself, and she provided us with her strength, faith and guidance. She was our teacher, she inspired our achievements and provoked our thinking. My sister followed in her footsteps and has been an outstanding elementary school teacher since 1961. My brother is now one of the leading pollsters and political analysts in the United States.
My advocacy work is also derivative of my mother’s commitment to her heritage and her community. From her earliest years, she was involved in the activities of the Arabic community. She wrote for Arab American newspapers and for several years was an officer in a number of Arab American women’s organizations.
In an early piece written in 1927 at the age of 21, she wrote about the need for the Syrian Americans (as Arab Americans were largely called then) to be proud of their heritage. In criticizing the behavior of some of her generation, she wrote,
“…[M]any of the young generation, and even some of the old, who are in this country only a few years, are ashamed to acknowledge that they are Syrians. They refuse to learn the Arabic language, and if they know it they are reluctant, through shame, to be heard speaking it. They shun Syrian companionship and become inadvertent to Syrian ideals and customs, thinking that by doing so they are becoming Americanized. How, then, can we ever aspire to win the admiration and esteem of our American friends if we do not respect ourselves?…”
Not only did my mother teach us to be proud of our Arab ancestry and its values of hospitality, generosity and service – but she taught us American politics as well. She was a lifelong liberal committed to equal rights for all and compassion for those in need. Throughout the turbulent years of the civil rights movement and the struggle against the war in Viet Nam, my mother, though concerned with our safety, was always proud of our values and our commitment to fairness as we joined in the struggle for social change in America.
My mother’s commitment to her ideals became a source of conversation between President Clinton and myself. The first few times I met with him, I relayed to him advice that my mother would offer and ask me to convey.
The first time we met, for example, she told me to tell him “to behave himself and take care of business because old people needed him to protect social security and Medicare.” He laughed and, on other occasions, would ask ” Has your mother got any advice for me?”
In 1996, my mother, then 90, was interviewed by ABC-TV’s popular “Good Morning America” program on why she, a Catholic, was supporting Bill Clinton. She spoke briefly, but eloquently, of the necessary role of government to provide for those in need, to be compassionate. The President sent a note thanking my mother for her words of support.
When the President spoke to our Arab American leadership conference in May of 1998, he opened his comments with
“I like getting advice from Jim Zogby’s mother. She has a remarkable read on the world.”
It did not surprise me, then, when Bill Clinton, the president who lost his mother only a few years ago, called me the day after my mother’s death. He was sending a note of condolence, but decided to speak with me as well. He spoke of his sorrow at her passing and of the important role that mothers play in our lives. I told him truthfully (my mother always insisted on truth) that she had been angry with him but that she had supported him to the very end. The “get well” note he had sent to her the month before was still proudly displayed on her mantle.
I told the President what she had said only a month earlier when I had been with her in the hospital. At one point, she looked up and saw Ken Starr, the independent counsel who was prosecuting the President, appearing on the TV in her room. “Him,” she said, “Do I have to look at him? Why doesn’t someone kick him and make him pay back the $40 million he’s cost us for his vendetta against the President?”
As I talked with the President and told him more about my mother and what she believed, I reflected on this remarkable tie that binds us all – our mothers, and the profound hole that occurs in our lives when we lose them. His mother had been a nurse in Arkansas, mine a teacher in New York. As different as our backgrounds had been, we shared a common loss and spoke a common language.
The President was not the only one to call or write. Vice President Gore called and Yasir Arafat wrote. My family was gratified by hundreds of faxes and letters from embassies, government and business leaders, friends and former students.
Jesse Jackson reached me at a low point and offered a pastor’s wisdom in consolation. “Don’t give in,” he said, “the measure of her success as a mother will be your ability to rise above the pain to continue to do the great things she inspired you to do.” That is exactly what my mother would have said.
My mother, Celia Ann Zogby, would never have looked at herself as a great woman. She was a mother and a teacher doing what God had put her on earth to do. She wanted no praise, just respect. She simply wanted the lessons she taught to be learned and the love she gave to be shared. In that regard, she was like all mothers. And that was her greatness.
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