Sydell Weiner, PhD

My Mother’s Story

My Mother's Story
Janet Kay-Horowitz, 1946

Losing a mother in childhood leaves many unanswered questions. My mother’s story has been pieced together from faded memories, old photographs and isolated anecdotes. I hope it does justice to the woman I knew for only 14 years. 

We are all shaped by our history, and Janet’s was shaped by love. But it was also laced with trauma, the kind that passes from one generation to the next. Janet’s parents were forced to leave their homes when the Russian Empire expelled the Jews in 1911. Her father, Abraham Kay (Kossofsky) emigrated from Kiev, and her mother, Edith Garelick, from Belarus.

They landed in New York and were married on December 22, 1913, when Edith was 17 and Abe was 21. As immigrants they had to learn a new language and scramble to find a means of support. Edith’s sisters were married and scattered to different parts of the country. But Abe had a cousin in Rochester, so that’s where they settled.

Their first child was stillborn and their 2nd, a son, died from spinal meningitis. But my mother was born on May 5, 1917, and they named her Janet. My guess is that after losing her first two babies, she was afraid to get too attached. And yet, three years later, Alice was born and Beverly six years after that.

Rochester is a beautiful city upstate New York, where Janet learned to appreciate opera and horseback riding. She was a good student, but by the time she was 12, the family moved 300 miles away. Abe wanted to open his own factory in the garment district, and that meant living in Brooklyn.

Janet adored her father and made friends easily, so the move went smoothly for her. She was pretty, poised and popular, and by the time she was in high school she attracted the attention of many young men. She attracted the attention of many young men. She was also a born leader and took great satisfaction in running a girls’ club for teenagers who needed a big sister.

1937, she met Milton Horowitz. He may not have been as wealthy as some of her boyfriends, but he had a great sense of humor and was smart as a whip. She was the refined, beautiful girl from Rochester falling in love with the boy from the lower east side. But Milton had just finished law school, and he showered her with attention, kept her laughing and made her feel like the most beautiful girl in the world. It was clear they were a match and they got married on March 24th, 1939, in New York City when Janet was 22 and Milt was 25.

Janet & Milton Wedding

The wedding was an exquisite, formal affair with nine bridesmaids in matching silk gowns and nine groomsmen in tuxedos. Janet and Milton were both the oldest in their respective families, and her parents loved him immediately. Wages were low in 1939, but Milt got a raise to $6.00 a week as a law clerk when they got married and Janet worked as a bookkeeper. They honeymooned in Florida and returned to an apartment in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.

They lived on the same block as her sister Alice and husband Jess, and they all became best friends. This made her first year as “Janet Horowitz” especially fun, and on May 6th, 1943, it got even better. One day after her 26th birthday, Nancy Roberta was born, and the couple became a family. The war in Europe was escalating and Milt thought he’d be exempt from serving since he was a lawyer and had a new baby. Nevertheless, when Nancy was 6 months old Milt was drafted into the Army.

Janet followed her husband to North Carolina while he was in basic training. But when he was shipped overseas in 1944, she returned to New York and worked for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services). It was difficult raising her daughter alone, but when Milton returned in 1946, they went on a 2nd honeymoon to Miami Beach to celebrate.

Their 2nd daughter, Sydell Sally, was born on February 18, 1947, when Janet was 29 years old. Alice and Jess had 2 sons the same age as Janet’s daughters, so everyone shared responsibilities. It was a happy time for her, being close to family and staying home with her girls. Milt was doing well in his law practice in Manhattan, and they even snuck away on a vacation in 1951 to Toronto and Lake George, where Janet got to do some horseback riding. But when Milt bought her a mink coat, she knew she had arrived. In the 1950’s it was a huge status symbol, and she was proud to be the wife of a successful lawyer.

Janet was ambitious, not only for herself but her daughters. Nancy was especially pretty, and Janet took her into Manhattan to get professional pictures so she could do some modeling. Nancy did well and when Sydell turned five, Janet got pictures for her too. But by 1952 the family was moving to the suburbs of Long Island and going 30 miles into the city for photo shoots was just too much. The new house in Mineola was Janet’s dream, and when they moved in, she couldn’t have been happier.

Although they didn’t see their families quite as often, they all still got together many times a year for the Jewish holidays. There were always at least 20 around the table, the food was plentiful and the atmosphere warm. Once Janet settled into suburban life, she and Milt got involved in the building of a new synagogue. My mother became President of the Sisterhood and began volunteering at many charitable organizations. She was a candy striper at Long Island Jewish Hospital and became President of the local chapter of The United Cerebral Palsy Association. She was great at organizing meetings and events and loved entertaining friends at her home.

On a December morning in 1954, however, she got a phone call that rocked her world. Her father, Abraham Kay, had been found dead in his factory. They assumed it was a heart attack, but when they arrived the next morning, he was hanging from a rope, having taken his own life. He had an unpaid loan cosigned by my father, and no way to pay it back. Was he embezzling money from the business, or was there a long-term issue with depression? Although we’ll never know the answers, I do know that his was traumatic for Janet. But true to the immigrant culture, she fought to maintain a façade and kept the shameful secret to herself.

There is a lot written about the relationship between mind and body when it comes to disease. Could the trauma of her father’s suicide have activated a dormant genetic anomaly? Regardless of the root cause, in February of 1956, when Janet was 38 years old, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She was a no-nonsense woman, and matter-of-factly told her daughters that she was going to the hospital to have a breast removed. Nancy was 12 and Sydell was 8, but the word “cancer” was never used, and she reassured them that everything would be fine.

Janet recovered well and life continued as if nothing had gone wrong. In 1956 you couldn’t put an ad in the New York Times for a Breast Cancer Support Group, because it contained 2 words that were censored: breast and cancer. So, to help other women who’d had the same surgery, she visited them in the hospital to encourage them to get well. Janet continued her normal routine and several months later the whole family went on a vacation to Washington D.C. It was a great trip where everyone had fun, and no mention was made of her recent mastectomy.

There was no chemotherapy in those days, and radiation was only done sporadically. And by 1957, there was a lump in the other breast. Janet’s hospital work came to a sudden halt. The doctor told Milt that it was probably the breast cancer coming back. Without including Janet, the doctor and Milt chose to treat it with radiation and avoid further surgery. I know it’s astounding by today’s standards, but in those days, husbands made decisions for their wives. They often decided if the wife should even be told the truth about her diagnosis. Janet was not told.

By the end of 1958 the atmosphere around the home changed as the cancer silently progressed. Janet’s health and state of mind were both unpredictable. She was in and out of the hospital, one day quite ill, and the next getting dressed in nylons and heels to attend a Charity Luncheon. On her bad days she was short tempered and frequently irritated by her daughters, who were also kept from the truth. She yelled at them and seemed to blow up over the smallest infractions. On her good days, however, she would play her opera records and bustle around the house. She continued to get her long, beautiful nails manicured in her signature bright red, and she also remained ambitious for her girls.

In 1959, she took 12-year-old Sydell into Manhattan to enroll her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Nancy had been the model, but Sydell would be the actress. Going alone on the train into the city was fun for Sydell and kept her distracted from what was going on at home. Janet was weakening, but she still had her good days.

She was proud of her daughters and enjoyed planning Sydell’s Bat Mitzvah in February of 1960. At 42, she remained a gracious hostess and looked beautiful at the party. In some of the pictures one of her eyes seems to be closing. The cancer had reached her brain by that time, and nobody said a word. Several months later when Janet became so sick she had to be rushed to the hospital, the cover up continued. It was hepatitis, she was told, and everyone went along.

By February of 1961, Janet had more bad days than good. But she and Milt celebrated the 5-year anniversary of her mastectomy, as evidence that she was cancer free and getting well. But by May, she had taken a turn for the worse. One afternoon, she got out of bed to go to the bathroom and was so weak that she fell right there on the floor. Sydell called in a neighbor to help her up and Milt subsequently hired a nurse’s aide to assist during the day. No conversation took place in the family. Milt went to work, and the girls went to school, and it was never acknowledged that she was dying of cancer.

Inevitably, on May 26th, 1961, just weeks after turning 44, Janet Kay Horowitz passed away. She left two daughters, then 14 and 18, with no explanation or words of goodbye. Did she know she was dying? Did she know that the cancer had returned in 1957? Or was the need to be strong more important than the truth? Cancer was whispered about in those days, and breast cancer in particular was stigmatized as a curse. There were no marathons, pink ribbons or celebrities trumpeting their cause. There were only secrets and lies. And in that environment the life of my mother was cut short.

Just as illness was kept secret in the 1950’s, so was grief. After she died, my father couldn’t talk about her, so my sister and I followed suit. The memories faded and the subject became taboo. But her life mattered and she deserves to be remembered. Janet Kay Horowitz was a beauty in her youth, a leader in her community, ambitious for her children and a proud and loving wife. My mother was tall and slim and always confident in social situations. She loved her parents, her sisters and their children, and was equally warm to her husband’s extended family. She was strong and efficient, always looked her best and did what was expected. I remember her cooking dinner every night in high heels and dresses, and she never complained about it.

My mother left behind a beautiful legacy. Her husband of 22 years found love again and continued to make people laugh. Nancy had 3 children, all of whom distinguished themselves in their careers, and 4 grandchildren that Janet would have loved.

I became a Drama Professor, thanks to my mother’s push, and then a Marriage and Family Therapist. My son is a rabbi, a hospital chaplain and a leader in his community. My daughter has the poise and confidence of her grandmother, with a successful career to boot. Between the two of them I have 7 amazing grandchildren. Janet Horowitz’s life was all too short, but as her youngest daughter, I will always honor her memory.

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