That Time My Mother Was a Total Badass

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded.

I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is how a young Jewish couple, born and raised in West Philadelphia, chose to adopt a baby—unseen—in the summer of 1966. Elaine Kohn married David Louis Berger in January 1960; their future looked incredibly bright. However, my soon-to-be-legal mother suffered a series of reproductive tragedies over the next five years, ending her ability to bear children of her own.

By a happy coincidence, today—March 8, 2021—is both International Women’s Day and my older sister Mindy’s 59th birthday. Mindy was the only “natural” child of Elaine and Lou Berger. Unfortunately, multiple causes—including birth trauma—resulted in Mindy having what once was called “severe mental retardation.” I tell this story at the end of Chapter 3 (Golden Boy Marries Golden Girl: What Could Go Wrong?).

Today, however, I share the moment when my mother—who died from ovarian cancer at the age of 66 in 2004—proved what an utter badass she could be when necessary.

Please enjoy.

Mindy finds a permanent home.

As this photograph illustrates, Mindy and I got along reasonably well as children. Still, our playing together consisted almost entirely of me taking advantage of her echolalia to get her to repeat words like “Yugoslavia” or “Czechoslovakia.” While I was not trying to be a brat, I quickly stopped when she began to shift from patient compliance to agitation. Even as a child, she was incredibly strong. One of the few things that would calm her—besides eating—was driving around the neighborhood, singing show tunes or popular songs she knew. When she was in her 20s and 30s, it usually required the assistance of one or two strong male orderlies to get a screaming and crying Mindy out of the car after a ride. This was physically and emotionally draining for everyone involved.

Author with his sister, c. 1971. I sit in my father’s seat. I usually sat on the lower right-hand side.

My mother often quipped drive-thru restaurants were invented just so she could feed Mindy without having to get out of the car. Little has changed in 50 years: the routine when I visit my sister is to take her on a three-plus-hour-long drive through Bucks County, eating tuna fish sandwiches I purchase at a local WAWA convenience store, listening to the original 1964 cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof as well as more contemporary music, and stopping briefly for pizza and a bathroom break in the town of Buckingham. With her current medication regimen, which makes her far more placid, these visits are far less stressful than they used to be.

Indeed, my mother needed help with Mindy from the start; our childhood babysitter, the ancient-seeming Mrs. Schumann, would only come to our house if Mindy was already asleep. Reportedly, Mindy climbed naked out of the bathtub one afternoon and ran out of the house onto Sue Ellen Drive. Luckily, cars rarely drove down our quiet street. The one person to whom Mindy would listen was our father. Increasingly, however, he was staying out late playing cards with friends. One night, my mother asked her husband to stay home to help soothe their screaming daughter. My father supposedly replied, “If you’re mad, you’ll stay mad. If not, you’ll get glad” then left the house—and an enraged wife.

Left mostly to her own devices, my mother began a years-long search for a day program or residential facility which could handle Mindy’s intellectual challenges and violent outbursts. Around 1969, when Mindy was seven years old, she began to photocopy dozens of pages from official publications of listings of mental retardation facilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware. I still have those marked-up pages.

The first schools Mindy attended, according to her annual Life Enrichment Plan (LEP), were “Robins Nursery School” for three years and “Raphael Day School” for nine months. I use quotation marks because I find no record of them in my mother’s facility listings. In November 1970, Mindy enrolled in a day program in the Douglas T. Davidson, Jr. School at the Elwyn Institute, a 20-minute drive south from Havertown. According to a progress report, she did well at Elwyn, mastering short sentences and generally keeping up physically, despite her burgeoning weight problem. The report also highlights her penchant for music and preference to withdraw in large crowds, both still true today. However, sometime after January 15, 1971—when “Mrs. D. Louis Berger” signed the 1st Period Parent’s Comments section, Mindy transferred to the Melmark School, a 20-minute drive west from Havertown in Newtown Square. The explanation: “Although a structured behavioral program was initiated, there was no implementation consistency across the home and school environment.” Put simply, my parents were not practicing what Elwyn preached.

Melmark is the first facility I remember visiting; I loved turning left off Darby-Paoli Road onto the long tree-lined road leading to it. Mindy was enrolled there until June 1973, when she was “discharged due to behaviors described as uncontrollable (i.e., tantrums and self-abuse).” Photographs taken on, or within a few days of, June 30, 1973, show Mindy frolicking in our backyard pool.

Now 11 years old, she was taken next to the Martha Lloyd Residence—now Martha Lloyd Community Services—in Troy, Pennsylvania. I recall this was “practically in New York;” Troy is about 10 miles south of the New York State line, some 187 miles north and slightly west of Havertown. Moving Mindy that far from home underscores how desperate things had become. She lasted only two months there, as “she was quickly discharged due to poor emotional control.” Mindy was then admitted to the Intermediate Unit Program at Crozier-Chester Medical Center, about 12 miles south in Chester, where she required 24-hour supervision. Residential placement was recommended, and in February 1974, Mindy was enrolled in the Van Hook-Walsh School for Retarded Children—which my mother misremembered as “Margaret Van Hook School”[i]—in Middletown, Delaware, just over 50 miles southwest of Havertown. Unfortunately, the school was in a residential area and neighbors complained about her waking up screaming during the night. Mindy “reportedly” was discharged in June 1974, according to her LEP, despite “doing well with the program.”

Once Mindy returned home from Delaware, meanwhile, “her mother became overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for her daughter and her ailing husband and subsequently sought residential placement.” And here, the written record conflicts with my memory, making interrogation difficult. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 in Atlantic City, with my father driving from Philadelphia most weekends. This could only have happened if a) Mindy was living in a residential facility the entire summer, and b) my father was healthy. As I noted above, his first two heart attacks occurred before 1974.

I propose this scenario: My father has his second heart attack in June 1973, just as Mindy is discharged from Melmark. If Mindy was in fact sent home from Van-Hook Walsh in September 1974, my mother could simply have confused this with my father’s heart attack when recalling the events a few decades later—saying incorrectly Mindy returned home in June 1974. This would also mean my mother, after spending a relaxing summer in Atlantic City, returned to the news Mindy had been discharged from her seventh different school. Luckily, however, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was about to throw my mother a lifeline.

In October 1966, a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (“DPW”) official announced “plans to build a youth development center and a hospital for mentally retarded children”[ii] on the grounds of the Philadelphia State Hospital, which then straddled the Roosevelt Boulevard in northeast Philadelphia, just a few hundred yards south of the Bucks County line. By the following July, plans for the proposed “Southeastern State School and Hospital for Retardates” were nearly complete: it would serve 500 children of varying levels of developmental severity on a campus featuring air-conditioned “housing units, an administration building, a shop, chapel, gymnasium and pool” at a proposed cost of $10 million (over $76.5 million in 2019).[iii]

The goals were to reduce overcrowding in other state facilities and “to bring mentally retarded persons of all ages closer to their community […and] concentrate on outpatient care and vocational training when possible.”[iv] It was completed in the summer of 1972, at a final cost of $11.7 million (nearly $90 million in 2019) and scheduled to open early in 1973 on a 72-acre site on the eastern side of Roosevelt Boulevard between Southampton and Woodhaven Roads.[v] Taking a cue from its southern border, in fact, it had been renamed the Woodhaven Center (“Woodhaven”). It would be run jointly by DPW and Temple University’s School of Social Administration.

Woodhaven did not open until January 1974, though, following months tackling leaking roofs, contract negotiations with Temple and budgetary setbacks. By September 1974, when my mother had reached her breaking point, it already housed at least 83 students, far fewer than planned.[vi] Nonetheless, when my mother tried to enroll Mindy in Woodhaven, entry was delayed for…reasons.

What happened next is the stuff of legend.

As I understand the story, around lunch time one day at the end of November 1974, my mother and Mindy again sat in an office—presumably at Temple—trying to overcome bureaucratic delays. This time, however, after 13 years of caring for her increasingly-hard-to-manage daughter, 36-year-old Elaine Berger snapped. Instead of continuing to keep Mindy quiet and still, she simply let her do what she wanted. Freed from restraint, Mindy ran around the office screaming, hurling papers in the air and generally disrupting office proceedings. Then my mother, rage barely kept in check, said to the person with whom she had been discussing her daughter, “I am going to bring Mindy back here every single day until you admit her.” And, just like that, Mindy entered Woodhaven on December 3, 1974, where she remains well-cared for still. Her official reason for entry, tellingly, was a “need to reduce aggressive behaviors such as screaming, scratching and attacking others.”

With Mindy in Woodhaven, her husband healthy and John Rhoads successfully relocated, my mother could truly relax for the first time in nearly 15 years. She had apparently begun to do so illicitly in 1970; my mother would later jokingly tell me I could not smoke pot until I was 32, because that was when she started. Before Mindy exits this narrative for good, however, we will learn how she saved our lives.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[i] The school, which later became Boxwood Manor, apparently closed in 2014 Accessed August 19, 2019

[ii] “2 State Centers To Be Built on Byberry Land,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), October 16, 1966, pg. NE 1

[iii] Eady, James, “Hospital for Retarded Youth To Be Constructed at Byberry,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 30, 1967, pg. NE 1

[iv] “School for Retarded Battles Obstacles to Opening in Spring,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), January 14, 1973, pg. 3 N-W

[v] Smith, Jim, “Woodhaven Offers Retarded Hope,” Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, PA), November 15, 1973, pg. 33

[vi] “83 Enter Meet For Retarded,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), September 15, 1974, pg. 8-B

8 thoughts on “That Time My Mother Was a Total Badass

    1. Thank you! Now, what does Mabel the Menace have to say about it? I very much want to stay on her good side. 🙂

      As I continue to try to convince one agent–any agent–to represent me, I expect to publish a series of “That Time My…” excerpts.

      Stay tuned.


      1. Oh you do. She bites the hand that feeds her. Daily.🤣 And just when you think it just a world of closing doors that person is going to run right into you, full force papers flying, iPhone crying–Zoom meetings be send! Like a unicorn riding in its first Tesla, cotton candy name flowing behind him, Instagram filters like magic in the air….oh fuck it. What I’m trying to say is that person that is going to fit you like a glove (metaphorically speaking of course! As your wife rolls her eyes at these words😂). It will happen. I can feel it. I also feel Mabel’s claws in the skin of my kneecap so I must leave you now. You got this my friend. You got this.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Nell will be thrilled to have an agent fit me like a glove…she will do the fitting herself, if necessary. 🙂

        You know what’s funny?

        Almost in the same breath that I give into the woe–is-me, whiny, self-pitying despair and existential dread of “Everybody knows the literary agent secret password except me!” I find myself blocking out movie scenes from the inevitable Netflix series in my head.

        “How are they going to reproduce the Oakford covered bridge, John Rhoads Company, Metropolitan Hospital, and the BC Middle School cafeteria?”

        “Do we try to film in Poland, Latvia and Ukraine, or start with the S.S. Tongariro arriving in Quebec City in May 1899?”

        “Do I do the voice-over narration–since I already recorded the audiobook?”

        And, most important, “Can I get Cole Sprouse to play high school/college me?” This would thrill our daughters to no end. Well, I would be pretty tickled as well. I know he is too old, but…

        It is like I know this will all work out very well, but I have absolutely no clue how we will get there. None. And that terrifies me.

        Sigh. I am usually the one that models serene confidence for everybody else. It is a humbling switch having others do it for me.

        Thank you thank you thank you. And, again, thank you.

        Now get some Neosporin on your kneecap, stat!


  1. First, I am sorry you were rejected but don’t give up! I am so surprised by this story. Do you know what I did until I retired 1-1/2 years ago? I was self employed as an Independent Provider for the developmentally disabled adults! I took my clients out into the community to eat and shop. We hiked and spent time in nature. I gave respite care to the parents when they needed a break or wanted to get out of town. I remember the days when the developmental people were called retarded. Today that name is taboo as I’m sure you know. There is so much being done to give them the rights they deserve including group homes, not institutions. I’m sure you know all this but all this time following you and I never had a clue how much we had in common!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I mean this as a compliment: I am not at all surprised you worked with developmentally-disabled adults. I have no intention of giving up–as Chuck Schumer says, “Failure is not an option.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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