My Yiddishe Mama: The Best Paralegal Ever
“Yes, that’s right dear. Preparation H. It will do wonders for you. I’m amazed your doctor never mentioned it to you. You’ll feel like a new person!”
I could not believe my ears. My mother, Lea Felts, who had been my paralegal for four years at that point, knew better than to give legal advice. But there she was giving medical advice? How could this be?
“Mom, what are you doing?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, putting the phone back on the receiver, “that was Mary. She had to cancel her appointment because her piles (AKA hemorrhoids for those born later than 1960) are just agonizing. I know you need to do trial prep, so I told her what worked for me.” This led to my taking Mom down for daring to cross the line – I did not have medical malpractice insurance, after all. She clucked, noting, “I’m still a Jewish mother, you know.”
I begged my mother to come to work for me shortly after I hung out my own shingle as a lawyer and declared that I would have my own practice. Valedictorian of her high school class, she’d married young. Like every good Jewish mother, Lea put the needs of her children first, raising my brother, the doctor, and me, the lawyer, to be inquisitive and precise.
As my mother was ever punctual, my brother Bruce and I were seven years apart to the day – Bruce never forgave me for crashing his seventh birthday party. Mother had one condition to coming to work for me, that she receive, “shopping perks at Neiman Marcus until you can afford to really pay me.” As mother had a penchant for lopping off zeros at the end of price tags, that was a fairly scary proposition.
I practice family law. And for 16 years, I kept my practice all in the family with Mom.
The first trial I had after Mom came to work for me, she worked diligently at preparing a trial notebook. She’d actually returned to work after my stepfather passed, in 1985. And she’d gone to work for a civil litigator.
I graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1983. I opened my office in January 1990. Mom came to work for me a month later.
Civil litigation and family law cases are somewhat different. I took one look at the trial notebook that she’d worked on so diligently (this being 10:00 p.m. the evening before trial), and declared it “a shambles. This is abysmal. I have to start over,” I said. Mom drew herself up to her full five feet and one inch, loomed over the desk, and quietly asked, “Just who do you think you are talking to that way?”
When Mama was angry she did not yell. She went quiet. And when she was really miffed, it was the silent treatment until we figured out for ourselves what we’d done wrong. I rejoined her with “Why my paralegal of course. I’d never address my mother that way.” We both giggled. We reworked the notebook together. I won the trial. And I happily paid for her ensuing shopping expedition at Neiman’s.
When I was in law school, I was in a car wreck shortly before summer vacation preceding my third year. I’d broken several ribs. We’d already paid for summer school classes to lighten my load for my last year, since I’d been invited to participate in Criminal Clinic, a demanding coup. Jean Jury, known as “Dean Jean,” secretary to the Southern Methodist University Law School Dean, was quite curt in response to a phone call inquiring if the school might refund tuition for the summer courses.
Mom suggested that she attend in my stead, until I recuperated, and tape record the classes. Dean Jean consented, if Mom got the professors to agree. Not only did she get them to agree, she took great delight in reading the material, as the professors took a shine to calling on her to get her sachel, or common sense. And she was thrilled that several students actually took turns schlepping the textbooks for her. These were all men of course. I reckon those lessons stuck, as she came up with some pretty good ideas on cases through the years.
Though we looked alike, my mom’s last name and mine were different. Few clients pieced together that we were mother and daughter. This was prior to the prevalence of email. Clients phoned with much more frequency. Occasionally, after multiple calls, one might say “Gee, did anyone ever tell you that you and Elisa sound just alike?” Mom would chortle, dismissing the observation with “Oh, I guess when you’ve worked for someone long enough, you start to sound like them.”
I had a lovely client who was having a very hard time with her divorce. Sadly, she’d come to rub her husband the wrong way. Her husband had hired an “extra hand” at their antiques business who proceeded to rub said husband the right way. The client would wear an olive Joan Vass turtleneck and slacks. She’d go to see her psychologist, and then she’d come to see us. And she’d weep. She said that was why she was always in the same outfit, as it “hid” her tears.
It was hard to get basics like tracing separate property and characterization through to a weeping client. So, the client and I were conferring in my office behind closed doors, and my standing rule was that when it was someone’s “turn,” there were to be no interruptions unless a judge called. Fifteen minutes in, there was a knock at the door. It was Mom.
The client had been crying, and, being overwhelmed, she blew her nose hurriedly. Mom proceeded to toddle in, hands behind her back. She pulled out a lovely bouquet (sent by another client), and said, “I just thought this might brighten the day.” She turned to the client and said “You know, Elisa gets things like that from happy clients all the time.”
The client looked at me, looked at mom, and looked back at me, then smiled, stopped being furmished (confused/overwhelmed) and said, nodding towards Mom, “She’s your mother, isn’t she?” That client paid attention from that point forward. That client gave us tzchotchkes (knick knacks) to say thank you at the end of her case – so many followed that it took an armoire to house them all. The client also invited Mom and me to her Pesach Seder that year and endured my analogizing her ex-husband to Pharaoh.
Clients might not have recognized that Mom was my mom, but amusingly enough, most addressed her as “Mom” soon after hiring us.
Our landlord, Randy, was initially less than happy with the notion that my mother worked for me. We’d signed with 14 months left on the building lease, hoping that we might move along with the firm at the end of the lease. I fretted whether we’d be included. Imagine Mom’s joy as she marched in to advise me that “Randy came in and said that they are moving. He said that I am going with them. Oh, and he mentioned that you can come along too if you like.” Randy confirmed that he presented the invite just that way. And I spent 16.5 years practicing with Randy, who liked to remind me, “I keep you here because of your mother, you know.”
My mom always had a reassuring smile. She’d admonish the clients with that smile and say, “Don’t talk about your spouse to others during the divorce. It can come back to bite. And after you’ve divorced, they’re a stranger to you. What good does it do to speak poorly of strangers?”
Mom left the practice when my son, Alex, came along in 2006. She morphed from paralegal to “Nana the nanny.” She had that boy reciting the alphabet at 18 months and reading at three and a half. Alex made her kvell (swell with pride) most of all, though she still put up with my war stories.
Mom had wit. Mom had wisdom. Mom always had the right words. Oh, and the client who had cancelled her appointment due to difficulty with hemorrhoids? She practically danced in the following week, pecked Mom on the cheek, and presented mom with a gift, declaring “She did more for me than any of my doctors have!” That cost me a pair of Manolo Blahniks from Neiman’s for Mom, who preened both at the client’s compliment, and the opportunity to remind me just how to treat my Yiddishe mama, paralegal extraordinaire.