“I love listening to Mama’s stories of people from our own world, from the alte heim, her childhood home in Poland,” Maurice Carr writes early on in his memoir of his mother, Esther Singer Kreitman. “Her eyes, which seem to be gazing at the people back there, blink only once in a while.” Esther may be best known as the sister of I. J. and Isaac Bashevis Singer, but to her son, she was a storyteller, as well as an alternately complex, distant, and loving figure. Carr’s memoir gets quite close to understanding her — even as it reckons with the reality that it is impossible to truly know one’s mother.
The Forgotten Singer follows Esther from a small town in Poland during her infancy to the author’s own childhood in London. Esther instills in him a love of art and the power of creation. One particularly joyful scene depicts the author and his mother listening to a jazz band practicing their set next door. Just like her famous brothers, Esther spends her time crafting and publishing stories about Jewish peasant life. She also brings her son with her to weekly meetings of Jewish literati. One imagines that these evenings spent “listen[ing] to the bickering” influenced Carr’s aesthetic; when he draws on brief vignettes that blend biographical details with bursts of emotion and insight, it’s as if we’ve overheard snippets of a good story in a cafe or on a street corner.
I. J. and Isaac Bashevis Singer are mentioned throughout the book, and there are a few anecdotes that will entice their adoring fans; but, for the most part, this memoir is an ode to a mother and her complex yet underappreciated literary life. A darkness hangs over the book as much as it hung over Esther. It is fitting that Carr’s memoir closes with his own reflections on parenting. His memory of his infant daughter recognizing him as her father is deeply moving: “I witness mystery devoid of fantasy.” In that same spirit, Carr seeks to make the unknowable knowable — or, acknowledging that such an act is impossible, resolves simply to tell the reader a story of someone from our own world.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.