Jeanette Hellman Gerber

Areas of Achievement: 
Home Making

Honored By

Honored by: Gerber, David
Date submitted: January 25, 2008
Gift: Engraved Paver, Large

My mother, Jeanette Hellman Gerber (1916-2001), was born in Chicago, but spent a significant part of her childhood in Nogales, Arizona, where she attended some of primary school and several years of high school. She is buried in Tucson. Her father had originally gone to Southern Arizona to work as a clerk for his uncle, who was the founder of the Levy's Department Store Company. This was before Arizona was a state, but he and my grandmother moved to Chicago, at some point before returning to Nogales to work for the Levy's in the 1920s. They would leave again, returning to Chicago during the depths of the 1930's Depression. A gentle and unaggressive man, my grandfather was not especially good at making a living, and this helped to account for the instability of their place of residence. They also lived for a time in Texas and California.

When my mother was growing up in Nogales, there were but a handful of Jewish families. Of these, a number were prominent in local commerce and retailing, but my mother's family was not among them. My mother experienced the feeling of being a marginal person among those who were supposed to be her peers, and she took this feeling into her adult life. It could manifest itself in certain bitter feelings about having been cheated by life -- for example, denied the university education she wanted, but the family could not afford -- or a feeling of shame about once having been, relative to these other people among whom she grew up, poor. When my father took a position on the faculty at the University of Arizona in the 1960s, it was difficult for my mother to reconnect with the people she had once known decades before, and she went to considerable lengths at times to not do so. I discovered some years after my parents moved to Tucson that soon after returning to Southern Arizona, she became friends with a woman with whom she had been in high school, but actually had not told this woman of the past they shared. For her, 'going home' to Southern Arizona produced tensions that I never could have imagined at the time my father took his academic post.

But my mother's sense of being on the margins also led her to see things in singular ways and make judgments, sometimes archly humorous ones, that came much easier to outsiders than to comfortable, secure insiders. I inherited this psychology from my mother and have come to understand that whatever there is in the work I have done as an historian that has been able to offer the world insights into people who lived in distant times and places, I owe greatly to my mother's habits of mind, which lent themselves to the sort of imagination I possess.

With her life commemorated at the Women's Plaza of Honor, I hope my mother can rest somewhat more comfortably in Southern Arizona.