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Remembering my Mom, Rochelle Cashdan

May 29th, 2015 · 3 Comments · creativity


NOTE: If you spot any inaccuracies re:dates/details, please let me know at jonnygoldstein@gmail(dot)com.

My Mom, Rochelle Cashdan of Guanajuato, Mexico, died of heart failure after open heart surgery in Cleveland Ohio Friday, May 22, 2015. She was an Anthropologist, writer, culture lover, culture maker, and loving mother of two kids. She was 79 years old and left two sons, a brother, two nieces, two nephews, four grandchildren and many cousins and dear friends.

The daughter of a rabbi and a social worker, Rochelle Cashdan was born in Detroit in 1935, and spent her childhood in London, Ohio, Iowa, and West Virginia. The family mythology is that her father was the 10th of an unbroken line of Rabbis. Grandpa supposedly wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t handle cadavers, so he opted to continue the Rabbinical tradition.

When Mom was four months old, she moved with her parents to London, England, where her dad was offered a job as a rabbi in a reform congregation. Jobs were scarce in the 1930’s so it made sense to take the gig even if it meant moving across an ocean to do so. The start of World War II led Mom and my grandmother to return to the USA via passenger boat. This was not a great time to be taking a boat trip across the Atlantic, as fears of German subs permeated such voyages, but they made it back intact.

When they got back to the USA they lived under the same roof as Mom’s cousin Ralph, Uncle Phil, Aunt Jesse, and her baby brother David until Mom’s father returned from London in 1943.

After being re-joined by her father, they moved to Iowa, where she was in elementary school, and then to Charleston West Virginia. While in high school, Mom wrote for her school newspaper where she was proud to have interviewed the first man to have broken the sound barrier, native West Virginian, Chuck Yaegger.

She excelled at school and was accepted to study at Wellesley College. While at Wellesley, she experienced her first manifestations of bi-polar disorder, which she suffered from on and off from 1954-1973.

From Wellesley, she transferred to the University of Kansas, where she was Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with a degree in History. Rochelle avoided greek life as much as she could and according to her brother, she socialized more with other groups such as international students.

Rochelle moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked as a secretary. She met a young economist (my Dad), Henry N. Goldstein, at a Jewish singles event and they later were engaged and married. Rochelle went to Harvard to receive her Masters in Teaching and returned to D.C. and taught in schools there for four years. The schools were still largely segregated, and most, if not all her students were African American.

Dad left his job at the D.C. Federal Reserve to go into academia. Mom and Dad moved to Pullman in the heart of the Palouse in Washington State. She was an instructor at Washington State University, and gave birth to her oldest son, Joshua, there. She loved the golden rolling wheat covered landscape that surrounded Pullman. She also was a fan of the ice cream that students made from the cows at this land grant school. She went into labor with her my older brother, while on an excursion with visiting in laws, but got back to town in time to deliver him in a hospital.

Later we moved to Eugene Oregon, where she gave birth to me. In 1973, her bi-polar disorder was successfully controlled with lithium, which was a huge change for the better in her life. In Eugene, she formed Lithium Interchange, a pioneering support group for people with bi-polar disorder. She wrote a brief guide to bi-polar disorder, which is still available online and is cited in various academic articles. Its profoundly sensible and I’d recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding how bi-polar disorder plays out for people, even after they get on medication.

In 1974-1975 we lived in Sussex, England for a year. My mom traveled into London to take classes in Medical Sociology.

Back in Oregon, her mood swings stabilized with lithim, she decided to get her PhD in Anthropology. She focused on how Native Americans in Oregon used language in their advocacy at the Oregon State Legislature. Though they conducted their business in English, their rhetorical styles and strategies were deeply rooted in their cultures.

Toward the end of her dissertation and after, she poured a lot of energy into re-designing and supervising the remodeling of our house. The resulting house was a gem, so much so that when we sold the house, the head of the University of Oregon Architecture department bought it. I got to spend a few years under the skylight that she had installed in my bedroom, and I’m grateful to her that I got to grow up under the sky even when I was indoors.

Mom’s bi-polar disorder, as well as some basic incompatibility led my parents to separate in the early eighties, only to get back together when my Dad got a job in Papua New Guinea helping that country run its monetary system. The anthropologist in Mom could not resist, so we joined Dad in this fascinating tropical nation on the other side of the world. While we were there, Mom learned Tok Pisin, a local language with roots in English, German, and indigenous languages. I remember her sympathy for another expatriate family who we barely knew who had suffered a home invasion. We had them over for dinner to try to give them some normal social contact.

By the end of that year, it was clear that Mom and Dad were not going to stay together. Mom moved to Portland Oregon, Dad staying in Papua New Guinea, and I, clamoring to get back to my high school social life, lived with friends of the family in Eugene, trekking up to Portland on the weekends. Once my Dad moved back to Eugene, I moved in with him.

Mom was pretty shattered with the marital split, but she did her best to get some traction socially and professionally in Portland. She got some adjunct teaching work at Portland State University and other area colleges and she taught a class for kids on comic book creation, which was pretty ambitious considering she was not confident about her drawing!

She did have one year where she got some solid work as a researcher for a project on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota after I got out of college. Once the funding dried up, she moved back to Portland.

Portland was not a great fit for Mom. The weather was gloomy, rent kept going up, and the Pacific Northwest culture never really clicked with her. While traveling in Mexico, she passed through a town called Guanajuato. She only meant to stay there for a day, but she tripped and broke a tooth, which caused her to spend several days there so she could get it repaired. During those several days she got to see more of the city, and observed that some adventurous Americans had retired there.

She moved to Guanajuato and used it as her home base the rest of her life. It’s a magical town set in a narrow valley, with the city climbing up the sides. Guanajuato is a global cultural center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with frequent concerts, visual arts exhibitions, dramas, and the largest annual performing arts festival in Latin America. Mom used her press credential as a writer for a local periodical and her blog, Mexiguana, to go to concerts, plays, and exhibits weekly. She got to see and sometimes even hang out with icons who passed through from John Cleese, to David Grossman, to Philip Glass.

Mom’s writing: I am so lucky to have a record of my Mom’s creative and intellectual thought processes in her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much of which is online. Her writing was clear, often full of fun, direct, even when it was subtle. She worked hard on it.

Here’s a poem she wrote about my brother and me, likening us to jars. To this day, I’m not sure which jar is which brother, though I have a guess.

Two sons,
one the more resonant,
the other a clay jar
made for tapping -.

who knows
what beautiful candies
lie inside that jar?

Her fiction tends toward the surreally comic, like this one, Revenge of the Pasta

Here once again is her Guide For People With Controlled Manic-Depressive Disorder

Her blog Mexiguana chronicled cultural life in Guanajuato.

She edited the book Indians of the Northwest. The book brings together oral history, letters, journal entries, and more to tell the story of the “struggle to maintain the right to use these lands and waterways, preserve their sacred ancestral grounds, and continue to live their lives within the framework and traditions of the cultural heritage of the many tribes, which together are called the Northwest Indians.”

Mom was part of many communities. One community she connected with farily recently was a group of Mexicans whose ancestors were Jews who fled the Inquisition to the New World, and who were reviving their Jewish heritage. She enjoyed being included in their celebrations. She knew many academics at the University of Guanajuato, and of course many in the creative community. About half her friends were Mexican and half expatriates. She spoke and read Spanish very well, although she always had a strong American accent.

She was passionate about stopping injustice. She could talk your ear off about the Armenian Genocide, the massacre of Mexican students in 1968, and the way migrants were treated in the U.S. She also was passionate about freedom of speech and freedom from oppressive government action. I still remember her “Question Authority” bumper sticker on her car when I was a kid. Part of her sensitivity to injustice no doubt came from her Jewish heritage, part of it came from living during the civil rights and antiwar movements struggles, and some of it came from her experiences dealing with the medical system, whose understanding of bi-polar disorder was laughable until the early 70’s. She was a regular donor to the ACLU and PEN International and was an active member of PEN, traveling as far as Istanbul to participate in a PEN conference. In recent years she was particularly proud of her cousin Andy Sacher who spearheaded an effort to advance the future of LGBTQ heritage and Culture in Los Angeles.

Before her surgery, I got to be with her for a few days. She said she hoped it was successful, but that if it wasn’t, she was going out on a high note, and did not feel a lot of regrets.

I can see that I’m trying to cram everything about my mother into this one piece of writing, and I can tell I’m barely scratching the surface. Mom gave birth to me, she nursed me, she raised me, and she made her life a powerful example for me and many others. My heart goes out to my Brother, our spouses, our kids, and all of Rochelle’s relatives, friends, and peers. I woke up this morning thinking she is not here. I’m going to miss her.

If you would like to make a contribution in Mom’s name, please contribute to PEN International.


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amy Parness // Jun 1, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Glad we got to meet her in Mexico. Very nice history you wrote. Love to you and your family.

  • 2 Doyle Phillips // Jun 1, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    A wonderful memoir. Gracias

  • 3 Marcia Hager Ramirez // Jun 1, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    I asked Rochelle to give a talk on the Jewish Religion for the women´s group in my Pentecostal Church. She was very kind and agreed to do so. Her talk was very enlightening and enjoyable. She had to give it in Spanish and then take questions and answers too. She handled it very well, of course,We were thinking of having her back again in the future.

    I will miss Rochelle a lot. We were budddies who went out to breakfast quite often at Quinta Las Acacias in the Presa. We always had so much to talk about. I still can´t believe that she is gone.

    Thanks for the history of her life. It was very interesting and told me a lot I didn´t know.