To misquote The Beatles, When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary does not come to me. The question, WWHD, or What Would Hilda Do, is what I often ask myself instead.
Hilda Bernstein was my great-aunt, my father’s aunt, and his mother’s sister-in-law, to make things clear (or not). She was quite the dame, as they used to say. Razor-sharp wit and very intelligent; the woman could swear in two languages (English and Yiddish), frequently in the same sentence. She didn’t really have a filter, though in polite company or with people she did not know, she certainly knew how to behave. And the gal had a sense of style and presence (her daughter, whom I still speak to and visit, inherited these qualities, minus the contentious conversational ability). Hilda was bold and unafraid of speaking her mind, regardless of how you or anyone else felt about it.
It’s funny how my dad used to threaten to take my brothers and I to her house and leave us there when we behaved badly; looking back on it, that would have been the best idea ever. A few days with her would have been an education into how people think and feel when unfettered by society’s rules regarding political and social correctness. She wasn’t overtly racist or particularly anti-anything, but she was a product of her genteel generation, her upbringing by Holocaust-era survivor parents, and the white-washed society clashing with the rising minority voices of the turbulent times of the 1960s and 1970s.
I think of her often these days (she and her beloved husband Moe are long gone) when I see politicians behaving badly on TV, puberty hormone-raging protesters destroying public property, gun violence against innocent school children and teachers, or even entitled shoppers throwing tantrums and making threats at a store because a clerk wasn’t quick enough or an item they wanted was out of stock. I know that she would be outraged and yell right back, even though it was likely right back at the TV. She would give them at least a piece of her mind (and then some) in two languages. But she would never take a swing at someone, never mind that she was one tall and tough lady. She wouldn’t stoop to vulgarity or meanness, though she could be intimidating. Hilda harks back to a time when it was OK to call out bad behavior and expect better, rather than excuse it, tolerate it, or worse, encourage it as a means of entitled self-expression.
I miss Hilda.