How I Lost My Mother – by Leslie Swartz

Leslie Swartz (Photo: Umesh Bawa)

Book Review

Leslie Swartz describes his mother, “A person who was ordinary, she had an ordinary life… Elsie Cohen was also an amazing woman, incredibly intelligent, wrote beautifully, was an interesting person, out there in the world, vibrant.”

Dr Swartz is a Clinical Psychologist and professor of Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch, best known for his work in Disability Rights and Mental Health.

A prolific writer in his field, he has also written two memoirs. Ten years ago he wrote Able-bodied, Scenes from a Curious Life that examines his relationship with his late father Alfred;and this year, How I Lost My Mother was published — a candid, engaging and finely-wrought insight into the life of his mother, Elsie Cohen, his relationship with her, and the complex relationships she had with her immediate and extended family. The book also provides much to reflect on in the business of life and death, and Dr Swartz’s field of specialisation speaks loud and clear throughout.

Interweaving the personal, psychological and political, he writes with humanity, humour and uncompromising honesty, conjuring a vivid image of his world growing up, a portrait of his beloved mother; and addresses issues that affect all of us such as identity, agency, caring, dependancy, ageing and dying.

In part one, aptly titled Finding, we get to know Elsie as an unconventional and highly intelligent woman, the laatlammetjie in a financially stretched immigrant family, whose choices in life are severely constrained by the social norms of the day, as well as the family’s lack of resources.

As a young girl, Elsie loved to write stories, a passion that resulted in a trip to Springs one day to meet another little girl whose family also came from Zhager in Lithuania, and who also loved to write stories. The little girl’s name was Nadine Gordimer. The two continued to send stories to each other, and both had their work published in the Johannesburg Sunday Express.

Swartz writes, “As I get closer to and further away from her as I write this, I think of Elsie Cohen as many things — but centrally as a writer, along with the more famous Nadine Gordimer and Anne Frank. Like so many other women before and after her, she has left the telling to others, and in this case to the old man who was once
her son.”

In another poignant and very funny anecdote, Swartz invokes the iconic Goodwill Cookbook as a reference point on which to pivot both Elsie’s connection to her background, and her disconnection from the ‘good Jewish housewife’ that convention dictated she should be.

Part two is called Losing, and deals with Elsie’s old age and eventual death. Although the book is divided into these two parts — finding and losing —the two concepts co-exist throughout the book as Elsie and Leslie continually find and lose parts of themselves, their connection to each other, and to their world.

Elsie loses her husband relatively young (she is 58 years old), and relocates from Johannesburg to Cape Town (where Leslie lives with his family), embracing this new life-stage with enthusiasm. She is strongly independant, making sure that she doesn’t become a burden on her family, and we read of her joy and courage in finding herself anew.

However, when she becomes ill and needs regular care, she moves into Leslie’s home. The relationship takes a turn once again as we read of the impact it has on Leslie. With enormous love, concern and distress at Elsie’s worsening condition, Leslie is thrust into the role of carer, and employer of hired carers; and shares insights into the politics of this role, as he deals with a lack of understanding from colleagues, and the invisibility that characterises this important work of caring.

As Elsie approaches death, Leslie describes that liminal space between life and death that is familiar to anyone who has nursed a loved one in their final days.

The book leaves one with a sense of having met two very special people, and much to think about in terms of family, identity, love and everything else that makes us human.

This book can be borrowed from the Gitlin Library or purchased from The Book Lounge, Exclusive Books,, and

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2021 issue – Download here.

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