When I was very young I believed my parents were movie stars. Honestly, I really did. Family photos showed them dining in fancy restaurants, sitting with other couples at banquets, everyone dressed for the red carpet. They would have “date nights,” and go dancing at nightclubs with a live band on a stage. (Dancing to a live band! I know! Right?!) I would lie across their bed and watch as my mother dressed, usually in something snug that showed off her tiny waist and bombshell curves. Dad wore a sharp suit and tie, always.
My favorite outfit that my mother wore was an ankle-length black skirt with a slit as high as two inches above her left knee. She usually paired it with a white blouse tucked into the waist, the sleeves of which were slightly poofy with fabric that was fitted from wrist to mid-forearm. Each sleeve had six rhinestone buttons that I believed to be diamonds. I’d mimic her movements as she applied makeup at her dressing table. Mom never left the house without mascara, a “happy” coral lipstick, and a hairpiece that gave her a glamorous bump at the crown of her head, with carefully styled tendrils framing her face.
These were the most important things in our house: books, reading books, and telling each other about the books we read. Every subject was acceptable, from architecture and philosophy to past life regression and hypnotherapy. Acquiring knowledge with an open mind to new information was of the highest importance, and mom made sure we were living right.
A big night out for the entire family meant spending a couple of hours at the library. My younger sister and I would excitedly run off to the children’s reading room, while mom and dad browsed other topics. At the end of the night, all four of us would have stacks of books to take home.
My mother Sheila, intellectual, bon vivant, raconteuse, died on December 3, 2012, at the age of 82. As some of you may already know, she was diagnosed with lymphoma about four years earlier. I wrote about it here: Birthday reflections: cancer, aging and mom.
She was a child of immigrants and grew up in New York City. My grandmother was a milliner (that means she made ladies’ hats, kids), working in Lower East Side sweatshops. My grandfather was a letter carrier, or as he would say proudly, “I worked for the United States government.” The arts were very important in their household, and grandma and grandpa frequently took my mother to galleries, museums, and Broadway shows (you could afford them back then). They saw the original cast performances of Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, The Pajama Game, and pretty much everything else. She saw Consuelo Velázquez (of “Bésame Mucho” fame) and Frank Sinatra sing in movie theaters before the feature started, when they were just kids starting out. She saw Isadora Duncan dance.
My mother was the first person in her family to receive an advanced degree. She graduated from Hunter College with a degree in English (she told me she used to do her homework at the Russian Tearoom), and she studied anthropology with Margaret Mead at Columbia University. Later she earned her Master of Library Science from Southern Connecticut State University. She described herself best when she said, “I am an information specialist. I know everything that anyone would want to know, and if I don’t, then I know where to find out.”
She was an animated storyteller, and very often our bedtime stories were about her adventures when she traveled Europe during the 1960’s to see the art and architecture that she loved. She preferred to just arrive at the airport in London, Rome or Paris, and minutes after getting off the plane she would ask a cab driver or newsstand proprietor to recommend a simple, clean room with hot water. She did all this without a travel agent or discount website. And then she met and fell in love with the handsome Greek sailor who would become my father. I had hoped to videotape her telling these stories, but we never got the chance; the end came too quickly. I’m still working on forgiving myself for missing that opportunity.
Although my husband and I begged her for many years to move in with us, she was ornery and refused until last July. The day she arrived at our house we sat in the sun reading aloud to each other, something we had done since I was a kid. That night she announced with a laugh that she should have moved in years ago, because our house was like a resort!
As I would get ready for work each day she would call out, “OK, let’s see what you’re wearing!” And she would make adjustments to my outfit during our morning fashion show: “Sweetheart, I like that necklace but not with that dress. I think we can do better. Now what about those beads you had on the other day?” She was always right.
And, she refused to compromise when it came to her own wardrobe, even if she was just slowly walking from the bedroom to the living room. One morning, mom glared with disdain at the shirt-and-pants combination that I had set out for her. “You want me to wear that?” she quipped. “I know I’m old, but I’d at least like to wear an outfit.”
I wanted to give her space, let our house be her home, and not make too much of a fuss over her, but within a few days of arriving she quietly asked me if I would “tuck her in,” when she went to sleep. I am so glad that she did. It became our nightly routine, and we shared intimate thoughts and talked about everything, often while watching whatever was on PBS, or taped episodes of “Honey Boo Boo.” She seemed to feel very motherish toward little Boo Boo, and she admired Mama June’s endless enthusiasm to create fun, inexpensive activities for her family.
A couple of months before she passed away, she asked if she could wear old T-shirts of mine to sleep in. She said it made her feel like I was hugging her all night. She began to cry when she said it, and then we had That Talk about death. She said that she wasn’t crying because she was afraid, but because she knew how hard it would be for me and that she hated to see me unhappy. She said that she was ready, and that I had to “let her go.” She didn’t know what was coming next, but she felt certain there was “something,” and that she was ready to find out.
I know that death is a right and natural part of life. I know that she lived a rich and full life. I know that she loved me. And, of course, I am glad her suffering is over. But none of that matters in the middle of the night when I am awakened by the distant sound of her voice calling me, and all I have is this aching in my heart and I want to scream to the heavens because my mother is dead. How can I be expected to know who I am or what I think or even what I want without her to help me analyze and prioritize and understand?
I want her here with me. I want the easy, fun-filled conversations that we had. I want more late-night giggling. I want to feel her adoring eyes on me, telling me that I am beautiful and smart. I want to listen from the kitchen while she and my husband watch programs set during World War II and she shares her memories of growing up in New York City during that time.
And I want to hear her say those things she would always say … about me: “You were a beautiful baby, a devil of a teenager, and now you are an angel.” … about her marriage to my father: “We all make mistakes. But you and your sister made it all worthwhile.” … and about what made life worth living: “Love,” she would say, “is all that matters. That and a good book.”
A few weeks after my mother died, a very dear friend of our family told me something mom had said to her one day while I was out of the room. My friend had recently lost her baby boy. Mom told her that as soon as she “passed over to the other side” she would make sure to look for him first. And that was so like mom, discussing her own death in a way that comforted someone else.
I have endeavored to make this blog a place where I celebrate the twists and turns that come in life, rather than complain about the things that I don’t have. Now that both my parents are gone, I am posting this to begin letting the light back into the place where I have only wanted to cry. I am so very thankful to have this outlet where I can share with you, whomever and wherever you are. (This is that moment at the party when the host gets a bit weepy because she really loves you, man. Really.)
Thank you mom, for telling me that it’s OK to stay at a nice resort as long as I leave the property a few times and meet the real people. Thank you for encouraging me to audition for plays even when I was terrified, and musicals even though I’m not that good a singer. Thank you for giving me curfews, not because you were strict, but because you knew I needed them. You were the best mom I could have had, the perfect mom for me, and I am grateful for you. I won’t say goodbye, because you are still with me.