One of the important lessons I learned from my mom's passing is to ask for help (which I'm not good at) and listen to advice from people you respect. My friend Judith suggested that I write something about my mother to read, some remembrances. So I wrote the following, which described Helen pretty well, I think:
What can I say about my mother that I haven’t already said?
When I was growing up, I often longed for a different kind of mother. I wanted the television mother, Donna Reed, the mother on Father Knows Best, the kind of mother who wore nice dresses and aprons and baked cookies. That wasn’t my mother.
My mother couldn’t wait to get back to work and work she did, full time, bookkeeper, accounts receivable. I can just imagine the phone calls my mother made to people who hadn’t paid their bills on time. And I would re-enact them except that there’s a rabbi present.
You can imagine them: “Where the blank is your blanking payment?” She was very good at her job. She should have worked for the mob. She learned a lot of vocabulary words from her oldest brother Abie, who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
My mother had two very handsome older brothers, Abie and Jack, which made her very popular with her girlfriends and she had a beloved younger brother David. David died when he was 13 or 14 – he got into a fight. I’m sure that absolutely shattered their family. And then ten or fifteen years later she lost her beloved mother, our grandmother Rose, whose greatest joy, besides her children, was to go to the movies.
My mother often complained (loudly) about my dad, Lew, who was as eccentric in his own way as my mother. They truly were both characters (and great material for me as a writer.) They are now immortalized in two plays.
I think in their own way they loved each other. I know he adored her.
On the weekends, all the fathers on our block would get out their lawnmowers and mow the lawns and my mother would mow ours. One summer she dug up the entire front lawn to put down sod. New lawn in squares. She did it by herself. My father knew where the car keys were and where the couch was, he had no interest in getting his hands dirty.
She had a full time job, she did the gardening, the cleaning, the cooking, the laundry and she had very little help. Dale and I had enough to do with studying for school (this is me being sarcastic).
My mother hated to travel – she always said there was no place like home - and then when I moved to California and she finally came to visit, she fell in love with it and always wanted to come for a couple of weeks. That’s when I moved back to NY.
When my father died nineteen years ago, we all thought, “Oh, no, how’s she going to live alone?” It took her a year to adjust and then at 77 she entered one of the happiest periods of her life. She became a volunteer at the hospital, drove her 1987 silver Honda Accord all over town, had Sunday brunch with her friends, Maddie and Lenore, did crossword puzzles, watched Judge Judy religiously and continued gardening.
She did really well for a long time, until she started to get sick a few years ago. And then she fought for life with an amazing ferocity, through countless illnesses and two hospices stays.
My mother had certain beliefs that were fairly unshakable. She hated people from the Bronx, they were too fancy, she said. My father’s family was from the Bronx. She was Brooklyn all the way. She was a solid Democrat, but felt sorry for Richard Nixon when he resigned. She believed that it was important to always look your best no matter how bad you felt. Lipstick and red cowboy boots were essentials. She believed that you can judge a book by its cover.
She loved men but not OLD men and once, about six months ago, she informed me that she and a twenty something year-old very handsome aide at the nursing home were engaged to be married. She wondered should they announce it in the NY Times? And would I mind? And she didn’t even really have dementia. Maybe they were engaged? Maybe he thought she was rich?
My mother taught me to be myself. To not care about what people think of you. To do what you love, and do it with passion and enthusiasm. To be honest (except when you play solitaire, then you can cheat). To work hard. Harder than anyone else.
And to never never never give up. They attribute those words to Winston Churchill, but I think it was really my mother who said them first.
Mom, it’s time to rest. It’s okay. You’ve earned it.
At the end, the Rabbi reminded us that my mother had lived almost a century. And that was an amazing accomplishment.