Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I Remember Mama...

As Mother's Day approaches, I become increasingly sentimental. Here's a column I wrote last year for my mother's birthday.....

As I write this, my mother would have been 85 today. Her late September birthday would herald the cooler days she looked forward to after an un-airconditioned summer in the city. We’d celebrate surviving July and August along with her birthday as I was growing up.

Birthdays were simple and gifts were modest but if I had provided her with the kind of festivities she deserved, there would have been a marching band, thousands of balloons restrained in nets until the exciting moment of release and a call from the president.

My mother was born in the house I grew up in, in Brooklyn. One would never have guessed that her first language wasn’t English because she spoke it better than most.

She loved words and was an amazing writer who wrote fairy tales, poetry, short stories and letters that were so entertaining that no one lucky enough to receive one, ever threw it away. She was also a gifted artist whose drawings and paintings hang on my walls. Come over and I’ll show them to you.

She attended the Arts Student’s League in Manhattan and won an award, presented by Fiorello LaGuardia, for designing a coat that was produced and sold in Macy’s. When I was growing up, every single morning for about ten years, there would be a new, freshly drawn cartoon scotch-taped to the mirror in the bathroom.  It was a running comic strip starring our cats and I began every single day with laughter.

I have them all in a book now and when I need to, I bring it out and laugh and cry for a while.

She was a single mother way before it was the norm and, until the fifth grade, I was the only child in school whose parents were divorced.

We moved back to the house where my grandparents, aunts and uncle lived and I was treated like a princess by everyone within its’ sheltering walls. My mother saw to it that I wanted for nothing. It was a struggle for her but I was so busy being bounced from knee to knee that I didn’t notice.

Things, then, were repaired not tossed out once they broke, frayed or faded and she covered my books in paper supermarket sacks and made sure I used both sides of my notebook’s pages. She also made her own patterns and sewed my clothes. I would have been the best-dressed girl in Queen Victoria’s England.

The things she made were fabulous but insanely out-of-style and once I was old enough to realize this, I was pretty conflicted.

She came to her senses in time for my adolescence, thank God.  I got my first job then and have paid for my own clothes ever since.

Money was tight but books, records and an occasional trip to Broadway (we paid $4 for a mezzanine seat) were always squeezed into the budget.  By the time I was a teen, I’d seen Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, the original cast of Man of La Mancha and had enjoyed my share of ballets and concerts.

We’d always eat a pretzel from a cart on the street afterward or stop into a cafeteria on Broadway called Hector’s which is long gone but upon whose smooth railings I would slide my tray, still humming the music from the show. Rice pudding, served in a fluted dish, would always round out a meal there.

She’d take me to film festivals at the Regency Theater on the West Side and we’d walk for miles, taking the subway back to Brooklyn with aching feet and a grand feeling of accomplishment.

She was very mischevious.  When I was old enough to know better, she convinced me that plumbers used “plumber’s monkeys” that had been trained to do simple tasks and go into small spaces and I believed this until very recently.

She and I would laugh at everything, our sides aching and I never so much as stepped out for a carton of milk at the corner without kissing her goodbye. I would then kiss her hello, upon my return, five minutes later.

Was she perfect? Although I thought so when I was little, of course not. Did we fight? Like mad dogs let out of the pound. Did I rail against her restrictions when I was a teen, convinced that she was the most old-fashioned fuddy duddy on the face of the earth? You bet. Do I miss her every single day? You know I do. Happy birthday, Ma. See you in the funny papers.
Even though she's not smiling, this is one of my favorite pictures of my mother.


  1. I loved that story and could still see little Olga sitting on the back deck doing a crossword puzzle.....the pictures are priceless.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! It's very much appreciated and gave me the lift that I needed today, as the separated mom of a 4 year old daughter, who struggles everyday to make sure my girl wants for nothing!! Reading about your mom and the story of your youth served as inspirational to me! I especially loved reading that although you acknowledge your mom was obviously not perfect and there existed many disagreements and fights between the two of you, you still hold your mom in the highest regards and have the utmost respect for her as a person! As an adult you now realize that despite her faults (which we all have) all of her efforts and decisions were made with your best interest in mind!! I strive to give my daughter the best quality of life possible also, and pray that once she grows up she'll have the same amount of love, respect and appreciation for me as you do for your mom!! Thanks again!!!

  3. Your Mom was beautiful. Now I know where you get your looks and your talent.
    I would LOVE to see her pictures and cartoons, and I deeply envy the trips to Broadway xxx

  4. Tam, your comment brought tears to my eyes. Your daugter is a very lucky girl to have someone like you in her corner. Kids know who loves them and they need to know how it feels to always have someone who has their my mother did for me and you, clearly, do for her. I am elated that something I wrote gave you a lift and thanks for taking the time to comment. Have a wonderful Mother's Day!

  5. Trishie, I see her in every corner of this house. She was crazy about you and your family.

  6. Janet, you are so, so kind to say those things. I can only wish I got her looks but she was very encouraging of my writing which meant the world to me.

    I'll take some pics of her stuff and send them but what I would really like is a visit from you so I can show you them (and Broadway!) in person. We will avoid the manky parts of the city.

  7. Wow Susan, I'm touched that my words brought tears to your eyes. It just goes to show how amazing your mother was, that the story of her life and legacy can be of inspiration to a stranger such as myself. I'm wondering if you were serious about the invitation you extended to come see your mom's art work?? I imagine not, since in this day and age it's probably not the safest thing to do!! LOL. However, if by chance you were serious, I'd love to bring my daughter Jenna so we can view them! :) In any event, I'd love to hear more about your mom and your upbringing! Send me a friend request on Facebook if you don't mind. My name is Tamara Vexler La Rocca :)

  8. Tam, I have, believe it or not, received several requests to see my moms's art so I will try and photograph it and post it, somehow. Regarding FB, I keep very separate from the Queens page becasue I have received some unsettlingly nasty comments from some members of that page who don't think my blog should be posted there.I'm sure you understand.

    Regarding my upbringing, my mother did what you are doing with Jenna, exactly what is needed to raise a happy girl. And to quote the Beatles, "all you need is love." The rest will follow. You can always email me and I will respond.

  9. Be careful what you wish for :-) I would so LOVE to visit... and New York is on my 'bucket list' (I already got the tattoo that was also on the list!) XXX

  10. Janet, I am quite serious. Come when it's cool here (October, November or March, April). Manhattan is manky in the heat.


  11. There's a picture on my blog :-) Check out 'My Darlings' x

  12. Wow, this is beautiful! Thanks for reminding me to hug my mother extra this weekend.

  13. Thanks, Katie....butsomething tells me that you didn't need any reminding.

  14. A beautiful tribute to your mother Susan. She sounds all kinds of wonderful!

    Stopping by from Studio 30+ Spotlight.