Let me tell you a few things about my mother.
First, I was her favorite son.
I know this because she told me.
She knew exactly who she was.
She was intelligent and beautiful.
I know that because she told me that too.
In a time that was so much more difficult to be a woman in business and a single parent, my mother provided for and raised two children.
She was the controller of a company responsible for it's day to day financial health. Almost unheard of in the early 60’s. And this when there were no self-help books about being a working woman and having it all.
She was not warm and fuzzy. She was not a hugger and it was only later in life that we started to say “I love you” when parting company or getting off the phone.
As a child, when she would say “Don’t make me ask twice.”, whatever she wanted, I did because I never wanted to know what would happen if she did ask twice.
One summer evening, she pulled into the driveway to see my friend Joey Rolleri and I talking. When she got out of her 1969 Plymouth Sport Satellite she asked me asked why the lawn hadn't been cut. She had been asking for the better part of a week. I told her that I had tried but there was something wrong with the lawn mower. After Joey left I was feeling a bit peckish and decided to head inside. I tried the front door first but it was locked. I then tried the back door but it doo was bolted from the inside. My last resort was the garage door but it too wouldn't move. My mother had locked me out. After she listened to me banging on the front door and ringing the bell repeatedly she opened a window and threw a pair of scissors out. And she said “... When the lawn is cut wise ass, you can come inside. A few minutes later the lawnmower magically started working.
When she was very angry, her voice became soft and quiet because that way you had to listen to her. But she would also get this crazy look in her eyes and purse her lips like she was trying to crush them. You had to get closer to listen but you didn't get too close.
She taught me expressions like :
"If you were moving any slower, you would be moving backward."
"That was so long ago Hector was a pup, but he's a big dog now."
In response to whining and being asked for the 100th time "When are we leaving?" She would say: "In two shakes of a lamb's tail."
And when I was “hocking” her about some toy that I wanted she would say: "Tuesday at four O'clock"
And one thing she said that always bothered me because I didn’t understand it at the time: ”I’m your Mother. You don’t have to love me, but you damn well will respect me.”
She insisted on good manners and speaking well.
She did not suffer childish talk from children or bad grammar,.
Though she seemed to be afraid of many things, she proved herself quite adept at being pro-active about expressing indignation.
While driving in Manhattan with her mother in the front passenger seat and me in the back a taxi cut her off. She had to slam on the brakes and narrowly avoided hitting the taxi., She chased that cab for blocks all the while my Nana pleading with her daughter to please stop. When she caught up with the cab at a light, she jumped out of the car and ran up to the cab and reached in grabbing the driver by the collar. She used some new words that I had never heard before. I thought that was pretty impressive and even more of a reason not to make her ask twice.
One more. On a summer Sunday in the 80's with my girlfriend in the front seat, Mom driving and me in the back the guy in the car behind us kept honking his horn and shouting his opinions of Mom trying to park on Montique Street in Brooklyn Heights. After listening to this guy for 10 minutes, as a thank-you and a sign of respect, I made the universal greeting of fraternity. That got the driver out of his car and calling me out to discuss the meaning of my gesture.
Mom turned around after hearing me go "Uh-O" and saw what the situation was. She then swung her door open and as I tried to get out of the car she pointed her finger at me and said: "You sit down and shut up." As the parking critic approached the car calling my mother all sorts of things, she stood her ground challenging the guy to hit her. Which drew people off the sidewalks to see if this guy was going to punch her. It was like a scene out of West Side Story. Except with my Mom.
You all know her as Grandma and a pretty sharp one at that. But I had to live with her. And, for a long time, I didn’t like her. She was not a great mother. She was nothing like the mothers of friends I had met. She was going to live her life the way she wanted to live it.
As I got older, she changed I think into more of the person she always wanted to be. She took up figure skating. Never being one to do something half-ass, she took lessons, bought custom skates and outfits. She even once performed in the chorus of an Ice Capades show. When she broke her wrist in a fall, she was right back at it. When she broke her wrist a second time her doctor told her that the third time she might lose the use of her hand permanently.
She went to the gym. She went to the gym. She went to the gym!
She even wore jeans once but after seeing the look on my face never did again.
And then she took a few classes at Pace University. And then a few more. At night and on weekends and she loved it. I don’t ever remember her being happier. She kept taking classes until one day her advisor called her in to tell her she could have graduated almost 2 years prior. So she decided to take her degree.
And she called me to say that she was getting some awards and would I go with her to the ceremony. There I sat as one professor after the other spoke about the brilliant mind my mother was and what a pleasure it was to have such an individual in their class. She received several awards that night and in the middle of it all she leaned over to say “If you tell anyone this, I’ll kill you. I never graduated high school.” And I found that fascinating as I would never have suspected it. But I was glad that she had confided in me.
And so she retired to Florida where she worked another 20 years at Innisbrook Country Club instilling fear and respect into another group of office workers.
But I never thought she was a very good mother.
And one day, I went to a Buddhist temple to hear a lecture. And that lecture was about being grateful. And the very first example that the monk gave of being grateful without condition was being grateful to your mother for giving you life. No matter what your mother did afterward, she gave you life. And you should be grateful for that if you can't find anything else.
And then I had children of my own.
And as I watched them grow and become the men they are, I began to realize what I had to be grateful to my mother for.
I am grateful to my mother for giving me life, and giving me my sense of humor.. and oh yes, her’s was wicked.
I am grateful to my mother for encouraging me to read at a very early age and for exposing me to Museums, Ballet, Classical Music, Art, and Theatre, for demanding good manners, for demanding good speech.
My uptight "except when chasing cab drivers" mother taught me by example how to swear. I am grateful to my mother for teaching me to be indignant when I felt I had been treated poorly.
I am grateful to my mother for never questioning why I always had a camera with me.
I am grateful to my mother for all the times we got lost driving and had an adventure and laughed.
I am grateful to my mother for being able to say absolutely anything to her about some of the incredibly stupid fixes I had gotten myself into.
I am grateful to my mother for being a realist and knowing that the good thing was not always the right thing.
I am grateful to my mother for being always willing to take me in every time I fell flat on my face.
She was an imperfect parent and human being in general.
Aren’t we all?
She knew exactly who she was.
And Mom I did respect you, and I did love you and I know well how much you loved me and all your children.
You did the best that you knew how and you always did it with a sense of humor.
I will miss you very much.
Mom you didn’t have to demand my respect, and yes, you damn well deserved it.