This Mother’s Day, some of us may find ourselves reflecting on our not-so-perfect relationships with our own mothers—or daughters—while others look back with love and admiration. Margery Stein is indisputably in the second camp. We’re delighted to share her warm reminiscences of her mother—a strong, sophisticated, and spirited woman—as a way of wishing us all, mothers and daughters alike, a wonderful Mother’s Day. —Ed.
That Monday, the telephone did not ring. The day before, we had buried my mother, who was my best friend. Every day without fail, unless I was with her or traveling, one of us would call the other between 5 and 5:30 in the afternoon to discuss the day. This appointed time did not preclude other dial-ups, from sunrise to lights-out, as needed.
On that Monday I guess I was in denial. I actually waited for the phone to ring, as idiotic as that sounds. I couldn’t believe she was gone. Yes, I put my head in my hands and cried. It was one tentative step in the process of letting go.
I am not putting a halo around my mother. Then again, maybe I am. There were cracks in the façade, of course, but they were minor chips. In hindsight, and after much reflection, I am certain that I won the lottery when it came to the Best All-Time Mom.
She had a thick skin, hardened by years of deprivation. Born and raised in New York City, she had a hardscrabble life in her early years. She was the fourth daughter in an Orthodox Jewish family, and therefore a serial disappointment. Would a son ever be born? She was named Crissy, a ridiculous moniker for a Jewish daughter—an indication of just how uninterested her parents were in her birth. She was regularly beaten by her mother for being overweight. She quit school at age 15 to go to work, turning over her small paycheck to her mother, a hardworking immigrant who had come over on the boat and never mastered English.
In spite of the odds, she grew up to be a sophisticated and intelligent woman. She read voraciously, went to the theater, and wound up working for a rich cousin. Through this tycoon she met all sorts of celebrities and handled tricky situations (for instance, trying to sober up Eugene O’Neill). She was briefly engaged, on the sly, to an Irish fellow in her office. That was a doomed liaison, and it ended in tears.
Those were the days, the 1930s, when women wore draped dresses and pumps, and men sported hats and pocket handkerchiefs. Mom went for drinks after work to elegant watering holes like the Brevoort and the Warwick, decked out in smart outfits that her sister, a buyer, procured for a song. She swathed herself in fur shrugs created by her father, a furrier, who worked for his brother for next to nothing and would stay after work to piece together coats for his daughters out of scraps.
She was a style icon, with superb taste and an intuitive sense of how to dress to showcase her attributes. Her friends would wait till she arrived at temple for Friday night services—her entrance always timed so she would be the last one in. What would she wear? What hat would be her top piece? She’d sweep down the aisle with the imperiousness of a grande dame—or, perhaps, just the confidence of a woman who knew her charm bulls-eye.
Meeting my father was a fluke. A friend headed for a weekend with her fiancé at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, persuaded my mom to come along. When they arrived at the fiancé’s barracks, they found my father, a surgeon in the Navy, lying on a cot, trying to recover from a hangover. I’m going to marry that man, she told herself. Ten weeks later, she did, and the romance lasted until my father’s death, 57 years later.
She was funny, feisty, and frank. She loved to speak Yiddish, but she also loved to curse. Her favorite term of endearment was “Go to hell,” sometimes said with a smile, sometimes a bark. She was so outgoing that sometimes my two younger brothers and I cringed with embarrassment. Did she really have to chat up the tollbooth collector as if he were her newly discovered best friend? She kept our house populated with all sorts of people, loving an audience as well as a crowd.
Mom’s expectations for me and my brothers ran high. If I came home with a test score of 92, she’d ask, “How come?” Sometimes there was tough love, before the term was invented—but Mom was always my champion and my main support. When I had trouble with my partner—who would become my husband—she came up for the weekend, sat down with him, and smoothed things over. After my divorce, I became involved with a much younger man. Some shifts in furniture were required, including getting rid of my bed. Mom arrived to provide not just emotional but also physical support. As the four of us—my boyfriend, my ex-husband, my mom, and me—carried the bed down the stairs, she said, “I feel like I’m in a Noel Coward play.” That was quintessential Mom.
I can honestly say that I miss her every day. I dream about her frequently and talk to her in my head all the time. Some might call this an obsession. I consider it a blessing.
One of my fondest memories of my father was when he took me to see the Harold Lloyd silent movie Safety Last. Recently I again watched the clip of Mr. Lloyd climbing the exterior of a skyscraper, and I thought that his effort embodies my father’s life. Dad has always met the challenges of impossible tasks and has kept going. Through it all he has loved movies and kept his sense of humor.
Born eight months before the stock-market crash of 1929, Dad will be 83 years old this year. Growing up during the Depression, Father savored Hollywood films, which produced a respite from the everyday hardships of that era. He and his pals would seek refuge from the troubled world in the theater, spending all day in the thrall of a Tom Mix film followed by a first-rate concert with a full orchestra—and all for 30 cents.
My father continues to be an ardent movie fan. He passed on his Cine disposition to me. As his only child, growing up in Manhattan, I spent many happy hours at home with his collection of movie coffee-table books in my lap. I would pore over photos of famous old films. I can still see Ramón Novarro as Ben-Hur with the winged hat in a wild chariot race, or Edward G. Robinson as a gangster grimacing as he clutches his topcoat after being shot.
As a family we talked about movies the way other families might discuss current events. We also were forever looking in the basement for my mother’s moment on the big screen. She appeared in a Movietone newsreel, modeling Easter bonnets. During the hunt for the missing reel, my mother would remark earnestly from the top of the stairs that the reel “must be there somewhere!” Which is no doubt true to this day.
My grandfather was also in on the movie madness, as he was busy shooting home movies of us waving or of me running out of a small Mickey Mouse tent. During idle afternoons I watched The Million Dollar Movie on TV, snuggled next to my grandmother. Maybe all this focus on film was one of the reasons I went on to produce documentary films, and why I can sit through just about any movie.
I love it that the Academy Awards began in the same year my dad was born. Hollywood understands, as Dad does, that when all else fails, go to the movies—and don’t forget a sense of humor.
I find this announcement of my mother’s birth in a pile of papers that has been growing in my basement. A sepia photograph of a blonde little girl accompanies her birth record. It could be my mom, but it looks more like her sister. Not really sure who it is.
These family artifacts are some of many that lay hidden in stacks of photos and tons of other papers. Included in this mountain of memorabilia is a second grade report card for my son, who is now 23, the odd newspaper clipping, and a few Dunkin’ Donuts receipts. My life seems consumed by papers I don’t need. What is all this stuff?
I have heard that clutter can hold you back in more ways than one. In my case it is true. My mother and I are the original pack rats. The words ‘auction’ and ‘Doyle’s’ quicken our pulses, while a 15%-off coupon at Bloomingdale’s transforms us into heat-seeking missiles aimed at 59th Street. Years of this have made our closets and basements untenable. On a daily basis, we seem to function smoothly—until we have only five minutes to collect a wallet, the keys, and the little slip of paper that has the address on it.
My mother is now in her 80s and is unable to sort through what she has collected over a lifetime. She feels overwhelmed with the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Though my daughters and I have organized a lot of it for her. Knowing how much I am like her, I worry that I will face my 80s surrounded by clutter. So now, at 57, I have begun to sort my stuff out. Truthfully, I have not met with complete success.
Yesterday, my husband Jim found the pair of slippers he was looking for in his closet. I took it as a sign of my new organizational skills, because I had recently fished them out from under our bed and placed them triumphantly into his closet.
“What’s wrong with these slippers?”
“What do you mean?” I answered, casually dusting the baseboards with a tissue, another housekeeping trick I picked up from my mother.
“They’re two left feet. I tried them both on,” he replied, looking down at his feet, bewildered.
This sort of mix-up was bound to happen. Last year I’d bought two pairs of identical slippers—one for my son, who has no interest in slippers at this stage of life, and one for Jim, who along with me has embraced the warm-feet-and-bathrobe-in-the-morning philosophy. Admittedly, my organizational and de-cluttering skills still need some fine-tuning.
But when I give or throw things away, I feel a sense of order emerge in both my closet and my life. I need to do this now—because currently, I am up to my neck in chaff!
Breakfast this morning with the widower of a friend now nearly four years gone. He told me he’s getting married in the fall. Of course, I wished him well and felt grateful that he’d waited this long. Walking home I wondered about loyalty and how to manifest my continuing devotion to the woman and inspiration I miss each day.
This then is that– no names, just the facts. A woman– so bright, so kind, so present and good– died much too young in a winter that was milder than most. These years later it is a bright summer day and the world is still rotating on its axis. We think we are moving on, but actually we are walking in place holding what was, carrying what is and accepting what will be. I walk with my friend by my side and speak to her here. There is not one new event that I would have shared with you that I don’t still share. Even this, even this change that changes nothing and causes me to notice your presence in absence all the more.
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
At his age, I was aspiring to be the world’s greatest poet or film star – or a cheerleader.
Later, as a wife and mother I strove for domestic perfection – a wish equally out of reach.
In my corporate career, it was about beachfront cottages, trips to France, gaudy diamonds, Prada purses.
Now, with one toe into my sixth decade on this earth, I want much simpler and more easily attainable things. A wheelbarrow, for one.
Red would be good because it would be easily spotted amidst the dandelions and buttercups I battle daily.
“Glazed with rain” would mean my flowers and herbs and tomato plants would not need to be watered today, freeing me up to do something else I’m passionate about. Search for antique pottery, maybe, or painting that abstraction of a peacock I’ve been picturing in my mind for months now.
“White chickens.” Wow. Maybe I’ll get some hens that will supply me with eggs still warm from the coop. Currently I have to drive all the way into town (eight miles) to buy eggs a day or two old from the friendly receptionist at the Extension Service office. Or maybe free-range chickens – another paradigm of the possible.
The young Williams could not have imagined how I now long for a wheelbarrow. The one I inherited with this farm must be covered with a plastic bag to be used because of the holes rusted through the bottom
I have the money to buy a new one, but not that is not entirely the point. I want to cherish it in my fantasy, and eventually get the one that is perfect. Red, yes: that shiny candy-apple red. But what about the wheel? Some say that the pneumatic wheels most barrows are equipped with are not at all satisfactory. “Every time you need it you have to stop and put air in it,” my neighbor Sandy tells me.
But yesterday at Lowe’s I saw a man pushing a green wheelbarrow toward the cash registers. What about that pneumatic wheel? I asked him.
“Oh, it’s perfect,” he assured me. “Don’t bother with the solid rubber ones; they’re too wobbly.”
So I’m nowhere near the point of purchasing one; I’ll have to stew over this dilemma a little longer.
As a six-decader (I hate to think of myself as a “senior”), I have an entirely new hierarchy of needs. After the wheelbarrow, a rain barrel.
I also long for a rock-encased pond with a waterfall, perfect for the front yard of my handmade log house, so that the deer so plentiful around here could drink there. I would even leave dried corn for them so they’d leave my zinnias alone.
Then: a salt-water swimming pool with sauna and hot tub. The back yard is the perfect place: a sunny field adjacent to my little cottage garden of tomatoes, peppers and squash, garlanded by a wire fence draped with gourds, wisteria and briar roses.
So, you see, don’t you? So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.