Family & Friends

About My Mother


This essay is adapted from a series of personal essays by Nancy A. Lane as part of a book-length memoir.


In the natural order of things, children grow up and leave their parents. They go off to school, get jobs, perhaps get married, and become parents in their own right. Sometimes, as in my case, the natural order gets hijacked by illness—the parent dies before the child is grown—and the child must adapt to a world turned upside down. I write about my mother to fill the gap she left, to attenuate my orphanhood, to keep her with me, and because I need to know who she was in order to know who I am.


I have a picture of my parents taken before I was born. They stand on the southeast corner of 96th Street and Madison Avenue; my father has his arm around my mother’s shoulders. It is a clear, cool, day; my mother’s black cloth coat is open. It has brown mink cuffs and a matching mink shawl collar. Her head is turned away from the camera, and she smiles broadly at whatever has caught her eye. She wears pale blue, oval-framed glasses that match the color of her eyes, and bright red lipstick. Around her throat is a purple neckerchief with the knot tied to the side. She has on a felt hat. Her auburn hair falls in soft waves under its rim.

The picture, technically speaking, is not a photograph; it is a two-inch square Kodachrome transparency. I examine the scene with a magnifying glass, as if I were in 9th grade biology class examining an amoeba under a microscope. Only I’m not. I’m 70 years old and I’m looking at the slide against the light of my computer screen.


My mother spent her brief allotment of time and energy on this earth taking care of her business, my father, my sister, me, and her household. She kept her mental illness, the raging violence that afflicted her, at bay as long as she was at her antique jewelry store. At home, anger ate away at her. When she felt she’d done enough good and bad, she lifted her head, grey hairs strewn on her hospital pillow like threads of an old sweater, turned to me and said, “My job is done.” A few days later she was dead. I was fifteen, she was fifty-four, it was 1966.

This is how I remember her.


My mother eschews sunlight. The skin stretched across her high cheekbones is bluish. She covers it with Max Factor pancake makeup and two dots of rouge before she leaves the house. I prefer her face bare, in the early morning, or at night, after she’s slathered it with cold cream and wiped it clean.

I say, “I have a headache and I’m hot.” She feels my forehead with the back of her hand. She nods, “You can stay home from school. Come keep me company while I bathe.” I sit on the closed toilet seat next to the tub. Steam drips off the walls and the mirror. I draw a big heart with my finger on the glass. A crumpled tissue stained with yesterday’s blue eyeshadow and Revlon’s Fire and Ice lipstick lies on the edge of the sink like a smeared Mondrian. Her body under water, she glances at her vagina under the ripples, “Cancer stole my pubic hair,” she tells me.

My mother lathers the rounded bar of soap that sits in the niche to her left. When small bubbles appear on her washcloth, she starts on her feet. She separates her toes, cleaning between each one. She works her way upwards. She washes her legs, then her stomach with its cinnamon-colored scars. She continues under her arms, and around her flattened breasts. The hot water turns her skin as pink as Double Bubble gum. She lifts her haunches, kneels to face the faucets, and bends her head as if in prayer. She wipes the cloth back and forth over her vagina and cups fresh water from the tap. She splashes herself to rinse.

When she steps out of the tub, I hand her a towel with the letter L embroidered in silk at its hem. She rubs herself dry, pats geranium scented powder under her arms, on her neck and shoulders, and between her legs. She appears shimmering, framed in the doorway, a softly lit nude, like a Renoir bather. She is a goddess to me. I adore my mother.

Barefoot, she walks naked through the house. Her toenails like her fingernails are painted a pale rose. She leaves talcum footprints on the parquet floors.

My father yells, “Dorothy, put some clothes on.”

She ignores him, finds a cigarette, lights it, exhales smoke through both nostrils, like a storybook dragon, and returns to her room.

Across from her bed, which sits at a right angle to my father’s bed, there is a mahogany dresser that contains three wide drawers with shiny brass handles. She takes the brassiere with scalloped eyelet trim from the bottom one, hooks it in front and twists it around so the pointy parts stick straight out. She slips the straps on to her shoulders, pulls the cups over her breasts, and slides in rubber falsies. She pulls up one breast and then the other to adjust her cleavage. She wears shields to protect her sweaters from perspiration stains, their straps circle the cups of her bra and attach around the back. The folded cotton half-moons cover her underarms.

She stubs out the cigarette and steps into her girdle. It is a small tube of rubber. She tugs at it with both hands as she struggles to pull the tight fabric up and over the soft skin of her backside and belly. Her stomach and buttocks, supple and round after the bath are flat now, like nails hammered flush into the wall.

She wears a cotton undergarment called a chaffie that keeps her inner thighs from rubbing together. I stand behind her and look at her reflection in the mirror. With her wavy hair uncombed, and the strategically located patches of cloth that control her flesh and perspiration, she looks like Raggedy Ann returning from the doll hospital emergency room.

She lights another cigarette, takes a long drag, and places it in a silver ashtray. She sits on the edge of her bed, points her toes, and with the fingers of both hands gathers pale nylon stockings and gently inches them up over her small ankles and slim calves. She attaches the reinforced tops to loosely hanging garters.

Sparse pubic hairs escape from the space between her legs. My mother doesn’t wear panties. I wonder how that feels. Does a soft breeze blow under her skirt when she walks? Does it tickle? I want to ask her, but I know she is in a hurry. She is always in a hurry.

Her first and second fingers curve around the cigarette between them, she brings it to her lips, takes a drag and sighs. She removes her diaphragm from the top drawer, holds it up to the light, clears her throat, shrugs and tucks it away under her hankies. It is a souvenir of her pre-hysterectomy life she is not yet ready to part with.

In winter, my mother dresses in somber three-piece wool knit suits. She has six of them, one for each day of her workweek. On her feet, she wears pointy toe pumps. She carries a black alligator handbag with a golden clasp that snaps shut. In the handbag are two flip top packages of Kent cigarettes still in their cellophane wrapping and several books of matches. There is also a pressed hankie, keys, a tube of lipstick, a gold compact, and a wallet with cash and her charge plates for Bloomingdales, Bergdorf’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

I write about my mother to fill the gap she left, to attenuate my orphanhood, to keep her with me, and because I need to know who she was in order to know who I am.


My mother doesn’t dress on Sundays unless we’re going to visit one of her relatives, or out to lunch, or dinner. At home, she wraps herself in a moiré bathrobe with an eggshell silk lining and matching collar and cuffs. She drinks coffee, reads the newspaper, smokes cigarettes, and doesn’t leave her room till my father brings her a scotch at 5 p.m. She swallows a Miltown tranquilizer with the scotch. She says, “It helps my moods.”

Before going to her store each day, she screws on gold earrings with moonstone centers the size of cocktail onions. My sister inherits those. Around her neck, she wears a collar of pearls, with an emerald clasp. My sister inherits that as well. Nestled between her wedding band and a gold guard ring, she wears a platinum princess ring. It has one yellow diamond centered between two white diamonds. Each stone weighs a carat. My father sells that ring. My sister inherits our mother’s wedding band. I inherit a ruby ring that is stolen out of my apartment. I also inherit her gold bracelet. I sell the bracelet after it sits unworn in my dresser drawer for fifty years. I cannot type while wearing it. I loved the ring. I was heartsick when my apartment was broken into and it was gone. I felt punished, deprived of what little I had left of my mother. When my father dies, I inherit the furniture. My sister takes the paintings and silver.


My mother often complained of being tired from working six days a week, and we did very few things as a family, one exception was the High Holidays. We were members of Temple Emmanuel on Fifth Avenue, and attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. In the 1950s and 60s that meant getting dressed up in new fall outfits, wearing new shoes and new coats. Closing the store those two days a year, and going to synagogue together was a little bit about praying, but a lot about being seen, and seeing others.


I lean against the front door of our apartment ready to leave the house. My father has on a single-breasted camel hair coat and is tapping the left toe of his Bally of Switzerland loafers. My sister and I are in charcoal chesterfields with covered buttons and black velvet collars. My mother is still in her bathrobe. My father, the recessed filter of his cigarette clenched between his teeth, smoke circling above his head yells, “C’mon Dorothy.” A few minutes later, she arrives in the foyer breathless. She searches through the packed hall closet, moving hangers and cursing, “Shit, shit, shit,” until she retrieves her mink coat. She wraps a red and beige Hermes scarf around her neck and holds black kid gloves in her hand. My father hails a cab and sits upfront with the driver. We arrive late. The service has already started. We squeeze by another family of four and peer over their shoulders to see what page to open in our prayer books. My parents, who by this time have each lost one or more parents, stand for the mourner’s kaddish. Today, I stand for the mourner’s kaddish. I am fifteen.


I know very little about my mother’s life before she met my father. I wonder whether she had many boyfriends? Was she ever heartbroken? She told me her sister Lillian fixed her up with my father on a blind date. Was it a year before they married, six months, six weeks? She never said.  Their wedding took place on September 24th, 1939; a Justice of the Peace officiated. My mother was twenty-seven and my father thirty-three. There was no announcement in the newspaper, no chuppah, no rabbi, no gifts, no celebration. My mother, the sixth and youngest of Mama Millie’s and Papa Max’s children, didn’t have a birth certificate, or a Hebrew name, and unlike her sisters who married breadwinners, she married my father who, though movie star handsome, was penniless. Perhaps this was the cause of her estrangement from Mama Millie. I don’t know. It is also a secret.

Like my mother, my father never finished high school. He went to the prestigious Townsend Harris School, but quit after his father had a heart attack. He said he had to go to work. I don’t know what he did. When my mother quit school she said it was because she couldn’t pass French. She worked for Papa Max in his antique jewelry business until she married my father. Papa Max gave my parents an empty store as a wedding gift. Mama Millie wouldn’t allow him to be more generous considering the on-going feud between her and my mother.

My parents built up an inventory of precious gems in old world settings and other rare antique objects. My mother was a very good businesswoman; she had an extremely sharp eye. I think she was a genius.


I have two photographs of my parents on their honeymoon. They look gloriously happy strolling on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. In one photo my father stands behind my mother with his hands cupping her small breasts. They are both smiling as if he has just whispered a private newlywed’s joke in her ear. In the other photo they are walking down the Boardwalk. My mother, chicly dressed in a two-piece suit with a cinched waist, the kind Rosalind Russel wore in His Girl Friday, is beaming up at my father, who was, frankly, the better looking of the pair and a ringer for Gary Cooper. He walks next to her, his long legs pulled out ahead of his torso like a racehorse. My mother told me they only had enough money for two nights in a hotel, but she gambled, maybe black jack, maybe craps, won, and they stayed a third night. That was their honeymoon.

I think she cast a spell over the dice and cards, and made them do what she wanted them to. My mother was powerful.


My mother never spoke about their romance, nor their decision to marry. Did my father get down on one knee and propose? I don’t know. Although born and raised in America, he in New York City and she in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, at home they only communicated with each other in Yiddish. When they met, they were both thought to be unmarriageable. My mother was considered an old maid and my father, without an education, a profession, or an income was likewise deemed unmarriageable. Somehow they found each other, fell in love, and created both a business and a family. My mother told me that after their first date, she sent my father a silk tie from A. Sulka and wrote on the card, “This is to tie you with.” My mother was determined.



Nancy A. Lane writes about her family and growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 60s. The people she writes about are complicated—not always likeable—but they are compelling and very much of their time. Nancy’s writing has been workshopped at Saint Malachy’s The Actors Chapel in New York City. For the past thirty years, Nancy practiced law in France and throughout Europe. She recently returned to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the neighborhood where she spent the first seventeen years of her life.
Instagram: @selflector






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