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.

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  • Fran Carpentier May 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I LOVE this piece ! I simply love it…and I LOVE Margery’s mother too! I feel that Crissy Stein and I would have totally gotten along! What an amazing woman! What a character! What a remarkable and courageous woman! Thank you, Margery, for sharing Crissy with us!

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  • Cousins doris & dave May 14, 2012 at 11:04 am

    We loved reading your ode to your mom but I, in particular. saw Crissy very differently, of course, through the eyes of a niece and my uncle’s wife and my cousins’ mother. I felt somewhat threatened by crissy (the very glamorous stunning new person on the block) and, as the years passed, I was always somewhat afraid of her. Of course I grew to love her but always cautiously. At times she was quite critical of me. By the time I started to gain more confidence in myself (after my marriage), and she and effie started to respect and admire me, we became very close. Her famous Thanksgiving dinners cemented our relationship.

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  • Diane Bradshaw May 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Typical Margery Stein! Eloquent, unique, spot-on prose. Goose bumps, tears, smiles.

    My mother, too, is embedded in the fabric of my being. Those two souls — and countless others who inspired us all of our lives — are stirring up the Universe, providing protection and fostering triumph among us who still labor on this earthly plane.

    Thank you, Margie.

    Reply
  • Patricia Moscatello May 12, 2012 at 8:29 am

    A beautiful article. It made laugh, smile and think about my own darling Mother.
    Thank you.

    Reply