Family & Friends

Mother’s Day Reflection: Portrait of a Lady

Mom-ProfileEunice Scott Tuttle.

Eunice Scott Tuttle, my mother, died in November 2015 at the age of 88, after falling down a flight of stairs. Using her walker, she lost her balance at the top of the basement stairs and sustained severe spinal fractures as well as cuts and gashes from the walker that split her fragile skin. Already suffering from dementia, she wouldn’t have been able to participate in any physical rehabilitation, and so was allowed to pass peacefully in hospice care.

It is one of life’s crueler ironies that someone with her fine intellect had to watch it slowly disappear over the last few years. A child of the Depression, descended from Mayflower pilgrims who knew how to manage when the money was gone, she was raised to value culture over material things. Her mother was a New England Yankee artist and a pianist, and her father was a Cambridge-educated Scotsman who rose to editor-in-chief of a great New York publishing house. When her mother told her, as they prepared for her freshman year at Smith, that she regretted not being able to send her off with better clothes, my mother replied that she had grown up surrounded by books, art, and music and was going to one of the finest schools in the country. She was so grateful, how could she possibly complain about her wardrobe?

Apparently Eunie, as she was known, demonstrated this old-school sagacity at a very young age. My grandmother Eleanor told me this story to prove Mom’s precocious intellectual gravitas: She was 7 or 8, and reading a book about England when she approached her father with big, round eyes to ask him, “Did Queen Elizabeth rule wisely?”


UntitledMom having a tipple while giving me a bottle.

She tried to impart the same gravitas to me, with varying degrees of success. When I was about 3, and hanging out with what she considered a dubious element (I was picking up some bad speech patterns) she taught me my first life lesson: “Never marry a man who says ‘I seen him when he done it.’

Of course she taught me to read before I started kindergarten, when we were living in Lansing, Michigan. She had long dark hair, and I would brush it endlessly while she read to me. Then she’d get up to do housework, and I’d take the book and point at each word, going “Mommy, what’s this word?” over and over until suddenly I was reading on my own like a champ.

Next came Saturday trips to the library, and beautiful hardbound books for Christmas and birthdays. When I was in high school, she made me aware of social issues, first by giving me Michael Harrington’s The Other America, opening my eyes to the poverty in America, and The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, confirming what I had long suspected about the sexism in this country.

After her death I reread all the letters she wrote me from the late ‘70s onward, after my French husband and I returned from Paris to Manhattan, in which she kept me up to date on her reading. She was reading Proust again, and finding him funny this time. Or War and Peace, determined to finish it this time. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which helped her better understand all the churches, chateaux, forts, tapestries, and city walls of 14th-century France, some of which we later saw together.

She adored Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Jane Austen, and Henry James, who provided a favorite quote, from Portrait of a Lady, that she applied to anyone she found disagreeable, as “lacking in the social drapery that muffles the sharpness of human contact.” She loved Trollope—“so Victorian and soothing,” she wrote, with “a real feeling for the difficulties of life for an intelligent, strong woman in the Victorian dispensation, when the duty of a female was to obey first her father and second her husband.”

Her feminism, however, did not deter her from giving her father’s advice during my bad patches: “Keep your pecker up”—words that never failed to steel my nerve.

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Mom and Me(1)The author and her mom.

She and my father were world travelers, and I treasure memories of roaming the streets of European capitals with her. In Provence, we walked across the Pont du Gard, with no barrier to prevent a fall, clutching each other for dear life. In Paris, we took tea in the Galeries Lafayette department store, and she cracked up when I told her that the cashier said we could have saved 7 francs if we had bought one tea bag to share instead of two.

This was wonderful, coming from the woman who would take the frayed cuffs off an ancient but cherished shirt, reverse them, and sew them back on. She still wore satin pajamas and a bed jacket that I gave her more than 30 years ago, still as white and pristine as the day I gave them to her. When I mentioned these bits to my father’s sister, she said that she had always loved my mother’s 19th-century sensibility. “Unhand me,” Mom would say if my cat rebuffed a caress, likening her to a Victorian heroine resisting the advances of an unworthy suitor.

She wrote me often about spoiling her three granddaughters, my brother’s children, when they were little. They all grew up to marry wonderful men and give her five beautiful great-grandchildren. The sixth was born the night before Mom died, a girl, who was named Eleanor.

Mom’s November departure inevitably pulled up memories of Christmases past. I think it was 1998 when Dad and Mom drove from Michigan to New York with two great big editions of the newly reissued Oxford English Dictionary in the trunk, beautifully wrapped, neither one suspecting they had bought the other the same present until Christmas morning in my apartment. They were indeed soulmates, inseparable since they first met 68 years ago on a blind double date.

One night that same Christmas we had dinner in midtown, admired the tree in Rockefeller Center, and ended with a nightcap in a smoky jazz club. When the singer ended her set with “Silent Night,” everyone slowly joined in, including Mom and me—one of those magical moments to be treasured forever.

In a letter from 1990, after her mother, Eleanor, died, Mom wrote that she had moments of sadness that would probably last the rest of her life. Now I’ve joined her in that club. She once knitted me a beautiful mohair scarf of muted purple, green and blue that I always wore when visiting her. Today I wear it to honor and remember her, and it has become a comfort and a talisman that recalls this poem by W. S. Merwin:

Your absence has grown through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.


RELATED: From a Daughter on Mother’s Day 

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  • Susan Lapinski May 11, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Nora, I love this heartfelt tribute to your mother. It swoops along with power, wit and grace. She and the angels must be smiling.

  • Gillian Aldrich May 9, 2016 at 10:15 am

    What a wonderful tribute. These days “Victorian” is almost considered a bad word, but your portrait so eloquently portrays Eunie’s particular grit, restraint, intelligence, wit, sensitivity and cultured sensibility that one rarely witnesses outside of a Jane Austen novel. Your words evoke her spirit so aptly, beautifully and lovingly.

    I am fortunate to have been graced with the few kind remembrances of her aunthood to me — some wonderful hardcover books she gave both me and my children, a knit blanket she made for Allie, and the legacy of her fiercely feminist intelligence evident in you, my dear cousin and friend.

  • Susan May 8, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    What a beautifully written tribute. Nora, I wish I had known your mother but am grateful to know you! You are a remarkable writer and lovely friend.

  • Thomas Boyd May 8, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Beautiful portrait lovingly painted. Thanks for inviting us into this special gallery for a look.

  • McGuire May 7, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Nora is such a beautiful and eloquent spirit. I was privileged to have had the pleasure of knowing her wonderful parents. As her thoughts and writing show..she truly is the kiss they left behind….

  • Geri May 7, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    A wonderful portrait…painted in the medium the author’s mom so clearly taught her to love. Thank you!