Sunday, February 16, 2014

February 16 Is a Day I Will Always Remember

Eighteen years ago today it snowed. Ten  inches. I had reservations on a flight to Orlando to attend my magazine’s largest annual conference, SPECS. I never made it down to Florida. Yes, the airline canceled my flight. But even if it had taken off I would have remained on the ground. Two hours before my scheduled departure time I received a call informing me my mother had died.

Eighteen years. In Hebrew, letters are assigned a numerical equivalent. Eighteen is a combination of a chet for eight and a yud for ten. As a word the letters spell out the word chai. It means alive, living.

Though she probably would not classify herself as one, my mom was an early liberated woman. She worked from the time she graduated from high school in 1936. She was, in the vernacular of the time, a full-charge bookkeeper. She could easily have been a CPA. As a young woman she was sassy and strong-willed. She also was quite handsome. That is, when she took the time to tame her frizzy hair. After marrying my father in 1942 she became more than just a partner in his home. She became his business partner as well. She took care of the office while he ran the factory where they produced half-slips and panties and, in the latter years, t-shirts.

In her eulogy back in 1996 my sister noted how our mother was not a 1950s stay-at-home type like those of our friends. Mom used to say my feeble eating habits as a toddler drove her back to work, but the reality is, she could not be content sitting at home, though she still remained active in the PTA and sisterhood of her synagogue and our elementary school. She was a good cook of Jewish cuisine (Dan particularly loved her chicken soup with noodles) and a gracious host for Rosh Hashanah and Passover meals that could number as many as 40 guests. She left Thanksgiving chores to one of her sisters, like her, liberated working women.

She wasn't afraid to travel by herself. In the summer of 1957 she journeyed to Israel, Italy and France by herself as our parents could not close the factory to vacation together for extended periods of time. As I looked at film of her trip I was amazed to realize she was just 40 that summer.

She instilled culture into her children. Every year she would take us to an opera at the Met. She'd also take us to a Broadway show. We would accompany our parents on weekends in the Catskills or Lakewood. She taught my brother and me to play ball. She took us to baseball games.

I've painted a positive picture of our mother. In her final years, however, she suffered from an addiction to cigarettes and the congestive heart failures they caused. Cigarettes robbed her of strength and cognitive functions. A diabetic, she endured a below the knee amputation and was in the hospital awaiting a second amputation when she succumbed to heart failure 18 years ago today.

It’s hard to recall her early vibrancy, so pronounced was the change in her twilight years. But those are the times I want to remember and if I concentrate real hard I manage to hurdle the chasm of a life too soon confined to sitting by the living room window of our Brooklyn home, the smoke of an ever present cigarette wafting above her head.