Sunday, November 12, 2017

Celebrating My Mother's Centennial Birthday

Were she still alive, my mother, Sylvia Margaret Gerson Forseter, would have turned 100 Saturday, November 11. You’ll notice I did not say she would have celebrated her centennial. It would not be incorrect nor disrespectful to say my mother never got much pleasure from turning the page on another year. As different infirmities invaded her body and mind she used to say, “Good health was wasted on the young.” 

That lack of birthday excitement, to my memory, transferred over to celebrations of her husband’s and children’s birthdays, as well, though she did enjoy the spotlight at the bar mitzvah affairs of my brother Bernie and me at the Aperion Manor on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. And she got a kick out of turning our home’s basement into a dance hall for our sister Lee’s Sweet 16 party.

Mom had a ribald sense of humor. If she saw you yawning she would say, “You wouldn’t be so tired if you slept at night instead of fooling around, but then sleep isn’t as much fun.”

On her night table at various times one could find a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, risqué reading for the 1950s and 1960s.

Whenever a movie starring Tyrone Power was shown on television she would say, “He could park his shoes next my bed anytime” (as was the custom of the times, my parents slept in twin beds separated at first by a night table, though eventually the beds were pushed together to simulate a king size bed, albeit with a slight gap between the mattresses to accommodate their wooden frames).

Mom introduced her children to opera at the pre-Lincoln Center Metropolitan Opera House (she took me to see La Traviata and Tosca, the latter starring Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli—if you’re not into opera those names wouldn’t mean anything to you. But if you are an opera buff, you’d be envious).

She enjoyed musical theater. She instilled a love of that entertainment genre by taking each of her three children individually to a show each year so that each would feel special not just from the Broadway experience but also from having her solely to ourselves. 

She was, though, slightly snobbish in her reviews. One year Bernie wanted to see Flower Drum Song. But as it contained a modified strip tease scene and Bernie was just 14, she nixed his choice and took him instead to West Side Story. 

In successive years when I was 11 and 12, she took me to Camelot starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet, followed by Kean, a musical about the early 19th century Shakespearian actor Edmund Kean, played by one of her stage heroes, Alfred Drake. Kean garnered so-so reviews. It ran for just 92 performances. Camelot became a semi-classic, with 873 performances on Broadway before being made into a feature film. As we were leaving Kean Mom asked me which play I liked more. I replied Camelot. She did not mask her disappointment in what she considered my plebeian taste. 

Some shows commanded viewing by the whole family. After our parents saw Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel, they bought tickets for Bernie, Lee and me and her older sister, Pola. During intermission between acts, Aunt Pola, who had been sitting in a different section, came by to ask how we were enjoying the show and to say she had laughed so hard during one scene she wet her panties (earthy language not being one of the restraints practiced by our mother and her three sisters). 

Before I was a teenager they took the three of us to see Milk and Honey about the early years of Israel, and Take Me Along with Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon and Robert Morse, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. 

Most every night, at 8, Mom would lie down on the living room couch to listen as WVNJ-AM aired a complete musical recording of a Broadway show. Often I would sit with her, enjoying and learning by heart the music and lyrics to scores of shows. Our stereo was stocked with dozens of original cast recordings of Broadway shows.

Those memories reflect one aspect of the vibrant mother I grew up and lived with until she was in her mid-50s and I left home for graduate school, work in Connecticut and marriage to Gilda. She was social and sociable, a gracious hostess and good cook, a theater-goer and poker player, a successful business- and clubwoman, an independent world traveler. About the only thing she could not master was driving a car. 

Much of that persona vanished in her last two decades. I won’t dwell on the reasons why or the effect on her husband, children and grandchildren. She passed away at 78 on February 16, 1996. She left a divided legacy, which is to say, she led a normal life, with ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments, passion—good and bad—toward her family. All in all, a life worth remembering.