Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014— She grasped her cereal bowl by the handle and tilted it filled with Cheerios, blueberries and sliced banana: “What are you doing?” I asked. “I want to pour milk on the ceiling.” Well, don’t we all.
That was Emma, my mother, in November 2009, in the middle stages of dementia. That was when she had trouble getting the right words out, when she said to me, “Get out of my whale!” and to our friend R, when she thanked him for coming over and making a special dinner for us, “Spizzle jitney.”
She wasn’t always that way, of course. She made sure I was properly educated – a public school so I could get to know all types of people – in culture and social graces: I must be refined.
She sang me nursery songs, recited nursery rhymes with me, gave me books, read to me, taught me piano and gave me ballet and tap dancing lessons and swimming lessons; she sent me to modeling and charm school, she took me to afternoon teas, to dinner at fine restaurants; she made sure my hair was cut and permed (so you could see my face), despite my wanting long braids and bangs. I remember my poodle cut. Years later, she and I took long trips together, and she sat patiently on a bench for an hour with her apricot toy poodle BeeGee at her side in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., while I shot photos of the historic site. She loved to travel and was always studying roadmaps.
In the early 1940s, when Daddy was away in the Army, together we’d walk down the hill to the American Store to deliver the can of fat she had saved for the war effort. She planted flowers in a color coordinated garden, while I sat outside with her and made “coffee” – mud and water mixed in a can. She’d hand me a saltshaker and send me outside to catch robins by sprinkling salt on their tails. I chased many a robin that flew away. A week ago a robin built a nest at the transom window above my front door. I regard this as a good omen.
Emma loved her children and family. She took us for walks in the coach and the stroller. She took us in town, Philadelphia, on the trolley and the el and subway shopping with her. She said that if my brother were born first, she never would have had me. He consistently wandered off among the clothing racks in the department store and it took a long time to find him. He walked a mile alone, when he was three, to my elementary school to meet me at the hour school let out. He waited on the front steps, we were let out the back, so I missed him. Emma was frantic. She had to call the police to find him.
Emma was always drawing house floor plans. She painted a mural on our bathroom wall in the early 1950s; later when she retired from her executive secretarial job, she painted watercolors. While she was working, she raised toy poodles and showed them. One, little black Itzy, became a champion. At the same time, she took in her beloved Aunt Mary and cared for her in her last days. One day Emma and I had a terrible argument. Aunt Mary said to me, gently, “Don’t argue with your mother. Be kind to her.” I’ve never forgotten Aunt Mary’s wise words.
Emma sang in a community chorus and modeled. She appeared on local television in the early 1950s in a fashion show, with her friend who ran the modeling agency, in a red taffeta dress, with crinolines buoying up the full skirt; of course, on the black and white TV of those days the dress looked medium gray.
When Kellie, my daughter, was born, we stayed with Emma the first two weeks while I recuperated and she showed me what to do. I had no clue how to handle a baby. “Why is she fussing so much in her bath?” I asked Emma. “Because she’s saying, ‘Don’t take so long, Mommy.’”
Entertaining was a priority for Emma. She often hosted luncheons and dinners for “The Group,” her friends. Her home was beautifully and artfully decorated, as were her table settings, the meals delicious. She and her friends, from modeling days, went out to lunch at the DuPont Hotel or Country Club or a restaurant on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal or the Chesapeake Bay, monthly, dressed in heels (even in their 80s), hats and gloves.
Best of all, for all of us friends and family, was her beachfront home in Avalon, N.J. Friends came for the weekend and Emma laundered fresh linens, prepared all the meals, and supplied beach towels and umbrellas. In late afternoons we’d lounge in the chaises on the deck overlooking the boardwalk, low dunes and surf. Grandchildren came and stayed for a week or two, but they didn’t get away with anything with their grandmom. One weekend I brought both my friends Mike and George down to the shore. Years later she remarked that she never could figure out how I’d succeeded in bringing two men friends with me at the same time.
All who knew Emma loved her; she was sweet and talented, they said; she kept a beautiful home. And she was beautiful, even until her dying day, at 97. Most of Emma’s friends died before she did. “I always thought I’d go first,” she said. But she marked her calendar, and waited till the next luncheon date in heaven, and then she went. We all miss her and those good times.
She was always there for me when I needed understanding and comfort. We were good friends. Emma’s been gone two years now.
She’d love our flower bed this Mother’s Day if she could see it blooming with pure white and deep pink tulips, red azaleas and pale purple irises; the yellow roses beginning to bud. Maybe she is watching over us. And so I raise a glass (probably not of milk) to the ceiling to our mother and friend, Emma, for all the many kindnesses, love and fun she gave us.
Happy Mother’s Day.