Growing up with my mom was like having a single parent; my dad traveled extensively for his work. There were periods here and there during which he was with us day to day, but for large chunks of time and for most of our ordinary days, she was my only constant in the parent department.
Mom was born in 1919 in New York City, the first of four girls, the child of German immigrants who came through Ellis Island just like millions of others in the early 20th century.
In the early twenties, the family moved out to Long Island where my grandfather built them a house.
A wistful smile would cross Mom’s face whenever she spoke of her mother, as if she were describing an angel, a true saint.
These were happy times in a house full of love. The happy times didn’t last, though, and the Great Depression caused them to lose my grandfather’s income, the house and ultimately, all their security.
My grandmother worked very hard and always managed to provide her family with enough food and holidays that felt special in spite of their poverty. Mom would simply say to me, “We were so poor” with emphasis on the “so”. But Christmas morning, each girl would find a stack of gifts on a table, just as delightful and precious to them as my Patty Playpal doll or bicycle was to me, probably more so. There might be a pair of s0x, hand-knitted of course, some special baked confection, a homemade toy of some kind and an orange. Rare treats, all.
In 1933, when Mom was 14, her mother died of tuberculosis and later that same year, her father died of an infection. After that, all four daughters lived and finished school with the Catholic nuns in Tarrytown, NY. My mother bonded with the nuns and their way of life to such an extent that she seriously considered joining the convent. Fortunately for me, she decided on a nursing career instead.
I always loved the stories she would tell me about her childhood and her years as a young woman in New York City during World War II when she was with the USO, the dances in the canteens, about the Air Force flyer she almost married, and the handsome sailor she did marry, my father.
Mom always advised me to keep learning, to develop skills so I would have something “to fall back on”. When I was a child, all the moms were at home, cooking and cleaning. The women’s movement was still a few years away. I don’t think my mother was an early feminist or a woman ahead of her time. She just knew life could throw you a curve and it’s best to be prepared.
As I grew up, she taught me to bake, to sew, and to garden. Making clothes for me together was one of our favorite things to do. Mom believed holidays are for celebration and Christmas is for spoiling children and one another. Each year, she started weeks ahead making batches of several different German Christmas cookies, just like she’d watched her mother do years before.
She taught me the importance of family. We moved around a lot when I was growing up and by the time I was 9 years old, the contact between us and my aunts, uncles and cousins became more sporadic. Maintaining close ties with her sisters was very important to my mother and she did what she could with letters and phone calls but I know losing that physical proximity was difficult for her. I’d always attributed that to her merely missing her sisters, but I’ve since realized that she understood, from her own experience and her own losses, how important those ties would be for me, in filling my life with family love and shared history. She made sure I heard all the news about my cousins that she heard from her sisters, even though we rarely had any contact ourselves.
Much of what she wanted for herself didn’t happen, but she concentrated on what she did have. She was my best friend and most trusted ally. I was the pride of her life. I wish I had been more conscious of things she was going through when they happened. I wish I had spent more time with her in her last years.
Mom passed away four years ago, after a four week hospitalization. We were lucky in that we had some time to talk, to say all the things on our minds. She knew she was at the end of her life and she told me the only thing she feared was missing me. I told her she’d be with me every day, following all the happenings in my life. I told her how proud I was to be her daughter and that I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
It’s hard to lose a mom. Several people told me at the time, “No one loves you like your mom.” I remember thinking that it is such an ordinary tragedy, losing one’s mother to old age, yet what a life-changing event it is for that son or daughter. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to lose her at the age she lost her mother.
My mother wasn’t perfect and she knew I spent some time in therapy learning how to process things my parents did and said, things that really had little to do with me, but with their own struggles to find their way. What I know is that she did the best she knew to do. She gave me all she had; all the skills, the stories that made up my heritage, all the preparation for life, and all the love she had, but mostly what she gave me was her presence.
Ironically, it was Mom’s death that brought to me the gift of family once again. Two of her sisters and several of my cousins came to her funeral and I have now reconnected with them. I’ve visited my cousins three times and am planning another trip this summer. We’ve all been through our own separate adventures in life but when we’re together, it is as comfortable as if we’d never lost touch. We never will again; it’s all up to us now.
You’re with me today, Mom, and every day. I love you.