BETWEEN THE LINES: All these years after her passing, I still think of my Mom, especially on Mother’s Day. I can’t send her a greeting card, so this remembrance will have to suffice.
When the commercials for sales and deals start popping up on television, days before Mother’s Day, I tune them out since they don’t concern me.
My mother died on December 24, 1998. It was Christmas Eve. For the last 14 years, even though I never observed Christmas — because I’m Jewish — Christmas Eve is a time of recollection, not celebration.
For that matter, so is Mother’s Day. Other than thinking about her and sending a silent message on the second Sunday in May, ever since the first one, five months after she died at age 76, its impact fades with each passing year.
Oddly, the relationship with my mother peaked before she died, despite the fact she lived in Florida and I only saw her once or twice a year. Distance was an issue, but, more importantly, we were the only two left in our immediate family. My younger brother died in 1988 and, six years later, after open heart surgery and countless trips to the hospital, my father died.
During the periods when my father was hospitalized and recovered, the previously flawed bond between my mother and me — covering good times, bad times, celebrations and contentious discord — mollified before it vanished as our mutual need for solace turned into trust and friendship.
My Mom and I began to depend on each other more than ever. We discussed personal things we consciously avoided before. Our regularly scheduled monthly Sunday morning phone calls became more frequent when we felt the urge to have a discussion.
We grew closer as we analyzed the assorted conflicts that were part of our hostile past. Now was the time for reconciliation and honesty. I’m grateful that we reached an accord, which allowed me to better appreciate and understand her in what proved to be her final years.
The news of my Mom’s death that Christmas Eve morning was as shocking as it was upsetting. I was home packing for a weekend trip to visit friends when I got a call from a co-worker, who sounded distraught as she told me to call Florida. My mother was seldom sick, but as I dialed her number, I knew something was amiss. Except for a bout with ulcers, decades earlier, which led to her quitting a 25-year smoking habit cold turkey, she was healthy.
After one ring a man answered, which was, in itself, unsettling since my mother lived alone and was not dating, so I anticipated the worst. It was. The man introduced himself, said he was a state trooper and then, sounding heartfelt, calmly told me my mother had died. To ease my alarm, he said it appeared that she passed in her sleep. He then gave me advice on what to do when I arrived to take care of funeral arrangements and hung up.
I sat stunned for a few minutes and then paced as thoughts of my mother trickled through my mind. I experienced a rush of emotions and, after I composed myself, I realized I had to sort things out, like fly to Florida, prepare her funeral and deal with the property she left me. I contacted a friend who booked my airline ticket. As I packed, and during the flight to Florida, my thoughts were solely about her and the lasting effect she left.
I reflected and recognized that I possessed many of her admirable qualities, but also some of her faults. On the whole, they have made me a better person. (This apple didn’t fall far from the tree.) She had a friendly, refreshing nature, which sometimes didn’t eclipse her stubbornness, and, at times, left no room for compromise.
My mother instilled in me a love for music and movies, as well as books. Though our tastes radically diverged as I got older, I distinctly remember my music education forming as I listened to music on the radio or from a record player, mostly from pop stars of the 40s and 50s.
Her favorites were Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. She insisted her hand was one of several in a photograph on the back of the “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall” album. She was there and assumed that since she managed to squeeze her way to the lip of the stage for one show, it was hers. Fantasy or not, what did it matter? As I grew to embrace rock and roll and its early stars, she understood my enthusiasm because she idolized Frank Sinatra when she was a Lincoln High School bobbysoxer.
She was, I believed, a little envious during my years in entertainment public relations when I conveyed tales to her of mingling with celebrities and stars.
When I switched professions, though, she never told me how pleased she was when my writing was published. She proudly shared copies of my columns and articles with family and friends.
Long before the struggle for women’s rights, my mother, like many of her peers, was content being a housewife. On the other hand, if she had an opportunity for another career that was not widely available to her generation, she would have been successful at that, too.
As much as I admired my mother for her strength, fortitude and nerve, I valued the respect she offered in her final years, not due to her instinctive maternal commitment, but because we came to appreciate and understand each other.
Now and then I think of my Mom when life sucks. She was always supportive, but never made it easy or placated me. Yet, I occasionally wish I could speak with her to make it through the rough times.
This one’s for you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.