Sunday, May 9, 2010

I Remember Mama

Valerie says:

As mothers everywhere gather with their families today for Mother's Day, Jean and I would like to say a few words about our own mothers.

My sister keeps the extensive family archive of photographs, but I have some in my own small archive that I’d love to share for the occasion. Old photos are so much fun I’ve tried to keep these looking pretty much as old and creased as they are. Here are a few memories and vignettes. (Above left, a picture of my parents shortly after their marriage in 1947, probably taken by a nightclub photographer. Check out the fabulous shadows. There's a reason shadows were so popular in film for so long.)

My mother was the first child of a proper Edwardian English couple. My grandfather worked for Cooks Tours, and at the time of my mother’s birth, he was working in Tunisia. It’s said that my mother’s first language was Arabic, because they had a Tunisian nanny for her.

When my mother was six, my grandfather was transferred to France. My grandparents wisely insisted on speaking English in the home. My mother and her sisters, in typical child fashion, insisted on replying in French. World War II broke out when my mother was thirteen. Since her passport identified her as a British citizen, after Germany invaded France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, my mother was interned as a thirteen year old alien/enemy of the state. My grandfather was also interned. My grandmother, as the sole guardian of two smaller children, was allowed to remain in the family home. Internment camp for aliens bears no comparison to concentration camp, but nevertheless during the course of the war my mother saw a number of horrors. I remember she occasionally spoke about these things, and sometimes wound up in tears.

War takes its toll on everyone. In my mother’s case, because my grandfather spent several years in internment camp earning no income, my grandmother had to go into the family savings. By the end of the war, there was no money left to send my mother to college. She had dreamed of going to art school and loved drawing fashion. Here’s a picture of one of her creations. It has the amazing detail that only the very young have the patience for. And look at that insouciant leg!

Here Mom is wearing a sweater that she plotted on graph paper and knitted herself. She knitted well into my teens. Back when winters were still cold, she designed and knitted two woollen vests for my father, who was enchanted with them. I thought he looked very dapper in them, too. He grew out of them, but never threw them away. I, too, kept them for years after his death, wrapped in paper. When I finally sent them to a thrift shop (since I never found anyone who could wear them), I felt bound to attach a note to them explaining their history.

My father, who served in the Pacific in World War II, was transferred post-war to Paris, and was introduced to my mother by a mutual friend. He was immediately smitten. They married some six months after meeting, and would have married sooner if my father had had his way. My inherently cautious grandfather was alarmed by my mother’s suitor and his ardor. (Grandpa was, after all, a banker, back in the days when that meant something.) Having already heard numerous stories of American servicemen conveniently forgetting about their Stateside wives to enter into invalid marriages with local women, my grandfather's suspicions were somewhat raised by my father's age: 33 at the time, 13 years older than my mother, he was certainly old enough to have an established family of his own, and old enough to pull the wool over the eyes of a young woman. My grandfather actually had my father investigated, to ensure that he was an eligible bachelor in the strictest sense of the expression. (He was.)

Starting from my mother (in white), next to her is my father, then her mother (my maternal grandmother), her father (my maternal grandfather), and her sisters, my delightful Aunts Madeleine and Marie. I think yard goods were still hard to come by then, so shorter wedding dresses became fashionable. I seem to remember my mother telling me that she later had the suit dyed blue.

I'm not sure if this is pre or post wedding, but it's around that time. Mom is walking her family's dog, Scatty. I never met Scatty, but he was very much a part of the family lore while I was growing up.

The post-war period was a heady time for American servicemen abroad. My father made a fair amount of extra money selling cigarettes on the black market. (At last the truth can be told!) My mother had taken up smoking in the internment camp, so I have to wonder if that didn't make him all the more appealing. (My father briefly took up smoking as a way of bonding with my mother, but she had him pegged, and he was able to give up the pretense early on.) With probably no better business skills than any of his peers, he made enough money to rent an apartment on the Champs Elysees. He wined and dined my mother lavishly, taking her to nightclubs where they could see Django Reinhardt, and where one evening they ran into Laurel & Hardy, and got their autographs. (I saw it in my youth, but it disappeared ages ago.) Above is one of three pairs of drawings a nightclub artist drew for my parents.

Here's Mom with my infant sister, above left. As a teenager, I fell in love with the silver ingot necklace that looks so fuzzy here, and spirited it away. Happily for me, my mother had stopped wearing it (or I would never have taken it), and I think she was pleased to see that it was appreciated. I still have it, and still love it. Click on the photo above right for a better view of it.

Sometime after my sister was born (in the American Embassy Hospital in Paris, excuse me!), my parents sailed to the United States and settled in Canarsie, a part of Brooklyn where many servicemen were given affordable housing, and soon my brother was on the way. (That's him, left, on his first birthday.)

Just as in the Gershwin song, my father did indeed say to-may-to, and my mother, having learned English from Londoners, said to-mah-to.
This was a bad idea in Brooklyn, and people made fun of her, including my father’s family, who mistook her accent for attitude. My mother’s English changed in ineresting ways over the years. By the end of her life, Americans pegged her for English, and English people pegged her as American. Here is Mom with her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother, and her second husband, whom I called Uncle Mike. In this odd picture, my mother looks almost Chaplin-esque in her small chair, as Nana and Uncle Mike appear to glower at the camera. It took them a while to warm up to her.

Mom had a sense of humor, though. I don't know who the gent is, or whether there actually is any beer in that can of Rheingold, but both of them appear to be enjoying themselves. This was also in Canarsie.

Here's Mom in Prospect Park with my brother and sister. By that time they had left Canarsie and lived only a few blocks away from the park. She looks great in her suit and her veiled hat. This must have been a Sunday, and maybe even an Easter Sunday.

Here I am in my first appearance on camera!

My mother was a champion gift giver. Not that she gave lots of gifts or expensive gifts, but she chose very carefully and personalized all her gifts. Every year for Christmas or my birthday Mom made sure I had wonderful books, starting with all the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland stories (way before Hollywood got to them). With the benefit of hindsight, I have to say one of my all time favorite gifts was the book The Panda’s Thumb, by Stephen J. Gould, who wrote a monthly column for Natural History magazine. My mother devoured Natural History, along with National Geographic and other publications.

While I had no natural predisposition for science, Gould broke everything down into layman’s terms. From him I discovered that I could learn about science and even embrace it. Thanks to the Panda's Thumb, I went on to learn about physics from Richard Feynman, and about the human brain from Oliver Sacks. (I have such a crush on him.) You never know which gifts are going to pay off, or how.

I could also count on my mother to choose a few Steiff toys for me every year. Never the large ones, and only on special occasions, but I think if a Steiff toy had ever been the only thing under the Christmas tree for me, I would have been contented not to have anything else. As a child, my bed was always piled with stuffed animals. Every now and again, despite my advanced age, I still buy myself a Steiff toy.

In this early color photo, I'm wearing a green velveteen dress that Mom made for me. There was a children's clothing company she favored (the name escapes me at the moment), and she would copy their styles to save money. I orchestrated this family photo, insisting that the cats and parakeets be included, reasoning that otherwise it wouldn't be a true family portrait. I look mighty pleased with myself, and Mom and Dad have their best 500-year-family-history faces on.

Once my mother made me a stuffed crab out of red felt. Just thinking about it fills me with wonder and delight. I loved that toy, and still remember how soft and squishy it was. It was a very odd choice for a toy, and that might be why I loved it. When our neighbors had a baby, my mother gave them not only my crab, but a wonderful red Clydesdale horse I had, and a toy lamb. I felt stunned and betrayed to see them in the baby’s crib. I asked my mother why she had done that, and she said I wasn’t playing with them. Well, of COURSE I wasn’t playing with them. I wanted them to LAST! I asked to have them back, thinking that was all there was too it, but my mother said she couldn’t do that, having given them in good faith. (Was that the English in her?) Sadly, the neighbors didn’t have nearly the love for them that I had.

My mother expressed her creativity in other ways, too. One day she made me some toys out of walnut shells. This little turtle, whose head and limbs are made of red cardboard, is the only one that survives. The last one to go was a gold scarab beetle. Its legs were made of sewing pins with black heads, which she bent into shape, and its eyes and mouth were made of seed beads and a bugle bead, respectively. In elementary school, she was tapped to do the art work for our annual kids’ events. One year she did huge butterfly wings for several children. (I think she got tapped because I was one of the butterflies.) I remember her making them on the living room table, thinking then that it was quite ordinary for any mom to make butterfly wings. She later told me how difficult it was. She not only had to make the wings, but make them so they’d stay on us, AND not be too unwieldy for little children AND remain undamaged by the punishment that children can put all things through. My sister has a picture of the night of the performance somewhere.

Shortly after I left Japan and returned to New York in 1992, I took a six week trip around Europe, partly to reconnect with my mother's side of the family, partly to remind myself what the other side of the world looked like. I left my cat, Sheba, with Mom and her two cats. Here is a Post It note Mom tucked among the clothes in my suitcase, as a gentle reminder to call home. I found several others during the course of my trip, but this is the only one I still have. Her handwriting is a bit shaky here, but you can see she had great penmanship. In France, she was taught in school to write on graph paper, and used it her whole life.

Mom was also a champion letter writer. A stay-at-home mom, she used her spare moments to write novella-length letters to her family. There were many days when she would already be deep into a letter as I left for school in the morning, and I would come home to find her still hard at work on the same letter. When I lived in Japan I received letters that sometimes reached thirty pages. I, in turn, could easily send back a twenty pager, but my mother remains the champ. I have almost all the letters she ever wrote to me. A childhood friend of hers in Paris says he has also kept all her letters. I hope to read her letters again one day. I'm saving them till I retire. (Really!)

Mom loved to cook, and had endless cookbooks, including the once again wildly popular Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I kept these books in my kitchen for years, hoping perhaps to learn cooking by osmosis. Finally I put the cookbooks in a box, and the box in the basement to reclaim an extra foot in my New York City apartment, but I haven’t had the heart to throw them away, since they have her notes in them. You never know. Last night I went to a local French restaurant and for the first time in years I had boeuf bourgignon with mushrooms, pearl onions, wine sauce and buttery noodles. It was a proustian experience, with the wine sauce and melting onions taking the place of Proust’s madeleines.

Mom never finished school, which makes me almost laugh and almost cry at the same time, because she was one of the smartest people I knew. My father earned two master’s degrees (English and library science), but it was my mother who wrote all his papers for him, since Dad was busy earning a living for the family.

Some of my earliest memories are of going to the Grand Army Plaza library with her, so she could do my father’s research, while I read Curious George, Dr. Seuss, the Madeline books, the Babar books, and whatever else was available. Grand was an apt word for that library (see above). It was like visiting the Parthenon, and inspired awed silence in me as a child.

Once I was safely off to college, my mother got her GED, and then volunteered as a teacher’s assistant at the local high school. It was a sad commentary on bureaucracy that despite being a native speaker of French my mother was paid less well than the degreed French teachers, even though her French was flawless. Mom was also angry, but not angry enough to go back to school for a piece of paper.

After she started working, she was able to go back to France every summer and see her family, something which had been very difficult while we were growing up. In my childhood, when we still had a party line (raise your hand if you remember what a party line was), Mom had to call the operator to make a reservation to put through an international call, so contacting France was always a special occasion. One of the times her father called us was the day in 1960 when a plane crashed literally two blocks away from our home. My grandfather had a map of Brooklyn, and called to make sure we were alright. My father’s mother said the family butcher was vaporized in the crash. I remember the incredible boom, which shook our home and the air, and I remember my mother rushing to cradle me.

After five decades of smoking Mom succumbed to cancer in March of 1996. Here she is, holding court not three months before her death. She looks to me like a female Sartre. I notice also the prevalence of red in the picture. My sister and I are both predisposed to red. Studies of identical twins separated at birth who did not meet till adulthood have turned up sisters who both wear multiple rings on all their fingers and brothers who both became firemen and wear aviator glasses. We three are obviously not identical twins, but I would not be surprised if a predilection for red can be inherited.

Always identifying with her upbringing in France, my mother asked to have her ashes scattered there. My sister and I took her ashes over in July, in time for what would have been her 70th birthday, and had a mass said on her behalf in the same Paris church she and my father married in nearly fifty years before. While we were there on our mission, my father, who had suffered the effects of Parkinson’s and multiple strokes for many years, passed away. The hospital said it was pneumonia, but my sister and I think he died of a broken heart.

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Jean says: I wish all my friends who are mothers - and their mothers - a very Happy Mother's Day! For those of us who do not have kids and whose mothers are no longer with us, it is a holiday that doesn't exactly apply. It makes me feel somehow out of synch. It does, however, bring up lots of memories and makes me nostagic for a simpler time and place. Since all the good photos of my mother are in storage out of state, none appear here today. Please do not take my lack of photographs of her as a negative. On the contrary, she is with me all the time in my head. I think of her often, wonder what she would have thought about current events and mentally talk to her on a regular basis. The older I get, the more I appreciate her and the more like her I become. Saturday, August 28, 2010 would have been her 92nd birthday. My posting that week will feature my mother.

This week we would particularly like to wish a Happy Mother's Day to our first readers from Iceland, Morocco and China (Hong Kong).

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