Memories of My Mother: A Look Back (after a Year) and a Time to Look Forward
Estelle the ballerina
As a young married woman
Estelle with grandkids and great grandchildren celebrating her 99th birthday
“You are so lucky. She lived such a long life” became an all too familiar comment from friends and family when my mother passed away last fall at almost 101 years of age.
Yes, she had died far older than almost everyone I personally knew and much older than most of my friends’ parents. However, in the time she grew older, I had often read obituaries of men and women in their centennial years, some even 107 and still sprightly.
The idea that she would live longer seemed a real possibility or at least part of our family’s magical thinking. And when she died—possibly just wearing out like an old appliance well past its warranty, it still seemed that she had passed away too young, at least for my two grown daughters and me and other close family members.
We did not feel lucky. We had come to count on her as our anchor, first when my father and their grandfather died decades ago and then after my divorce left me feeling rudderless until I found my sea legs as a single survivor. My mother had found herself widowed at age 72 and taught me how to navigate my new life.
On her own, she sold the suburban house she had lived in and loved for 43 years and moved to Manhattan. She decided we all would rather spend time with her in a bustling city than a sleepy village. She was right, and it reflected how she always thought of us and our needs. We often gathered there, and each of us also stayed with her for long stretches, learning the joys and challenges of multifamily living, including not overtaking her closet space or loading her dishwasher improperly.
Although the three of us had talked among ourselves about trying to prepare for the inevitable--her death, and checking with one another if we thought we’d each be okay, we all found we weren’t in different ways. We worried, sometimes selfishly.
Who would polish the silver, which she always did enthusiastically, tell us stories—we referred to her as the Jewish Scheherazade--of growing up during the Depression in the Midwest and feeling grateful for whatever her extended family had, remind us that if we had a book—and she had hundreds, we always had a friend and share her techniques to make roast chicken, rugelach, brownies, spiced apricots, all of which she considered far better than the new fancier recipes from cooking stars like Julia, Ina and Martha.
She kept us centered about what was important—good values, loyalty, helping others less fortunate, staying in touch with family and friends and maintaining an upbeat attitude even when things seemed downright bad. “If it rains before 7 a.m., it will stop before 11 a.m.,” she always said, quoting her late mother. If a friend or family member caused great upset, she had a simple remedy. “To hell with them,” she would say, never obsessing over a possible fallout.
And she encouraged each of us to pursue a passion as a profession. She had worked sporadically as a nutritionist but only briefly, usually teaching at a local college, given the era.
Of course, she had her ways that annoyed us, too. When doing something sometimes for someone we thought didn’t deserve her energy, money or time, she would say, “My mother would want me to do this.” We would have preferred that she explain why it was important rather than quote her mother whom we’re not sure would have thought so.
She also lost patience with those who didn’t write or call to say, “Thank you,” for a gift or a meal out. We tried to explain that she should be gifting others for the pure joy and not to receive a note or call. But she wanted none of our rationalizations. At the same time, she discouraged gifts for herself. “I need nothing. I am an old lady. Keep your money for yourself,” she said and meant it, or at least most of the time. She loved getting fresh flowers for certain holidays until she was too old to freshen the water and cut the stems.
And we knew what mattered with her since she rarely beat around the bushes. “Comb your hair before you go out,” she would say to each of us. “So-and-so has never been generous,” she said about one friend. A certain restaurant went down a notch in her book because it failed to heat its bread, though a big basket of rolls and slices put on the table might compensate, especially if it included her favorite pumpernickel with raisins. She sometimes slipped one into her purse to take home.
Yet, as the middle child, she was reluctant to voice some opinions to others outside our circle and would often expect her dutiful daughter—me--to do the dirty work for her. That might mean prodding someone to write a thank you or call her more often. Perhaps, it was part of her need always to be liked. Sadly, we forgot to ask her why, as well as a long list of other questions we wish we had taken the time to pose.
For example, we now wonder why she and my dad bought an expensive Tiffany silver tea service with all the required pieces shortly after their marriage when they had little money and six years before they bought a home. We know this because she kept detailed handwritten records and original bills of everything they purchased, which noted the store, year, price tag and a description.
We also wondered why it mattered so much to her where someone went to college or graduate school and if she begrudged her mother for insisting that she always include her one sister on childhood outings, even though her sibling was five years younger.
But all these shortcomings were minor, we know. There was so much we admired about her, especially her sense of adventure and resilience. She left her Midwestern roots at age 21 after graduating from college with a major in chemistry to head East for a dietary internship at a hospital in New York’s then gritty Bronx. She was slender and always prided herself on maintaining a good figure, styling her short curly dark hair in a neat bob, keeping her white teeth in good condition and wearing something stylishly conservative but never expensive. At the hospital she met her husband, a young doctor, who asked her out on Christmas Eve. He was convinced, she’d accept because of her Jewish maiden name. She refused him promptly despite his full head of wavy dark hair and blue eyes because she was determined to attend her first Christmas Eve Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She accepted his second invitation, and they remained married just shy of 50 years.
She survived breast cancer at the time her husband was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, and she accepted the fact that many couples didn’t want to include a single, older lady even though she had never excluded anyone. “I’m not trying to steal their husband, and I always offer to pay,” she told us, wondering why she was not asked often. She swam daily once living in the city, well into her 90s, demonstrating a beautiful crawl or backstroke. She loved the exercise but also the free bagels served each morning.
She was also eager until she was elderly to try a new restaurant in a new part of her adopted hometown if her granddaughters suggested it, though she hated paying for an expensive taxicab ride. She would jump at the opportunity to travel with us anywhere, especially to her favorite London for theater and museums but also around the Cape of Good Horn, to China at age 90 where she was dubbed Empress Estelle by her travel mates and to a favorite spa where she loved our three-generation group and her granddaughters insisting she have a pedicure. And on any outing, she took copious notes to remember what she saw and heard. (We have saved these dairies for a future group read.) She also was happy to include our friends at her table at home or at restaurants and pick up the tab.
Her advice spilled forth like a flood. Her younger granddaughter would be wise to make breakfast for her husband each morning as she had done; her older one should have found a course in college on marriage, which she had taken decades before and said offered sage advice. She was quick to note that the best grandparents let their kids do their own style of parenting without interfering, though she frequently forgot that lesson and weighed in on this and that.
As she lost her filter and had more aches, pains and memory loss, we felt sorry for her and tried to bestow more love and kindness and spend more time with her. She rarely complained except before she needed a knee replacement. “We live too long,” she told us then and after a small stroke. And then she began blurting out more some uncharacteristically awful comments to her home health aides, “Your behind is too big” or “You’re not very pretty, you’re lucky you’re married.” We asked her to apologize, and she would sheepishly ask, “I said that? That’s terrible.” We told her we understood that she had no clue what was coming out of her mouth.
So, as we approach the one-year anniversary to end our mourning and write the inscription on her footstone for the Jewish ritual of an unveiling, we have learned several things about loss that we share with others who haven’t been as lucky as we have been. Only now are we able to acknowledge our good fortune in having her for so long:
- Nobody lives too long. When they are gone if you loved them there’s a deep hole in your heart, probably forever. It’s a badge we now wear with honor.
- We find ways to communicate and keep in touch with her, wearing a certain piece of jewelry or a scarf, talking about her regularly and sharing stories, naming a new baby for her.
- We visit her gravesite and chat to keep her informed about what’s going on in our lives and the world—the baby, a wedding, a new President she would approve of, changes to her apartment but maintaining and savoring the great view, new antics of her great grandsons, more flowers in the garden of my home she loved looking at from her favorite wicker chair on a back porch, the lingering heartache of the pandemic, and a new book about healthful aging dedicated in part to her.
- We feel both a house and apartment that were once shared now seem terribly empty and lonely, so we keep out some of her favorite artworks, chairs, candlesticks, rugs, photo albums and books to add her spirit forever to the spaces.
- We try to do things that she would have wanted us to do. Give to certain charitable causes she believed in. Keep in touch with a relative or older friend who keeps in touch with us (“The phone works both ways,” she always said). Buy the shoes or purse that would give us pleasure but not buy too much since her frugality would frown on that. Make a nice meal and learn more about our religion, not to be more observant but to be more knowledgeable and celebrate holidays together.
- We each cook some of the dishes she passed down—her rugelach, spiced apricots, hand-grated tiny potato latkes, New York Times plum cake. Whenever we eat ice cream, we think of her and her love for Schrafft’s ice cream sodas. And some of us keep chocolate chip cookies or brownies in the freezer for those just-in-case times someone might pop over.
- We love to read books and watch movies and TV shows as she did, thinking about her when re-watching her favorite Gilmore Girls or anything with Cary Grant, who was her benchmark for handsome.
- We try always to forgive, though like her we may not forget.
- We understand the true value of the expression, “may their memory be a blessing.” Hers will be and so much more.
More about Barbara’s mother and the arduous duties of caregiving for an aging parent or loved one are shared in our recent book, Not Dead Yet: Rebooting your life after 50 (Rowman & Littlefield).