Nine days before Mother’s Day, my mom died of breast cancer at 72. She’d actually been dying for five years, But that kind of dying I could occasionally “forget,” such as whenever the cancer was in remission.
My mother pregnant with me in 1948.
An able mechanic, she ran a service station when my father died and was a part-time portrait and bathing suit model.
Like the time I flew to New York to take her home from the hospital where she had undergone blood transfusions. I found Florence putting on her eyeliner with one hand and salvaging every eating utensil that would be useful in her microwave with the other. “I paid good money to be here; I’m entitled,” she said.
Another time when I “forgot” my mother was stricken with cancer was during one of her visits to North Carolina. I returned home from a quick errand to find Florence standing in the middle of my country road, perfectly coiffed, made up and manicured, clad in heels and a stunning outfit.
She was shouting and waving a can of horse grain at my runaway horses, thinking the fugitives would heed her, while the local folks were just driving by in disbelief. With her deep New York accent, she informed the entire countryside that she hadn’t the energy for this nonsense. “Suit yourself,” she yelled to the horses, whose ears prickled from the unfamiliar huskiness. “I’m watching Oprah.” She handed me the can as she tottered off into the house.
And Florence certainly didn’t appear even a wee bit sick the time she practically crawled under her car to make sure the mechanics were draining all of the old oil. My mother (nicknamed “Maude” because she was frequently mistaken for actress Bea Arthur’s hit sitcom character before playing Dorothy in The Golden Girls) advised beauticians on the latest haircutting techniques and plumbers on what size pipe to use. She entered restaurant kitchens to demonstrate before stunned chefs the correct way to flip omelets, and rarely missed an opportunity to instruct nurses on a better method of drawing blood.
I don’t doubt that had the nurses, farmers (she knew the right way to plant corn), mechanics, chefs, plumbers, stylists—and yes, even the horses—known that this woman would be dying soon, they would have dropped their teeth.
My mother herself displayed an almost perverse delight in the looks of disbelief she extracted from people, especially taxi drivers, whom she warned, “Take it easy; I have cancer, ya know?”
“Geez lady, you look great, I wouldn’t have known,” the cabbie would say, and she would smile vainly in agreement at how fabulous she appeared.
One of the most difficult things about dealing with a mother’s death, not unlike the flood of feelings after giving birth, is coming face-to-face with one’s secret craziness; the private rage, the relief and sadness, the strength and insecurities and all the other surprises that are part of the self-discovery process.
Most of my self-evaluating started years ago, before my mother became sick, when I sought help from various therapists in trying to undo some of the “damage.” In therapists’ offices, I learned to blame, pity, hate, forgive and eventually admire and understand my mother.
I can only smile as I recall the lessons and values that she instilled in me. Although our relationship was often volatile, there are four important things I believe I would not feel so deeply had I had a different mother.
Tolerance for diversity
I was raised by a woman who had a matchmaking talent built into her genetic code. Maude, I mean Florence, talked to anyone—regardless of gender, color, age, sexual orientation or native language—anywhere: the grocery store, buses, shopping mall escalators, doctors’ waiting rooms. Once, at a checkout counter, she was determined to set up an attractive young man on a date with the daughter of one of her friends. He politely tried to extricate himself from the dialogue by announcing, “Madam, I’m just not interested. I’m gay.”
Undaunted, my mother replied, “Gay, schmay, everybody needs someone. So, come, let me introduce you to my neighbor, Allen—to tell you the truth, he’s a lot nicer than that Sharon.”
The freedom to express myself
True, mealtimes at my home when I was growing up caused a rise in Maalox sales. Compared to the silent supper gathering of my friends, my house sounded like a debate on the Senate floor. Other families I knew would never dare to talk at dinner about their secret feelings of inadequacy, sexual curiosity, peer pressure and misunderstood emotions. My sister, father and I routinely voiced our opinions if we could be heard on top of Florence’s advice. I left the dinner table knowing that my feelings were valid and that, good or bad, angry or sad, I was allowed to have them.
Knowing that there’s more than one cover to fit a pot
I learned that there was more then one way to do something and that divorce was not the end of the world. In fact, it could lead to a new beginning. My mother knew what it felt like to be widowed and divorced. Married briefly in her early 20s to someone she referred to as “the creep,” she divorced and later married her beloved Ben, my biological father, who died when I was only a few months old. When I was 5, my single mother married Sherman, who I believed was my “real” father until some hostile relative told me at age 12 that he wasn’t. By then I couldn’t care. I loved him, he loved me, and I thought all kids attended their parents’ weddings. When Sherman died in 1976, Florence again became a single mother to my half sister, Iris. I knew my mother would not try on any more lids or covers. But she never berated me or made me feel unsuccessful because I had been divorced twice. In fact, after my first divorce, she bought me a pair of gold earrings. I guess this was her way of saying she didn’t like him anyway.
The ability to do anything a man can do
Florence was an able mechanic, electrician and general handywoman. She repaired toaster ovens, serviced her own car, replaced locks and built closet shelves. From her, I learned to use a saw, fix toilets, install phone lines and raise a child alone. However, when it came to my car, she’d moan, “Oy vey!” and clutch her chest in shame every time she learned I had paid someone to change my oil.
Florence could do it all. I remember the advice she gave to her somewhat helpless Ma Jong buddies, who marveled at her abilities. “Darling,” she’d purr, “you and I can do anything a man can do. Maybe even more.”
My mother taught me my values, and they are good values. She taught me that nothing lasts forever, so live for now. Self-pitying is a waste of time. Believe in yourself because no one else can do that for you.
I am filled with thanks and love for a woman who allowed me the freedom to be myself.
And now, that I am battling a life-threatening disease, I make sure never to be seen without mascara. Because, I too, want people to sometimes “forget” that I am sick and treat me the same way they would if I weren’t.