Who in this land can resist thinking about their mother today? My own mother has been gone nine years now, but I suspect you already know the answer to the question of how many days since then that I have not thought of her: a big fat zero.
So in observance of Mother’s Day, and as tribute to my particular mom and all the moms and moms of moms I know whom we honor today, I decided to revisit the eulogy I presented for my mom at the time of her passing at age 80 in 2006, abridging it just slightly to get to the heart of the matter—which, of course, was that great big heart that guided my mother’s life and loves through all her days.
What a life. It never ceases to amaze how much sheer living can be packed into one mortal life, particularly in the historically turbulent era our parents lived through. To look at our mother, this quiet, unassuming woman with the kindly smile and gentle manner and to realize the steely resolve, the resilience, the incredible strength she demonstrated from the beginning of her days till the end, is to feel humbled, and for those of us born to her, honored in the most profound of ways.
Nine years ago, my brother and I stood up here to say a few words about our father, so it felt appropriate now that my sisters share a few memories and perspectives about our mom. The only problem was that none of them could quite bring themselves to speak at an occasion such as this. Reflecting on this the other day, I realized: how perfect. As much as my sisters have their own decidedly unwallflower-like personalities, how like our mother it is not to want a microphone in this setting.
My mom wouldn’t talk at someone’s memorial in a million years, so today, my sisters stand—or sit—in solidarity with her one last time, and I am happy to do a little pinch-hitting for them here. I’ve been talking to these glorious sisters of mine over the past days, gathering their reflections and remembrances, having a wonderful time exploring the alleyways of their experiences that are by turns poignant, funny and profound. I’ll be weaving those together here with some of my own reflections in what I hope will be a fitting portrait of our mom.
One of the things you always realize in talking to siblings about their parents is how, even within a tight-knit family, each child’s experience is so fundamentally, uniquely their own. There’s the family life as a whole—the all-family vacations and Sunday breakfasts and Christmas Eve gatherings—and then each child’s unique set of memories, experiences, regrets, joys and challenges with each parent. Let’s consider for a moment what fantastically different worlds Edie and Lisa, for example, grew up in.
Edie: born in Germany as World War II ended, the only (at the time) child of young parents who had been married less than a year, who had to flee their homeland for their very lives, landing in Germany with no money, under an occupying Allied Army, scrounging out an existence while awaiting some utterly unknown next chapter of their lives.
Mom was 19 when Edie was born. Her own mother had been dead for 11 years, she would never see her father again, and she faced a long separation from our dad at war’s end when he was seized as a Hungarian reserve army officer and taken to an internment camp and she had no idea whether he was alive or dead. Several months later, he was released to walk partway across Germany on his own, some 30 pounds lighter and dressed in rags. When he knocked on Mom’s door where she had taken refuge with Edie, she didn’t know who he was. Think about that for a second…
Eighteen years later came Lisa: born in sunny Los Angeles as the last of six children to a deeply devoted housewife who was now 37 years old. By then, Mom had long since resolved to put the dislocations of her past life behind her and settle even further into the critical task of raising the large family she herself had always dreamed about after the lonely orphaned life she had lived as a child.
Edie was just about to leave the house for her own marriage when Lisa was born. So yes, when you ask Edie and Lisa—and Bonnie and Chris who were born in between—about their memories of life with Mom, you get an incredible array of answers.
As young kids, we tend to think of our parents as unchanging, rock-like. They’re just always there for us in equal measure, with absolute consistency of love, devotion and attention despite the slings and arrows that life hurls at them as they try to make their way in the world. Life may be hard and require compromises and even backtracking from other people, but our parents are above such demands of circumstance, right?
When it came time for dessert, my mom would distribute it by laboriously slumping over a can with a fork and counting out the limited quantity (and thus highly prized) grapes one at a time so we’d all wind up with an equal number.
Well, kids: IT’S NOT TRUE. Life is flux, constant flux. It brings people and events, problems and catastrophes our way without regard for the challenges we face as parents. So yes, Mom certainly did change and face her own challenges from one of her kids to the next. And yet, and yet: stability, consistency, fairness, unflagging devotion, being “always there for us”—these themes recur again and again in talking to my sisters about Mom, however different their individual life experiences and histories were..
One thing everyone seems to share as a collective memory is the story of the grapes and the fruit cocktail. Trying to keep a family of six kids in fresh fruit at all times is an imposing challenge, so our parents compensated by buying canned fruit cocktail by the case.
When it came time for dessert, my mom would distribute it by laboriously slumping over a can with a fork and counting out the limited quantity (and thus highly prized) grapes one at a time so we’d all wind up with an equal number. To this day, I’m not sure how the one or two extra-terrestrial looking maraschino cherries got split up, but I guess that will be a subject for a more thorough family history later on…
Edie remembers wanting to go to a school dance when she was 14. The only problem for my mom was that there were going to be boys at this dance, so she said no. Edie begged, Mom replied with the 1950s version of “What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”
Then she said an interesting thing that revealed her as a master psychologist (as all mothers need to be if they hope to survive motherhood). Mom had an uncanny appreciation for how allowing kids too much too soon winds up being too, too bad for their lives. She told Edie: “Those boys all interested in these girls won’t be interested in them anymore a few years from now. They’ll appreciate you then.”
When Edie complained about this to a friend, the friend said, “I wish my mom cared enough to say no.” That seems like a really good point for all parents to ponder: caring enough to say no.
Bonnie remembers borrowing $300 from Mom so she could buy a car. A few months later, some friends were going to Hawaii and she thought that sounded like a really swell idea for herself, too. Mom did one of those throat-clearing things, followed by a slow shake of the head and the crushing words, “I don’t think so. You still owe us $300. Pay that off, and then you can go to Hawaii.”
Bonnie claims this made so much intuitive sense to her that she didn’t even feel badly about it, though I suspect there might be some selective hindsight memory in play there. In any case, I think she cleaned out the drugstores that summer of every spare tube of instant tan in between working multiple jobs to pay off her debt…Eventually, she got to Hawaii, and was far better for it.
But even with Mom’s willingness to say no came an openness, a flexibility to fit any given circumstance. I remember at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, showdown day, 1962. Mom told me I couldn’t do my normal after-school playground stint that day because there was a real danger that the Russians were going to lob a bunch of nuclear bombs in our direction. I didn’t understand why that should matter or pertain to me in the least. I had my basketball and softball addiction to feed. So I begged, pleaded, cajoled, and moped in my usual fashion. But Mom was unmovable. Finally, in desperation, I resorted to the cool clinical approach of math and reason.
“O.K., so how much warning will we have if the bombs come?” I asked her.
“About 20 minutes.”
“Mom, when I hear those air raid sirens I can run home faster than I’ve ever run before; I know I can make it in five minutes.”
I got to go to the playground that very afternoon. And in the L.A. Times the next morning, I read with greater interest than ever about the Kennedy-Kruschev standoff. I also learned an important lesson about the power of persuasion on someone who would take the time to listen and assess your case. (Sometimes, that lesson still holds me in good stead with my wife these many years later.)
Then there was Mom the comforter, a great big enveloping blanket of reassurance. A Mama Bear, except she smelled better. Chris remembers how soft she was, what immense comfort she provided when we were sick, how she stayed up nursing us, murmuring her motherly affection while always smelling of her beloved Wind Song. Chris had a great idea recently, I think: she went out and bought a small bottle of Wind Song and opens it now and again for a little stroll down Memory Lane. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself aromatherapy.
Chris also echoed something I heard from Edie and Bonnie too: “The most important thing she taught me was how to be a Mom. Watching how she was with all of us, how loving and fair she was, had a huge impact.”
For Edie, the ultimate compliment of her life came when Mom told her, “You’re a good mom.”
“Well, I learned from the best,” Edie told her in reply. And so she did…
And then there’s Lisa, the baby of the family, who, paradoxically, wound up having the longest and most intense and involved adult relationship with Mom. By the time Lisa started growing up in earnest, most of us were gone from the house, and Mom had learned to drive and gotten a job. She’d emerged from the long, self-imposed cloister of raising her family, from an almost monastic quietude, to intense involvement.
She started schlepping Lisa four nights a week to the skating rink, where Lisa took to the ice and Mom became an all-American skating mom, part of a coffee klatch group who chatted away while their kids tore up the ice.
This was also about when Mom became both a Billy Graham and a Dodger fan as well. She started wearing a Dodger hat and a “Whaddaya Cey” (Dodger third baseman Ron Cey) T-shirt. I think she hoped that by praying with Billy Graham, it would in turn help the Dodgers. And the Dodgers had some pretty good years in there, didn’t they?
“I remember lying on the floor of her bedroom for hours,” Lisa said. “We’d talk about everything under the sun. She was like a best friend who I got to live with for nearly my whole life.” Later, as Mom grew increasingly infirm, Lisa experienced the joys and sorrows that come with the classic role reversal of mothering your own mother. I know both their lives were immeasurably enriched by this, a kind of final gift they gave each other, mother to mother…
Now, lest anyone think Mom was about nothing but sweetness and light, all of us do seem to have memories of a different kind of wisdom: the corporal kind. Edie, bless her first child’s heart, seemed to be the primary beneficiary of this brand of wisdom. She’s the one who got us all familiar with the term “nyak leves,” which translates quite nicely into “neck soup.” That’s what Mom would warn Edie she was going to turn her into if she didn’t straighten up her behavior.
Or worse yet, she was going to tell Dad about Edie’s latest transgression when he got home, so that the neck soup would get some additional ingredients that might include the taste of a leather belt.
That soup might also be stirred with a spoon—of the wooden kind. In Hungarian, the word for wood is “fa” (pronounced “fuh” as in “fun”) and the word for spoon is “kanal” (“kun-null”). When things got serious with Edie, Mom would start warning her in an increasingly loud voice, “fa kanal, fa kanal!” When Edie persisted in that way she had, Mom would finally explode and start chasing Edie around the house, all the while yelling “Fa kanal, fa kanal!!”
Later, we understood that this event caused neighbors to ask, “What on earth is that woman yelling to her children?” They were relieved to find out that the discussion was only about a wooden spoon.
Chris, too, remembers getting her hair yanked when she wouldn’t take her antibiotic pills. Cured her of her pill phobia right quick, she says.
Lisa: see all the fun you missed out on by coming along after both Mom and Dad had mellowed?
These are all warm memories now, leavened by time, maturity, forgiveness, and the challenges we face within our own families. (How many of us have wondered in raising our own kids whether the time might be right for a modernized version of “nyak leves?”)
With Mom bidding us adieu and coming to the end of her earthly journey, we are left only with those memories now, with the stories we tell each other as the six of us are fully orphaned at last. Stories of love, drama, devotion, selflessness, high humor, longing, dislocation, rupture and reconciliation.
Now that Mom is finally with Dad, we have a remarkable legacy that it is our duty to remember, to appreciate, and to develop in the unique ways that we will. What a profound honor and opportunity that is, how fortunate we all are to have been born as Hidases, imbued and nurtured with an uncommon love that it is our privilege to spread like ripples upon the world.
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