She was born in the Depression and she was raised in Brooklyn, in a small apartment above a drugstore named Berg’s. Her father worked in a post office. Her mother stuffed $3 a week in an envelope for food money. They had no phone. They had no car. She and her school friends would hang out on the fire escapes.
“You’re going to be a doctor,” her father told her, and she believed him, because she was smart and she adored him and she believed anything he said. She didn’t believe she was pretty, because she had kinky hair, parted in the middle, and her clothes were hand-me-downs from relatives, wool suits and plaid pants and things no young girl would want to wear.
One night, when she was a teenager, she went to a basement party. It was truly a basement, exposed pipes and a big boiler and junk furniture that some boys had collected from the trash. One of the boys wore a wet pompadour and played the clarinet, trying to impress her. She told herself, “He’s not my type.” Besides, she was going to be a doctor, like her father said.
Then one Saturday, when she was 15, the phone rang — they had one now — and a relative told her that her father had been plunging a sink, had turned to her mother and had dropped dead of a heart attack.
Her childhood was over.
Her motherhood began.
Always a caregiver
At first she was a mother to her younger brother, with whom she shared a room until her wedding. Then she was a mother to her own mother, who became depressed and needed shock treatments to deal with her grief.
In time, she married the boy with the clarinet — on Christmas Eve, in a lower east side restaurant — and after five years of sharing that same apartment with her mother, brother and whatever other relatives were around, they finally got their own place and she became mother to her own children, three in four years.
The doctor dream was over.
“Oh, I had my hands full,” she would say. “I couldn’t think about what I missed out on.”
Instead, like many women of her generation, she concentrated on what she had: a family. She was a strong matriarch, vocal in her love and her discipline. She kissed. She lectured. She inspired with her tenacity. Once, when her son was denied a book by a librarian who felt it was too difficult, she dragged the boy back and scolded the woman, saying, “Don’t ever keep my child from trying!”
She made her kids study. She made them breakfast, dinner and Halloween costumes. She was the one they woke at 3 a.m. after a bad dream. She was the one who said, “If you have one good friend in life, count yourself lucky.”
She became an interior designer, a good one, but deep down, she had a sense that life could have been more than just wallpaper and carpools and selling pretzels at the high school football games. But she put those deferred dreams into her children and she encouraged them to fly.
Always her father’s daughter
In time, they did. One moved far away. Two moved overseas. She laments having encouraged them sometimes, because she’s lonelier than she deserves to be. She has white hair now, and glasses, and she seems to be getting shorter. Some of her old argumentative fire has dissolved into quieter desires: to visit her grandchildren, to get a hug, to watch black-and-white movies on TV.
She still gives advice. She still tells her family to button their coats and take their vitamins. She still tells doctors as much as they tell her, perhaps because, deep down, she can hear her father’s encouragement, much as her children can hear hers.
She is like millions of mothers on this Mother’s Day, and, of course, she is one in a million to someone. In 20 years of penning this column, I have written about her husband, her youngest son, her daughter, even her uncles. But for some reason, I have never really written about her. And, true to form, she never once asked, “When do you tell my story?”
And every day of my life.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”