Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Happy Birthday Mom
Today is my mother’s birthday and if she were alive to celebrate, we’d be figuring out how to place 93 candles atop her cake. But Min Elkin Shapiro, the skinniest of the Elkin sisters, died in 1981 just shy of her 68th birthday –my exact age as I write this.
I’m certain Mom would not have chosen to succumb to a massive heart attack at 68, but I do know she never wanted to be “old.” As you can see from the photographs I’ve included with this post (captions at the end), my mother remained a beautiful woman throughout her life.
To be honest, she was quite vain about her good looks. Well, with her gorgeous black hair (too thin, though, and later in life she covered it with a snappy wig), startlingly blue eyes, curvy figure, and flirty smile, she had every right.
If you’ve read my memoir, you know Mom and I had an ouchy relationship. She undoubtedly loved me, but in my mind, I never measured up. I always thought I wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough to please her. And that my brother, Ron, three years older than I, was her favored child. (Oy, what a needy brat I was back then.)
I often wonder how my mother would critique her daughter today -- with my hair its natural gray, my wardrobe ala the Gap, and my at-home attire sweats and no makeup or bra. For her part, Mom was always fahpitzed (dressed up) – high heels, Max Factor pancake makeup, cornflower blue eyeshadow, and Fire Engine red lipstick. Wait, there’s more: mascara that required a dampened brush swiped across a tiny black circle before painting her eyelashes (I watched, open mouthed, silent), plus powdered rouge.
And even in the 1940s, when Mom dished out meals in the drab kitchen of our three-room flat, she wore her Swirl housecoat, 3-inch wedge house slippers, and clip-on earrings. “You never know who you’re going to meet,” she would tell me whenever I balked at combing my hair or fixing my face before leaving the house.
Mom did live long enough to see my daughters grow up to be teenagers, but she missed their more recent successes. She loved her granddaughters completely, and blamed me for any wardrobe shortcomings. I remember when Faith and Jill were toddlers and I permitted them to dress as they wished and to leave their tresses tussled (a rebellion against my mom’s constant primping of me?), she’d say, “That’s how you’re letting them leave the house?”
Today, as she surely reads their words or catches their performances from her special balcony seat, I can almost hear her asking, “That’s how you let them talk?” Ma, there’s nothing I can do.
After writing about my own childhood in “The Division Street Princess,” I realized I knew very little about my mom’s, or her true feelings during her 25-year marriage to my dad. Oh, I wrote what I though she was feeling, but I never asked her what was really in her head during the grocery store’s tsouris, my dad’s poor health, and their money woes. And, of course, now it’s too late. Only two of eight siblings (four girls, four boys) are alive today and sadly, neither is in a shape to provide clues.
Perhaps one day I’ll write a novel and imagine what Mom’s life was like growing up in her Russian shtetl. Or how she felt crossing the ocean at age 9 for a new life in America. And since it would be fiction, I could create a happier scenario for Min. I’d give her a marvelous romance, successful career, and sunny life. And most importantly, no matter how long she’d be alive, she’s never ever look old.
Happy Birthday Mom!
1. Min and Irv’s engagement photo.
2. Their 1932 wedding photo.
3. A 1950s Division Street scene with (left to right) me, Dad, Mom, Cousin Estherly, Aunt Etta holding Cousin David, Aunt Rose with a shy Cousin Jay and Cousin Norman next to his mom.
4. Dad and Mom in the second row above Cousin Bobby, the bar mitzvah boy. Note Mom’s off the shoulder dress.
5. My brother, Ron, adorable in this toddler photo.
6. Ron again, age 19, in the Army.
7. Mom with baby Faith.
8. Mom with baby Jill.
9. Mom with her second husband, Joe. Although he was much older than Mom, he outlived her by several years. Despite the smiles, this marriage was unhappy. I think.
10. Mom and me, likely the late 1970s.
To blogger South of the Loop for her Jan. 16 “Meet the Author” post where she gives me a thumbs-up review for my Dec. 2, 2006 Newberry Library appearance.