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!

Photo Captions
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.

Gratitude Corner

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.


Anonymous said...

Another touching story from the Elaine songbook. Thanks. "Tiger"

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your blog this morniing and a Happy Birthday to
Mom, I know she's smiling down on us all!!!!- Normie

Anonymous said...

This one is very moving. I can’t believe it. How time continues and here we are nearing 70!. Happy birthday to Min!
Hedy Ratner

Jill said...

I agree it was very moving. Love seeing your history and my history come alive. Min really was so beautiful. Thanks for writing the blog, mama!

Jill (of the messy hair and dirty mouth)

Neil said...

I know one thing... she's going to be very touched by this lovely post! They do have DSL up there, you know.

Danny said...

I can't stop staring at those photographs of your beautiful mother. Oy, that make-up routine, it reminds me of my mother's expression that she had to "put on her face." I wonder if she had lived if she would have ended up envying the ease and freedom of your natural beauty. And it would have been fascinating to see her reaction to Jill and Faith's humor, I bet she would have enjoyed it even if wasn't okay for you to say such things.

I really loved meeting Min in your book and think the novel is a great idea!

Anonymous said...

What beautiful writing. The last lines had me in tears. Your mother was quite beautiful, as you are! Actually I have to share a true story with you. I met with a friend this week who is 60 and letting her hair grow out gray and she is anxious about what it"ll look like. It got me thinking about when I'm going to let my hair go gray and FEAR gripped me. The idea of looking "old". I started filing through my mind the many women I know who I think are young and have gray hair. I stopped when I came to you and thought there's HOPE FOR ME. Yes, I can go gray, trim my hair in Elaine's chic cropped style and Viola!---hopefully I'll look as youthful, attractive and stylish as she does, even when she's wearing her Gap jeans. I'm still working on the courage to see how much gray I have but what liberation it'll be!!
Thanks for being an inspiration and role model for me in so many ways, especially in dealing with my own "Ouchy mother relationship".
love & blessings, Karen

Anonymous said...

Elaine: Very poignant--my mother also died in 1981--also at 67. Too young for both our mothers. I'm sure your mother didn't have your level of fitness, and mine had little fitness and had other indicators--but it gives one pause doesn't it? And it's one of the reasons I'm going in to get my heart checked out next month. And why I've re-mounted my Nordic Track and I'm back with Weight Watchers.

Anyway, thanks for the life reminder--I always enjoy your writing. Paula

Anonymous said...

My mother turned 93 yesterday. We celebrated Sat night in NY at a ukelelie hootenanny in the Village. She said it was her best birthday ever.

I am feeling like one fabulously lucky daughter.


Anonymous said...

Hillary Carlip wrote:

SWEEEEET!!! Happy Bday to your Mom!!! Another fabulous blog!


Anonymous said...

Hi Elaine, Happy birthday to your mom. Mine would have been 103 if she were alive. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of 39 leaving 9 children and a very heartbroken husband to mourn. I was only 12 and our youngest was 2. We survived and I have so much I want to write about our survival.. Hopefully, I can do it the way you have. Have a nice day. Evelyn

Anonymous said...

I loved that picture of her and Joe. You don't have another one do you. We were all brats, I remember how
I thought my Mom did not love me either and the fact that she sick so much of the time, I told myself I would never allow myself to be sick. It is to bad we have to get really old and they are gone before we really
get the picture.
Aunt Jackie