Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My Mother's Best Friend

There are some stories only a best friend can share.  There are some stories a mother might not share with her daughter... or might no longer be able to share with her daughter.  Those stories were front and center last Tuesday, and I'm still basking in the glow.

G'ma grew up next to Gladys; G'ma on the right, with the porch.

There were no metal gates or awnings then, nor when I visited in the 1950's and '60's.  We played stoop ball, out in the street, tossing the Pensy Pinkie against (obviously) the stoop.  We played handball in the narrow alley on the right.

I never thought about what it was like for my mother to be a little girl on that stoop, in that alley.  I knew about some of the neighbors, but the stories were just that - stories.  I didn't see the relevance to the woman who was my parent.  I couldn't and didn't imagine her as a child.

But I knew about Gladys.  I knew that she and G'ma had some grand adventures - taking the train to the West Coast, skiing in Vermont, camping, going to college, teaching.  I knew that Gladys and her husband introduced my parents.

I always wondered why.

The girls' friendship became less important as their married lives began.  We moved to the suburbs, they kept an apartment in Queens.  As an adult, G'ma wasn't one for friendships; I never saw her sitting around the kitchen table with a girlfriend, or going shopping with a girlfriend, or having lunch with a girlfriend.

I always wondered what happened to Gladys, but I never asked.

Somehow, it felt intrusive.  I had to wait until I was ready to see my mother as something other than my own appendage before I felt comfortable asking. That didn't happen until my twenties, when I was busy creating my own space in the world.  By the time I turned around and took a breath, dementia was stealing her memories. I gnashed my teeth; I'd waited too long.

After I was shot, Gladys' daughter searched the interwebs and found me.  We connected our mothers via snail mail; both of them preferring it to typing pixels on a screen.  Gladys understood G'ma's fading brain; her letters were full of memories and love.  They always made G'ma smile.

Last week, I went to New York a day early, just to see Gladys.  She's an artist, a sculptor, a poet, a widow, a rabble-rouser, a mother of two girls, a grandmother.... but when I walked through her door she was a teenager seeing her best friend for the first time in too long a time.

"Oh, it's my little Esther!"

There were tears. There were hugs.  There were more tears. More than once, we found ourselves holding hands.

We talked about my grandparents. "Radicals, for sure.  I remember going to rallies with Sam.  Ida was maybe less outgoing but believed very strongly.  After all, the Rosenbergs happened right around the corner from us."

Daddooooo teased G'ma about her Commie Parents; apparently, he wasn't that far from the truth.

G'ma was the better skier, the first to drive a car, the one who encouraged Gladys to join her at Brooklyn College.  Yes, they were old when they married; 26 and 27.... practically old maids.  G'ma's oft repeated lament that she "went to college when all the good men were at war" felt right to Gladys, too.

Daddoooo was incorrigible when he met G'ma; she was known for sighing "Oh, Herbie...." on a regular basis.  She didn't seem to mind his outrageous behavior, she seemed to find it somewhat amusing.  I was there to testify that it got real old real fast and stayed that way until he died; we took a moment to ponder their life together.

At that moment, I was watching my mother and father as young adults. I was glad Gladys was there, on the couch, holding my hand.

Gladys's wedding movie was on the DVR; my mother was ravishing, happy, smiling, full of joy and enthusiasm.  She seemed happier there, in the big room in the basement on Gladys' side of their shared 6-flat, than she does in the movie shot eighteen months later, at her lavish wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria.

"Maybe she saw him as her way out?  He was a very successful businessman, remember."

No, I don't remember.  I remember having enough-but-never-more, I remember the bankruptcy, I remember the arguments.  Was he not worth the effort if the money wasn't there?

I don't like to think of my mother in that light, and I don't think I need to do so, either.  That was part of her marriage; I was part of the family.  Sure, their divisiveness made for some miserable moments, but I was always able to recognize that it was all about them, and not about me.

I wished they were happier.  I knew I couldn't make it so.  I always felt loved.

We agreed that that would have to be enough.

Over lunch, I ready her poetry and looked at the pictures she'd found.  I took only one.

As Gladys said,  "She was a real bathing beauty!"


  1. as a child it is hard imagining "mom" being anything but. now as a grown child, with two children of my own, i find myself saying to my kids...ya know mom hasn't always been mom. i had adventures too. one day you will want to hear. i wish so badly i could hear of my mother's adventures. she passed when i was 15. she was just shy of 44. not knowing my mother as a person or woman and hearing those stories makes me a little sad now. up to that time she was just my mom. and mom's weren't cool. and they certainly didn't have adventures. oh how naive we are as children.

    what a wonderful story! so glad you were able to hear it and share it with us!!

    1. Hi, Loco :)
      That disconnect between the human masquerading as an adult and the person you kow you were before the munchkins came along.... that's exactly the nexus I was exploring. "Mom hasn't always been a mom" is a good thought to reinforce, I think. wish I had thought of it when The Cuters were growing up.


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