Remember the character named Judy Miller that Gilda Radner used to play during the early days of “Saturday Night Live?” She was an insanely hyperactive little girl in a brownie uniform who put on imaginary talk shows in her bedroom with her stuffed animals as the guests and the audience. She hurled herself around the room with wild abandon, jumping up and down on her bed while shouting on the top of her lungs, “It’s the Judy Miller Show!” I’m sure the skits were largely improvised—nobody could write such hysteria on a page. Oh, how I loved that character. Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller made me laugh almost as much as the other Judy Miller I had in my life: my mother!
Today would have been my mother’s 71st birthday. With Mother’s Day two days ago, her birthday today, and the sixth anniversary of her death in two weeks, May is a month that is heavy with memories. When my mother was dying of lung cancer in 1999, I worried that the images of the five months between her diagnosis and death were so excruciating that they would supercede all my other memories of her, but I’m happy to say that this has not been the case. I can still remember how she looked as the cancer overtook her body and at the moment of her death in my sister’s house, but I’m relieved to note that the memories of this short time period now take a back seat to the lifetime of images I have of my healthy, strong, beautiful, and very funny mother.
My pattern for the past few years has been to think about my mom a lot in early spring but once May arrives, a month that is so redolent of my mother’s birth and death, I slip into some kind of protective numb-out. I noticed this last Sunday on Mother’s Day. I took Leah to her mom’s house and helped her make Sophie breakfast in bed. Leah came up with the idea of putting my iPod on the breakfast tray cued to a song she found from “Minnie’s Boys,” an obscure musical about the early days of the Marx Brothers that flopped on Broadway in 1970. The song was called “Mama, a Rainbow” and began:
What do you give to the lady
Who has given all her life
And love to you?
What do you give
To the reason you’re livin’
I could windowshop the world
Before I’m through.
Then it goes through all the items (a rainbow, a sunrise, a palace, diamonds like doorknobs, mountains of gold) that are not good enough for Mama. Needless to say, Sophie was so moved she could barely get through her matzah brei and strawberry shortcake!
I then rushed home for the brunch we were having at our house to honor my mother-in-law Betsy, Leah's stepmother Kendall, and my sister-in-law Brooke who is about to become a mother in a few weeks. That night we accompanied Betsy to yet another Mother’s Day celebration at a friend’s house with several other mothers and their children in attendance. I bring all this up only because I realized at the end of this long day that I never once mentioned or even thought of my own mother at any of these events. Can you say EMOTIONAL DISCONNECT? When I have thought of her this week it’s been accompanied by the urge to reach for the phone to tell her something—the dates of Leah’s next play, something that happened on my last work trip, the latest antics of my nephews. And then I remember that she’s been dead for years and it's like taking a punch to the gut.
Glancing back at the times I've mentioned my mother on this blog, I was surprised to discover that most of the references have been about painful times, especially my parents’ divorce. Good God, I need to write about the other parts of my mom. There are endless stories that show just how wonderfully neurotic and funny and creative and loving she was. But I won't be writing any of those stories today. The gauze that I feel in front of my eyes during May has yet to lift.
A big part of the loss I feel these days centers on what I don’t know about my mother and never will because she’s not here to ask. I found the baby book that my grandmother started for my mom in May 1934 and realized that I know next to nothing about her early years. I think the earliest story I ever heard was when she went to see “The Wizard of Oz” when it opened in 1939. Oh, and I remember her telling me how much she loved President Roosevelt and how she thought he’d be President for her whole life (he did manage to stay in office for her entire childhood!). Most of her other stories occurred much later and revolved around teenage angst, lost loves, and, of course, her marriage at the age of 19 to my dad.
After my mother’s death I found a few items from her school years that had miraculously survived (unlike the rest of us, my grandmother was NOT an OCD hoarder—she couldn’t throw mementoes away fast enough!). I was amazed to read an essay my mother wrote in high school about Senator Paul Douglas and his hopes for U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know what surprised me more—reading my mother’s passionate views on such issues as the threat of communism and American’s post-war responsibilities, or her closing paragraph that sounded like a self-help message to my fractured psyche: “If we take the attitude of defeatists or if we let fear creep in and clog the mechanisms of our brains, we would be better off living in ignorance. I believe that if we buckle down, pull together, willingly make the petty sacrifices asked of us and think clearly without becoming hysterical, we will emerge from this confusion more united than ever and unity means peace."
I was also fascinated by the school evaluation I found of my mother from 1949—there was one written by her teacher and one self-assessment. Some of the labels that were bandied in her direction stuck with her for the rest of her life. “She is a person of good will, but does not realize that her carelessness in forgetting to return books, her tardiness, and her noisiness are forms of selfishness for which other people criticize her.” Oy, why were people always telling my mother to shut up? She wrote about herself, “I am still immature in many ways and I have still to learn the all important habits of self-control and my other nemesis punctuality.” Isn’t someone who is able to acknowledge her own immaturity rather…well, mature?
I just forced myself to listen to the end of that song from the Broadway flop that Leah played for Sophie on Sunday. If only I could place the cued-up iPod on a breakfast tray for my mother or find earphones that extend to wherever she is now, I would love for her to hear these words:
Mama, a lifetime
Crowded with laughter
That’s not long enough
Not half long enough
What can I give you
That I can give you
What will your present be?
Mama, young and beautiful
Always young and beautiful
That’s the mama I’ll always see
That’s for mama...with love from me.