Today would have been my mother’s 72nd birthday. 72 is a lucky number in Jewish numerology because “Chai,” the word for “Life,” is equivalent to 18, so 72 is four times “Chai,” or four times life! That seems like a good fit for my mom. Her earth life may have ended after 65 years but her spirit and the impact she made on her loved ones is definitely four times life.
I wrote about my mom at length a year ago today but I can’t let this day pass without sharing a few more random thoughts and uploading some items from the family archives. As I said a year ago, May tends to be a difficult month for our family thanks to the triple whammy of my mom’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and the anniversary of her death. On the other hand, it’s also the perfect time to celebrate her life.
Seven years after my mother died I still find myself reaching for the phone to call her. Especially when I’m doing something that I know she’d love to hear about such as our recent theatre trip to New York. My mother was passionate about theatre and the movies and was responsible for passing on that love to me. I can barely remember a day in our house when my mother wasn’t blaring a Broadway show on our old RCA record player. By the time I was five I had memorized the complete scores of “Camelot,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Flower Drum Song” through sheer osmosis.
Judy Miller was something of a Drama Queen herself growing up, at least according to my grandparents and my mother’s two siblings. As a young girl she was a bit of a tomboy and quite mischievous. Definitely more Dennis the Menace than Shirley Temple. When I find photos like the one at right, labeled “Judy and friend,” it kills me that I can’t call my mother for the story behind the picture and find out who that gun-toting kid is. Could it be the former classmate she told me about who grew up to be an infamous serial killer? I doubt it, my guess is that it was my mom who put the gun in this little boy’s hand.
I think that my mother could have been a great actress, and it was only in later years that I learned she once dreamed about a life on the stage. Here is the program from her performance as Meg in “Little Women” that took place on May 7, 1946. Sixty years ago this week my mother was walking the boards with the other Jewish March sisters at the Fine Arts Building on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. How I wish I could have seen that. Just as I am known to blurt out random lines from plays and movies without any seeming connection to the topic at hand, my mother used to constantly repeat the first line from “Little Women”—“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!” I thought of her more as Jo March, not prissy Meg, especially after she introduced me to the MGM version of the story starring red-haired June Allyson as Jo. My mother was a huge June Allyson fan, and looked a bit like her.
I have no idea if my mom continued acting as she got older. She was certainly obsessed with the movies and told me how she’d spend every weekend at the big movie palaces on State Street in downtown Chicago, right next to her father’s store, Karoll’s Red Hanger Shop. Maybe it’s just as well that she didn’t pursue an acting career, I don’t think she was tough enough to deal with the constant rejection. Despite my plentiful family archives, my mother spent much of her life avoiding the camera. For every well posed photo I have of her, there are about a dozen of her shielding her face with her hands and looking miserable as my grandfather chased her down with his Brownie camera. She had the maddening idea that she was unattractive no matter how many assurances she got to the contrary. The photo above shows my mother as one of the runners-up in the 1951 Miss University of Chicago beauty pageant. She is third from the left, and I ask you, is she not the prettiest among this group? If you’re sensing some Oedipal stuff going on, just email my therapist, it won’t be the first she’s hearing about it.
Here are two of my favorite photos of me and my mom. The first shows us building a snowman during the famous 1967 Chicago Blizzard. Oh what fun that was. While other parents were panicking about getting milk for their families, my mother, always a kid at heart, couldn’t wait to get out into that storm and start playing in the snow. The second photo is of my mother walking me down the aisle of a Parisian synagogue at my first wedding in 1993. It was great to share that moment with her but it makes me crazy that she was not alive to witness my marriage to Kendall in 2004. She adored Kendall and would have so enjoyed that day.
This photo of my mother and my daughter Leah reveals the most painful aspect of her absence. Judy Miller was the kind of doting grandmother every child dreams of having and the fact that Leah was only four when she died is agonizing. But at least Leah knew her and remembers her, as does my nephew Spencer. Last year on the anniversary of my mom’s death Leah wrote her a letter that I’m convinced she somehow received. Leah has performed in almost 20 musicals at this point and I haven’t attended a single performance without hearing my mother’s kvelling from the Great Beyond. Oh, how she would have loved being part of Leah’s life. The two are definitely cut from the same cloth, from their identical red hair to their creativity, love of reading, and obsession with musical theatre.
My mother went through some extremely painful times during her life as did my entire immediate family. But through the worst of the dysfunction, there was one thing that was never in doubt—the love that my mother felt for her family members and vice versa. It could have circled the planet many times over, and it is this love that I celebrate today.
Happy Birthday, Mom.