The above photo was taken last year during the shooting of the film “The Prestige” in our house. Among the hundreds of props that were brought in to transform our first floor into an 1890s English saloon for two short scenes was this lush wreath of fresh flowers. On the day that the Touchstone crew packed up the props and returned our house to its original condition, one of the set decorators grabbed this early 1960s portrait of my young parents and placed it inside the wreath. I kept my parents in this display for weeks until the flowers dried up all around them. I love this picture. My mom and dad remind me of Rob and Laura Petrie in all their fresh-scrubbed innocence and youth.
Today is the 73rd anniversary of my mother’s birth, and continuing a tradition I observed on her 71st and 72nd birthdays, I’m writing another episode of “The Judy Miller Show.” My mother shares her birthday with several people she admired greatly. This list includes Fred Astaire, David O. Selznick, Fats Domino, Nancy Walker, Marie-France Pisier, and the singer Donovan. The weird thing is that I have memories about my mother that relate to each one of those May 10th babies. She also shares her birthday with both John Wilkes Booth and Mark David Chapman, creepier cohorts to be sure, and yet even they remind me of my mom, since she was the first person I’d call during any traumatic event in the news. (No, we weren’t around for Lincoln’s assassination but I sure remember talking to her the night John Lennon was killed.)
To be honest, I’m feeling particularly sad this year. May also marks the anniversary of my mom’s death eight years ago. My daughter was only 4 when my mother died and now that Leah is changing so much as she moves into her teenage years, the absence of my mother in her life is even more pronounced. I miss the attention my mother would have lavished on Leah and her other grandchildren, the endless kvelling she would have had for everything Leah has done, and the special relationship the two of them would have continued to develop over the years.
I’ve already written about how grateful I am for my daughter’s red hair, which is exactly the same gorgeous shade of red as my mom’s. I haven’t read that much about Freud’s Oedipus complex, but I know enough to stop denying that I have a touch of it. I’m not saying that I grew up with inappropriate Oedipal fantasies, but I certainly remember thinking that my mother was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I still think so. I especially remember, even from a very young age, taking in the brilliant hues, texture, and smell of her luxurious red hair. When Leah was born, I jumped up and down in the Cedars-Sinai birthing room at the sight of it, and sent a prayer of thanks to the God of Recessive Genes for his good work, all the more remarkable when you look at the North African background of my dark-haired French ex-wife. I know it’s crazy but I really believe that Leah’s red hair connects her (and me) in some very real way to my mom.
Here’s one of my favorite photographs of my mother, taken in 1939 when she was 5 years old. There’s something about it that reveals both her mischievous nature and the vulnerability that caused her to be terribly hard on herself over the years. My mother suffered from a lot of worthiness issues throughout her life, especially after her difficult divorce which resulted in her living apart from her three children, something she never forgave herself for. She condemned herself for so much during her life, but as far as I’m concerned, her real worth was more accurately measured by the enormous number of people who loved her. Despite her constant self-deprecation, she had a charisma that couldn’t be extinguished. Her job at the gargantuan Merchandise Mart in Chicago put her in direct touch with thousands of people every day and I can safely say that literally thousands of people loved her and considered her a friend. I know that wherever we traveled in the world, be it the streets of Paris or the Old City of Jerusalem, people she knew would appear out of the woodwork, excitedly running up to my mother screaming “Judy!” How I wish she could have really taken in how loved she was and shared the positive feelings that others had for her.
My mother never thought she was a very good writer but anyone who received one of her letters knew how funny and creative she was. Only one piece of her high school writing has survived and rereading it this morning I’m struck by how much it reminds me of my own style. For one thing, she doesn’t hesitate to weave in elements of pop culture into the short story, in this case Milton Berle’s TV program. I also noticed that she named the main character Sue (was this the origin of my sister’s name?) and the fact that she wrote in green fountain pen ink which became my trademark years later. If she could write this well as a teenager, I wonder what she might have accomplished had she continued down this path. In honor of her birthday, here is my mother’s story, one that was last read by her teacher at Evanston High almost 60 years ago:
Heading for a W
by Judy Karoll
Sue hadn’t studied for her geometry test. Last night, during “The Milton Berle Show,” when her mother had asked, “Sue, have you finished your homework?” she had nodded in what she hoped was a confusing way, leaving it up to her mother to decide whether the nod indicated an affirmative or negative reply. Before Mrs. Kaene had a chance to make this difficult decision, the phone had rung and she had hurried off to quell its insistent jingle. Sue had no time for a twinge of conscience because “Uncle Miltie” was in the midst of a riotous skit and it demanded her utmost attention. Later as she lay in bed she had mollified her uneasiness with her standard argument used on occasion against parents, teachers, and self—How can I study something I don’t understand? If a bright one countered with, “Studying has to come before understanding,” Sue would remain firm. “I’ve read the Pythagorean Theorum nine-hundred times and I still can’t work one problem using it. That proves I just can’t do Geometry.”
Now it was 10 o’clock in the morning and Sue had visions of spending the rest of her life in Room 101, trying to prove ∆ A congruent to ∆ B.
All around her heads were bent over the long test forms. Sue had given up her sparsely filled answer sheet as a lost cause a full ten minutes ago. The silence of the room was broken momentarily by the clang of an I.D. bracelet as someone vigorously erased a mistake. Since she had nothing to do, Sue decided to play the game her health-ed teacher had used to illustrate hearing yesterday. You were supposed to count all the sounds you heard in one minute in a quiet room. A chair creaked—one—pencils scratched—two—the clock ticked—three—someone in the back row sneezed—four. Uh-oh, here comes “old watchdog.”
Mr. Ryan, the geometry teacher, had been named “old watchdog” by his students for two reasons. Number one, he was old, and number two, he had the disarming habit of siting in front of the class during tests like an alert hound. His head would nod and one eye would close but he always managed to keep the other one open to spy on potential deceivers. Now he was headed down Sue’s aisle and she quickly picked up her pencil and pretended to be at work. Mr. Ryan passed and Sue’s pencil dropped back into the worn ridge near the top of her desk.
That’s all I have. I’m not sure if this was the complete story or if it went on, but I know that I’d like to hear a lot more from this teenaged girl. Here is a photo of my mother in high school (she’s second from the left) that appeared in the Chicago Tribune about the time she wrote this story. I wish I knew more about those years. Why didn’t I talk to her more about this time in her life, and her writing ambitions? I remember her telling me that she and a few other Chicago kids were bussed into Evanston and were the only Jewish students in the school. I’m sure my mom would have stories about the other students in this photo, Richard Weber, Mary Nolan, John Owens, and Carolyn Rosenbaum. I do remember that among her classmates were the original Toni twins, and that as one of the few Jewish students in goyishe Evanston, she always felt like an outsider.
I miss my mom today even more than usual. Tonight Kendall, Leah, and I will have dinner in honor of Judy Miller at the kind of restaurant she liked best—an Old School red leather-boothed steak house, and I will try to be grateful for the time we had with her instead of just grieving all the years ahead without her.
Happy Birthday, Mom.