Sunday is Mother’s Day, which means, lots of husbands (and adult children) are still ordering roses and making dinner reservations for this revered holiday. Father’s Day it seems doesn’t get quite the fuss. In fact, in my house, a package of new golf balls and or a tie, and we were off the hook.
My late mother was certainly not a typical mother/housewife for her generation. She was prominently involved in community affairs, politics and on our Temple Board, on which she served for a mere 50 years.
My mother was also a remarkable public speaker, usually with no prepared speech or even notes for that matter. She was seemingly comfortable in front hundreds, and occasionally thousands of people. As a boy, if my father took me to one of these events, I’d be horribly nervous but my mother was unflappable.
In politics and at Temple my mother met, introduced to large audiences and often had dinner with an impressive array of legendary people. The list included: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Ray Bradbury, Daniel Shore, Senators Wayne Morse and Alan Cranston and Rod Serling of “Twilight Zone” fame. (My sister will undoubtedly remind me of many more.)
Next to Sandy Koufax, Serling was my #2 hero. At 14 I realized I would never play professional baseball but I still hoped to become a writer. With Serling coming to our Temple to speak, I failed to persuade my mother to show him some of my stories. Obviously he or she had slightly more to worry about that evening. And yet, at the risk of whining five decades later, I can say accurately that my first writing “rejection slip” came from my own mother. (Sounds like a Philip Roth novel.)
The “Jane Fonda” story, which I’ve written about before but not in detail (thus the Part 2”) came 30 years later. Long after my father passed away, my mother remained active and independent, still going to Democratic State conventions well into her late 70’s. But slowly, and sadly, there were signs of dementia, which would later be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.
Among the earliest sign was when my mother, in playing back her answering machine, began talking to it as though she thought the person was on the phone live. “Sylvia,” my mother said trying to interrupt a message, “You’re not letting me get a word in edgewise.” I gently explained it to her and she immediately realized the mistake. But these “episodes” would eventually become more prominent.
It was early during this period, on election eve 1988, when I called my mother to commiserate about the obvious victory of George Bush over Michael Dukakis. Months before, Dukakis had enjoyed a sizeable lead in the polls as much as 17 percent.
But then Bush’s campaign manager, the infamous Lee Atwater, introduced the “Willie Horton” set of political TV commercials. Intentionally misleading, they also fueled racist fears. (Be grateful I’m resisting a Donald Sterling joke.)
Atwater, in his dying days, was remorseful for his ruthless tactics and even asked Dukakis for forgiveness, which he received. But the commercials had helped swing the tide and Bush Sr. was going to be president, much to my mother’s chagrin.
But Mom was a realist about politics and soon was taking the election in stride. In fact, after about 15 minutes, she said, “Well, I better hang up now as Jane Fonda is in the den watching TV.” Naturally I thought my mother was confused and I delicately tried to correct her.
“Mom, you mean a Jane Fonda movie is on TV?” Now she was a little short with me. “What are you talking about?” “Mother, Jane Fonda being in a movie on TV is not the same as her actually being there.” “Who’s talking about a movie? She and I are watching the election results.” As it turns out, I was the confused one as Jane Fonda WAS watching TV in my mother’s den. And here’s how that came about.
Jane had been in the neighborhood knocking on doors campaigning for her then husband Tom Hayden in his race for the State Assembly. On the apartment building intercom, she recognized by mother’s last name, for among other reasons, my father had been a volunteer in Hayden’s Santa Monica office. (In the late 70’s Jane and Tom lived in Ocean Park.)
As my mother explained, Jane rang the buzzer and asked if she could come up and watch the early results. “Do you want to talk to Jane?” Mom asked. “Uh, no that’s okay, Mom.” (What was I going to say to Jane Fonda?)
“But mother, I just have one question. With Jane in the den why did you talk to me so long?” “I guess because you’re my favorite son,” joking, “Of course you’re my only son.”
As I reminisce about my mother prior to Mother’s Day, instead of writing this I wish I could turn the clock back and buy her some roses.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.