Monthly Archives: May 2016

Aging Ungratefully

As recently as a few years ago, I would be amazed and inspired by newspaper stories or TV reports about someone reaching the age of 100 and beyond. Then my mom moved in. And I have to admit that late last week when I read about the woman in Italy reaching the ripe old age of 116, chills ran down my spine.

Poor Little Rich Girl

When 8 p.m. hits on any night other than Monday (when “Dancing With the Stars is an absolute must), television watching is a hit or miss affair at our house. Most of the time Mom grabs a bit of sleep while watching TV, but we still try to be mindful of keeping it appropriate or interesting for her. Also, as if she has some sort of sonar for inappropriate material, she always manages to open her eyes at the most inopportune times. (Yeah thanks, “Blades of Glory”).

But we figured we had a sure-fire success when the three of us tuned in to the documentary “Nothing Left Unsaid” featuring Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Mom was interested and engaged from the beginning, when I asked if she remembered Gloria Vanderbilt — the “poor little rich girl” — who was born the same year that she was.

“Yes, I remember her,” Mom said confidently. Then she frowned a bit, as if remembering something else.

I could tell that she was confused or maybe annoyed by my use of the phrase “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Like most depression-era babies, my mother believed that “money changes everything” — for the better. Poor and rich in the same sentence? It made no sense. My mother knew rich. And she knew poor. And rich was better, but not for the reasons you might think. “Rich” ended when her father died, and she lost not only him but other family members as well. Then the tragedies just kept on coming.

If we back up to 1927, the year my mother was born, you might be surprised to learn that at that point she had a very good chance of growing up comfortably as part of a happy family. Her grandfather, her mother’s father, had brought his fortune with him to America and immediately invested in a six-family home.

Unfortunately, he lost his money during the Great Depression when a bank failed. After that, he was too angry and sad to spend much time with his grandchildren. When he did, it was tense and mostly, as my mother remembers, “scary.”

Then, around 1932, my mother’s father was killed in an accident while working for the railroad. His parents immediately  turned their backs on my grandmother and her four children, all under the age of seven. My grandmother tried to visit  her in-laws — bringing her four young children with her — and kept getting spurned. Finally one of my grandmother’s sisters-in-law kindly advised her to stop trying.

The only role model the children had — and he certainly was a wonderful one — was their  mother’s brother, Uncle Lou.

When Uncle Lou and his wife Rosanna started their own family — three lovely daughters in a row — it was harder for Uncle Lou to spend a lot of time with his sister’s children. And so one day a kind neighbor offered to take my grandmother’s four children — Mike, Millie, Josephine, and Gabe — to a nearby lake to teach them to swim. My grandmother accompanied him.

Nice, right? And then the unthinkable happened. A man came running to this kind man, bearing a horrible message. The kinds man’s teenage son had drowned while swimming with friends on another beach. My mother confided this story to me when I was in my twenties, and told me about the horrible guilt she felt. She avoided bodies of water for the rest of her life, and never learned to swim.

My grandmother — who had lost so much and had come to rely heavily on her own mother for support and on her building’s tenants for friendship — eventually lost her home. Having become a confidante and helper to her tenants — many of whom had terrible troubles of their own — she could not bear to throw them out onto the street when the rent came due and the money had been otherwise spent. Her salary as a seamstress in New York City was not enough to keep the large house afloat.

Tragedy. Loss. Alienation. Incredible sadness. My mother’s story had more in common with Gloria Vanderbilt’s than she realized. John and I were thrilled to see that she appeared to be as interested in the documentary as we were.

Chestnuts of wisdom included, “Only when you realize that life is a tragedy can you fully embrace it.”

John and I were enthralled with every aspect of “Nothing Left Unsaid,” and frankly did not want it to end. “Wow,” was all he could say when it was over. “Yeah, wow!” I said in reply.

We were stunned by all that we had learned, and mindful of the impact it would surely have on our own attitudes.

I turned to my mother.

“Mom, what did you think?” I said.

“What did I think?” she said in response.

“Yes, what did you think?” I asked.

Mom grimaced. “I think that she had a lot of ‘work’ done,” she replied.

Yes, that tired old phrase about leading a horse to water did immediately enter my mind.