How I went from a broke single mom to owning 2 successful businesses - What I do for a living
My 85-Year-Old Single Mother
"Dave, have you ever had ataco?" My mom dropped this question in the middle of a four-minute voicemail she left a couple of weeks ago. If she calls and I can't pick up, she leaves messages that are exactly four minutes long, because four minutes is when the voicemail cuts you off. So I get all sorts of news, uninterrupted, like the fact that my 85-year-old mother has just had her first taco.
"Because you really should if you haven't. Delicious."
Mom's trying a lot of new things now that she's a widow. This past New Year's Eve, her husband, my father, passed away. They started dating when she was 17 years old.
"Hard tacos or soft?" I asked her when I called back.
"How can you tell?"
"The shell, Ma. Was the tortilla shell crunchy or chewy?"
"Soft, then. You had soft tacos."
When someone dies, the people who have been left behind have tasks to complete. An obituary to write, a eulogy to deliver, death notices to request. It's a blessing, actually; your hands want to get busy so your chest can't feel anything. You fill those first few days and weeks that way, and you have your emotions later, when the circus leaves town. Mom threw herself into thank-you notes. At first, they were limited to people who had donated or sent flowers. Then she got the guest book from the funeral home and thanked everyone who came to the wake. This took her a while because the wake was a mob scene; the line snaked around twice and still went all the way out the front door. People waited outside on a January night, because everyone loved Dad, but also because the line ended with Mom, and Mom wanted to make sure she had a good long talk with each person. My brothers and I had to walk the line and entertain people as they waited, like characters at Disneyland.
And then she started thanking anyone who had reached out in any way. If you called, you got thanked. If you sent a note, you got a note. Hundreds of little thank-yous, in monogrammed stationery that she needed to reorder.
That's over now. Everyone who needed thanking has been thanked. All the tasks have been completed, and life without Dad has to begin.
We're two of a kind, my mom and I. We're both the youngest children, both surprise packages. As such, we're natural peacemakers. People-pleasers. We go along to get along. We like to work a room, tell a joke, give the people what they want. "If you could bottle your wife, Chas, you'd make a fortune," a colleague of my Dad told him after a few Manhattans at a cocktail party. I went on to have a career being friendly on live television. We have used our gifts well. All this is fine, until you get the two of us alone and ask us to make a decision. When my brothers were grown and out of the house, and Dad was away on business, we would agonize over where to go for dinner. We would each throw out suggestions, both of us convinced the other had their heart set on one specific place, neither of us wanting to be selfish. We're still that way. It takes hours, and we always end up somewhere we're both lukewarm about. Always.
Mom has a natural inclination to help people. She spent years volunteering at St. Agnes' Home, a Catholic facility for the elderly, driving residents to doctors' appointments once they were no longer able to drive themselves. It was an important job, but more so was the time before and after the ride, the time she'd spend in the people's rooms "visiting" with them. She would brighten their days with just a little conversation. Simple, but so necessary. Sometimes on summer afternoons, I'd go along with her, because I loved to watch and join in. "It'simpartentto help those lessfartunate," she'd tell me on the drive home. "It's what Are Lard wants us to do."
She went straight from her parents' home to the first apartment she and Dad rented as a married couple. Now she lives alone for the first time in her life. Now she needs a visitor. Now she needs to be taken out, entertained, shown new things. Helping is easy. Being helped takes strength.
She went straight from her parents' home to the first apartment she and Dad rented as a married couple. Now she lives alone for the first time in her life.
I have a lot of pictures of my parents: leaving for their honeymoon to Chicago in 1952, just back from the hospital with me in 1971, dropping me off in New York in 1994. But the one that always makes me laugh is from 1987, from some corporate retreat or another. Prudential-Bache used to have these annual events for its executives in some exotic place; activities during the day, dinners and cocktail parties at night. At one of them, in what looks like Montana, one of the options for a daytime activity was white-water rafting, and for reasons none of us will ever understand, my folks signed up. Along the riverside, photographers snapped pictures and gave them to you later, like they do on Space Mountain.
I cannot get enough of this picture. My mother in the back of the raft, fully dressed, as if for a nice luncheon. My father next to her, regret etched on his face, arm rigid in mortal terror. The rest of the gang on the raft, absolutely eating it up. I was a teenager when I first saw it, and at that age it's funny to see your parents in distress. I had copies made, and I put them in my scrapbook.
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