Many women have an a-ha moment when they realize they have become their mothers. I reacted to my moment with cranky resignation – and a little joy. Mom is my hero, no matter how many contentious moments our relationship has weathered. Her fierce work ethic and tireless dedication to family set a sturdy example, outweighing her sometimes cockeyed pronouncements about a girl’s proper comportment. Yet, I thank her for every zing, every dubious kitchen concoction that turned into a culinary victory and of course, for being there to stroke my hair and sing me to sleep at the end of a crappy day.
My mother's impish sense of humor still stands in sharp contrast to her contempt for life’s inequities. She’s always voiced her opinions with a raised brow capped by a brisk hand gesture for added emphasis. Such judgments were in the main directed toward those who didn’t pull their weight. She had no time for excuses.
No matter what you needed of her, she would always chirp, “No problem!” The job was done before you asked a second time. You could tell my mom to meet you anywhere. After three buses, four trains and a pack mule, you’d reach the mountaintop only to find her there ahead of you, smiling her party smile, smoking a cigarette and looking stylish. She looked like Saks’ Fifth Avenue on a Woolworth budget. If you dressed her in a burlap sack, she’d find a belt and make it work. She was stunning and quietly charmed the crap out of everybody.*
My college chums had long ago nicknamed my mom “the Countess,” not for any snobbery on her part, but because her old world Italian manners and reflexive elegance were impossible to hide. She knew how to carry herself, even if she learned all those fancy manners at the movies. She would extend her hand palm down and with a lilt in her voice offer, “Call me Toni!”
Mom used to put on lipstick to take out the garbage. All my years of teasing her about it could not alter her habits. I would ask, “Do you think you’re going to run into Prince Albert in the hallway?”
“It’s possibah,” she would say with a twinkle.
Pretty and feisty, what Mom lacked in education, she made up for in street smarts and intuition so uncanny it was irritating. I could hide nothing from her. She had my number.
Toni was generous to a fault with everyone else but careful with a dollar for herself.
A cross between Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gina Lollobrigida in anything, glamour was as natural to my mother as breathing. She struck the same pose in every picture you took of her. A graceful bend of one knee before the other, she would pull her hand up before her to the center of her waist and tilt her head ever so slightly to one side. Something she had seen in a magazine, to be sure.
But I could never understand why she felt it necessary to ball up her fingers when she posed. In every photo, her index finger was almost straight, as if pointing out something of note. Then she made her other fingers curl, dutifully genuflecting behind their leader. Mom later told me she thought she had big hands and wanted to hide them somehow.
She had instructed me to hold my hand in the same way.
Like a claw.
Toni had very definite ideas about how a woman behaved.
“A lady always walks from the knees down!” She declared.
Try walking only from the knees down…like a Geisha.
I protested, “It takes you five hours to get down the block!”
While I poked fun at her artifice, I had to admit that in looking back at old albums of her, the photographs were dazzling in their sense of style. One such picture was taken in 1963 in front of the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan. The winter sunlight bounced off Mom’s crème colored cloth coat, the fashionable raglan sleeves showcasing long black gloves.
With her short double-handled purse draped over her arm, a cigarette between her fingers, Mom’s stiletto pumps and gorgeous legs almost stole the show.
Almost, but not quite. Nothing could compete with my mother’s flawless party smile. I say “party” because whenever she smiled, the party began.
That was another thing she told me: “A lady only smiles to the top of the teeth. You do not show the goms.”
She would then offer a helpful demonstration of just how ugly a smile looked when your goms, I mean, gums, showed. Sprinkling a few foul, cloying sounds throughout her presentation, Mom smiled in what I assume she thought to be an insipid manner.
Bending her head at an odd angle while displaying as much of the inside of her mouth as possible, she drove the point home:
“When you show the goms, you look like a peasant!”
These pronouncements were possessed of a finality that cowed all comers.
I took it under advisement, but to this day, I cannot smile as well as she does. The right side of my mouth smiles a millimeter higher than the left. One would have had to practice hourly before the mirror to get an ‘A’ in Mom’s charm school.
In every photo, her face was molded into the proper pleasing expression, complimented by her beautiful black mane upswept in a French twist. Any unhappiness she experienced was always well masked before onlookers. She turned heads wherever she went. The pose worked.
Compared to her, I felt like a clodhopper.
I drove her crazy wearing jeans and cowboy boots all through college – or even worse – clogs (the horror!), yet I am much the girly-girl, just like her. But while I imitate her appearance and we have many traits in common (any grit I have, she gave me), there is a place where the similarity ends. My outspoken nature is and has always been shocking to my mom, yet there, too, the roots are to be found with her. But unlike her, I don’t feel shy about expressing myself in public!
And where my mother was content to put her own dreams aside because she’d gotten the message that she wasn’t allowed to have them, she has given me encouragement. And I’ve learned to give myself permission.
That is also something we celebrate together. Call it our version of a relay race. Where she may have felt constricted within the limitations of the time or the environment in which she was raised, she can rejoice at my freedom to pursue my goals, to express myself and shout from the rooftops… even if I’m wearing the ‘wrong’ shoes or smiling a cockeyed smile.
Happy Mother's Day.
And may I wish a Happy Mother's Day to you all!
*Excerpted from Anita Finlay's upcoming book,
"You Stole My Bra...And You Ruined My Life"
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