My mom is 80 today!
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My mother gave me many gifts in the day-to-day life of raising my younger sister and me, and for me most of them involve the things that I still consider important: literature, comedy, performance. I’m grateful that I get to share with my mom our appreciation of various comedians and shows; she remains someone about whom I think if she laughs at a joke it is a funny joke.
By age ten, I knew Freddie Prinze (every kid in that era did) and Saturday Night Live, but also the complete recorded works of Mickey Katz and Allen Sherman. It was a good range of comedians that she exposed me to.
The stories that I learned about her childhood I learned from others, not from her, which came from an innate humility on her part (one does not talk about oneself, as that shows an unbecoming pride … man, have I failed that standard!) and the fact that it seems to have been a uniquely painful childhood. Her aunt Rose told me long ago that before she was ten years of age my mom used to translate the day’s newspaper into Yiddish for her own grandmother, who did not read English. Whenever I’ve asked my mom about this, she demurs with a laugh and the statement, “I guess it’s true if she said so.”
She wanted to become an educator, and because she did not, I guess anecdotes like that represent an unfulfilled promise in her mind. However, for my sister and me, my mom was an educator.
My mother taught me to read when I was so young that I do not have a active memory of it. My memory device (I think it is referred to in medical texts as a “brain”) started to record life when I was two-and-a-half, and in my recollections of moments spent with my mom and with books, I am an active participant in the task at hand: our endless laughter at the very idea of eating green eggs and ham (the “and ham” was my favorite part), our (re-)discovery of the Cat in the Hat’s many hijinks.
My mom must have made books, the written word, seem magical to me. This is something that I have reflected on in recent years: I loved my kids’ books and I loved all the illustrations in them, but she somehow made it clear that the words were something else. The images in my head were not always the images on the pages, and the images in my head were the product of the words that she and I touched together with our index fingers and sounded out.
“Cat.” Touch the word on the page and touch the picture of the cat, and, uninvited (like the Cat in a Hat himself), other cats would come to my mind (my grandmother’s cats, say, each one with the same name, “Maude,” a bit of family lore which is its own anecdote). It may have been that simple, so simple, but it was everything. I wanted to do that myself; I wanted to put words on a page that would create images in my head with or without Dr. Seuss’ wonderful drawings.
I started to scrawl words before I knew how to write letters, on every available surface. My family still has a coffee table on which I “wrote” in crayon what appears to be a fairly long sentence on its underside. It’s not a mindless scribble exactly, as it ends with a period. I do not remember the moment I made it, this caveman’s declaration of existence, because I was that young and my mom gave me the gift of a connection between things that looked like words and speech and images in my mind. I also do not remember the reaction my first “story” may have elicited from my parents, but most everything that I have written since has been on crayon-appropriate surfaces. (Most.)
It may be true that everything I have written, from news articles to comedy skits to angry opinion columns to humorous essays, can be summarized thus: “Thank you, Mom.” And Happy Birthday.
Mother’s Day, the annual holiday, is one whose date I forget each year. It is perhaps because it is celebrated on different dates in different nations and I have online friends in some of those different nations so “Happy Mother’s Day” Facebook posts make a weekly appearance in the spring. I think that I have sent my own (American) mom a Happy Mother’s Day note twice in one year thanks to this phenomenon.
Today is not Mother’s Day; it is my mom’s birthday, my own Mother’s Day. Her eightieth year was one of terrible loss, and she has carried herself with grace. Thus, my mom continues to be an educator.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season:
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