Nearing 98 in this paradise on earth, my mother likes nothing more than to linger over an ice cream cone in semi-silent bliss, interrupted only by the sounds of her slurping and the largest sentence in her current vocabulary as she exclaims, “I love this!”
It is a wonderful reminder of the everyday joys of life. As the late singer Warren Zevon used to advise, “Enjoy every sandwich.” But it also cuts to the quick, as it reminds me that it was not always thus. Indeed, my childhood was marked by my mother’s loquacity, tirades and crying jags in addition to her all-important faith and love.
Whether the act of mothering makes one crazy, or one has to be crazy to attempt the darn thing, one conclusion is clear: my mother is a piece of work. If you ever watched the AMC series Mad Men—still available on Netflix, so get it while you can—you may recall the character of Peggy the copywriter. Peggy struggled through 92 episodes to find her footing and gain a modicum of respect in a world of men. She was my mother’s doppelganger.
Between her insomnia and her wordsmithing fixation that had only one gear: overdrive, my mother bounced from ad agency to ad agency along Madison Avenue, in-house at Clairol or in the outhouse most of the time everywhere else. She ticked off one boss after another who were threatened by her talent and refusal to be submissive. She simply missed that gene. She was under 5 feet, but what she lacked in height she made up for in energy and bravado.
Many was the night I would pad into the living room in my onesie tiger pajamas, to find my mother scrawling on the last page of her legal pad. She lay down headline upon headline, catchy phrase upon phrase, indefatigable as the creative juices leapt like flame from her pen. I became her audience and, if I dared to yawn, heard the cry, “Just one more page!”
Thanks to her, I can tell you why Marlboro adopted cowboy imagery, why Downy tumbled in slow-mo into towels, why Rheingold touted a suggestive “ten-minute head” and Timex watches withstood exotic torture tests—hint: the creative team liked to take trips to places with tall waterfalls.
It all seemed fake news to me. I grew up wanting to redeem my mother’s artistry by dedicating myself to subjects other than shilling for beer, ciggies and soap. My mother had been a sculptor and actress in her youth, and I felt keenly—since she reminded me of it constantly—that advertising was what she was forced to do for a paycheck.
Today, a shrink might label her bipolar, “on the spectrum,” or whatever captures the fact that she was monomaniacal and utterly without boundaries, that it was not advisable for me to act as a parent to her, and that everyone in the world doesn’t appreciate constant punning. Without question, her verbal repartee engrained itself in me, along with a baseline anxiety stemming from a household ever on the verge of dissolving into chaos and acrimony.
It is one of the great ironies that a woman of such voluminous verbal gifts has been reduced to a few simple sentences revolving around favored desserts. Gone are the days when we could recite together favorite lyric poems in stereophonic and highly thespian singsong. The good Lord or the great dice-roller must be quite a joker to mute my mother in this way.
Ironically, having spent most of my professional life happily working for female bosses, I suspect that my mother prepared me well to get along with strong women, as well as to forgive them their trespasses.
Thankfully, it has been a relatively easy street after surviving my first boss, the matriarch of the mailroom at Sperry & Hutchinson; there, I was literally the only beleaguered male who was neither on heroin nor methadone, driven there by her screaming tirades. It was the closest I ever came to a nervous breakdown, but whatever doesn’t kill you and all that.
Latterly, I have also been blessed with Susan, my mother-in-law, who belies clichés, and her exceptionally tolerant daughter, so that I have more than one role model for motherhood.
Nevertheless, it has been a lifelong journey to separate “crazy” and “mother” from the same sentence. And if I see aspects of my mother among some of the women I have worked for, I have also been lucky enough to see the good amid the mad, as well as to work for enough men to know that mood and management ability are gender-fluid.
So mom, Stephanie, no longer old but in your dotage young again: thank you. May each ice cream bring delight, and may your sleep be Downy soft.