My mother is ninety. She’s not sick, she’s not frail, she’s independent and her mind is sharp. Her memory is better than mine. It seems only fair that I write this while she’s able to enjoy the acknowledgement.
There is genetic material that I didn’t inherit, it seems, but would pay good money for. She’s even tempered, doesn’t get overwhelmed or exorcised by life in its many flavors. She’s Florence. Some friends have called her “Florrie” but I don’t think it suits her. Florence is a solid and beautiful name. That’s the one.
She’s quite modern – without being foolish. In a recent conversation she decided it was time that she got a new computer. She wants to become more Internet savvy, more in the groove of the times. Yet, her sense of humor reveals her perspective. She told me of how she talked down a pushy salesperson the other day, one who wanted her to buy a multi-year plan for a product. No, she explained, I’m ninety. I’m just taking it one year at a time.
My mom is never morbid, never feels sorry for herself. I’ve never known her to be depressed. (The opposite of all three could safely be said about me.) I’m an only child but I didn’t feel exceptionally close to her growing up. Now I understand why. We are so different, innately, temperamentally. There were few points of identity for us, and my father and I were basically cut from the same cloth. So, I failed to appreciate Florence’s strengths when I was young. That’s changed.
My mother’s weeks are busy. She always has social appointments: lunches and dinners with friends. She also makes weekly trips to the library – she’s a voracious reader, always has been. Food shopping or any jaunt out of the house requires the hiring of a driver – unless one of the two “younger” men who live with their mothers, Florence’s similarly aged friends, is available to drive.
Oh, I must mention that my mother has been the president of her co-op board. She lives in Florida in one of those sprawling multi-building cooperatives. She is the go-to person for her building. She’s a creative problem solver and, whether it’s plumbing or interpersonal snags, she handles the situation with both understanding and logic.
To add some dimension to the picture – Florence is not a physically robust person; she carries some extra weight, she has a bad knee and, in all honesty, she’s never done a lick of exercise in her ninety years. When she walks, her gait is a bit rocky, which does nothing to impede her ability to continually make foreword progress. It’s mysterious, possibly miraculous.
I speak to Mom most every day. She tells me of the crises, small and not so small, that default to her. Our conversation runs the gamut – from the news of the day to the philosophical. We talk politics, too – but are not that likely to agree.
Oh, did I mention, she lives alone? Which seems to suit her. I feel like in this telling, it’s important to shift back and forth – between the amazing stuff and her serious challenges. The entry to my mother’s apartment is a small step up. Small to me. But because of her knee and general musculature, the step requires a sidewise approach and a bit of the old heave-ho. But she conveys no fear, nor is there whining. Never.
I visit my mother two times a year: New York to Ft. Lauderdale. She can no longer travel to see me. It’s her knees, I believe, and the difficulty she has navigating unknown turf, that are the obstacles. I’ve offered to have her personally escorted by either an aide or my adult daughter – her granddaughter. But she’s declined. She’s fine with frequent chats and the occasional visit. She doesn’t push.
My mother and father had relocated to Florida from eastern Long Island back in 1990. Then my dad died in 1996 and, for the very first time in her life, my mother was living alone. Could anyone have predicted how this apparently shy and dependent woman would find her inner moxie at the age of seventy-one? No. We would all have bet against it.
But we would all have misjudged her; there was an inner repository of guts and spine which we hadn’t seen. I’m not sure she knew it was there either. She had been a hothouse flower, watched over by her simple but fierce mother, growing up in a genteel lower-middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. That neighborhood, Brownsville, is now quite different. Back then it was mostly populated with first and second generation Jews with eastern European pedigrees.
Florence had been the favorite of the two sisters: the smarter one, the prettier one. But when she expressed interest in going to college (Hunter College had accepted her) she was not supported in doing so. Getting a safe job with the Federal Government – she worked for many years as an auditor for the IRS – was deemed much more acceptable. And there, sitting a few desks behind her, was a man who fell in love with her ravishing black hair and Rubenesque physique. My father didn’t hesitate to declare his love and make her his wife; then all thoughts of independence were suppressed once more. But they rose to the surface when they were needed, many decades later.
I must tell the truth: I take my mother for granted. I seldom stop to think about what it would be like to be without her. She’s so solid – despite the knees and the joints, which I know are creaky – that the illusion of indefinite permanence has been easy to maintain. But the number “ninety” begs the question. Do I think she’ll live another ten years? At least. But I can’t be sure of that.
When we speak, sometimes I get a little frustrated. Like when she wants to give me chapter and verse about what she had for dinner the night before, or every word of a conversation she had with a friend. But I really need to scrub my perspective and keep the fog of petty irritation from blinding me. What might be somewhat annoying now, would be deeply missed if she were gone.