My mother had to be one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
And therein lies my explanation – and excuse – for her absence from most of the stories I have written about my life and good and bad times.
NICE is difficult to write about.
It isn’t colorful. Or Funny! Or “simply fascinating” – it is merely NICE. And these days, it is said frequently with a touch of derision as in “Oh, god, yeah. She’ so damned nice she can’t even spell a four letter word.”
Growing up I took that niceness for granted. I knew that, no matter what happened, my Mother would be nice about it. She could fix small cuts and bruises on her own, but she could also call the doctor and ask him to come over immediately if she thought her family was showing signs of – well – anything she didn’t want them to be showing.
If either my sister Jackie or I was feeling hurt by another child, she wouldn’t tell us we were being silly. Or that it wasn’t important that your classmates didn’t pick you for the team. Instead, she would find a way to make us feel that there were obviously better things that needed our particular attention, and that obviously no other child could do them as well.
Mom looked pleased each summer when my father announced that the Steck family was scheduled to take its yearly vacation in Wildwood-By-The-Sea in New Jersey. I didn’t like Wildwood-By-The-Sea then, and I still don’t. Too much sand. It gets in your toothpaste and soap and shoes and…well, anyplace else you didn’t want it. It also burned your feet. Every summer, I ranted and raged and cried and threatened to run away. Mother, on the other hand, smiled encouragingly and started to pack.
I begged my father to let me stay home with him but it turned out that every year that we went to Wildwood, Daddy went on a friend’s boat and they had all kinds of fun. But no kids were allowed. It was a law, he said.
Mother bought Jackie and me new bathing suits so everyone would think we were the prettiest girls on the beach. I didn’t believe that, but it helped get me into the car.
And Oh, god help us, what a mess that car was. It was a Model T, one of the last ones off the line in 1927. It was small, and dark and hot and there were about seven of us plus an extra suitcase or two and, as the youngest, it was my place to sit on one of the suitcases, on the floor, where I promptly got violently ill and everyone had to get out of the car while we stopped at the closest gas station where the attendant (yes. There was an attendant who normally filled the car with gas, checked the oil and washed the widows) anyway – the attendant hosed down the floor for us and dragged out a fan to dry it.
Then we would pile back in and Uncle Harry would take his place behind the wheel and glower at me. But Mother was NICE about it. She dried my tears and, defying anyone to accuse me of doing it on purpose, sang me pretty songs to soothe my fevered brow.
It took me years to find out she didn’t want to go either.
“Too much sand,” she whispered.
One time a lady friend of my mother told me that she thought my Mom was the nicest person she had ever known. While I wouldn’t disagree with her, I wondered why. And she told me.
“You know,” she said, “how people call when a friend is in trouble and offer to help?”
I assured her I did know that, so she continued. “Well, most people call and ask what they can do, and usually the person who has the problem can’t think of what she needs.
“But YOUR Mom doesn’t do that. She calls up and tells you that she is on her way over. She is going to pick up the kids and take them to the playground for a while and then she will get them lunch. Then she shows up and does it! And you realize that she was right, that’s exactly what you needed.”
My mother was too nice to be a good liar. During World War II, when butter was scarce, it was replaced by a white, oblong blocks of white margarine that looked like lard. To make the margarine look more palatable, a packet of yellow dye came with the suspect-looking margarine. The idea was, you softened the margarine, mixed it with the dye, then patted the oblong back into shape.
My mother would add the dye and do her best to reshape the now bright, almost neon, yellow oblong, to very sad results. Jackie and I would have none of it. When my mother was lying, her mouth formed into a straight line. Every time she presented the margarine-as-butter, her mouth was almost non-existent. My mother was nice – Jackie and I…not so much. We never humored her and ate dry toast until butter went back on the table.
One more nice thing. Neither of my parents went to college. They grew up in tight communities and there was prejudice all around – which neither of them bought into.
But it’s easy to be open-minded when you never come in to contact with any of those “Others.”
Well, one Christmas I offered my Mom a real chance to put her “love thy neighbor” outlook to the test…even if the neighbors came from far, far away.
I was at Temple University and I was distressed by the number of my friends who would be staying in the dorms for the holidays. So asked my Mother if I could invite four friends to Christmas dinner and, she, of course, said yes.
The friends were astounded by the invitation but I assured them it would be fine.
Come Christmas day, when the doorbell rang somewhere around dinner time, Mother went to the door to be greeted by four slightly insecure young Arabs. You would have thought she met their folks at the market every day judging by the casual way she greeted them and made them welcome and loved..
But there was no one around to take notice or offer her a medal for just being herself.
Yep, my Mom was that Nice. You would have loved her.
Jackie (l), Mother (c) Me (r) “down the shore”