As I write this post in the week preceding Mother’s Day, I’m sifting through memories of my mom, trying – but failing – to come up with something as amusing, or at least as memorable, as some of the stories I’ve told in this blog about my dad, who was a certifiable character.
Mom – Mollie Daniel – was a steady source of love and nurturing, but – although she had a wonderful sense of humor, without which I doubt she could have survived marriage to Dad – she was not the colorful character that he was.
My kids, especially my daughter Naomi, sometimes ask for stories about their grandmother, and I fear I’ve shortchanged them – and Mom – by having very few of them. So here are some recollections.
Mom had a big heart:
- She loved the songbirds in our yard, putting suet and other food out when it snowed for the cardinals and other species that don’t fly south for the winter, and she had no love for cats because they were always trying to kill her feathered friends.
- While she didn’t likely have the same affection for the flowers planted around our house that she did for the birds, Mom did what she could to nurture them too. Back then, we didn’t buy milk in cartons from the supermarket. Instead, a milkman came to our house every few days to drop off glass bottles of fresh milk and pick up the empty bottles for washing and recycling. Before putting the empties in the milk box next to the back steps, Mom would rinse them and pour the milky water not down the drain, but – winter and summer – onto the soil, near the back-door steps, that sustained our crocuses, daffodils tulips and hyacinths. She regularly enriched that soil with coffee grounds too. She was “green” before it came into fashion.
- When it snowed in winter and I’d go out to shovel our walk, Mom made sure I also went across the street to shovel the walk – gratis – of our frail, elderly neighbor, Miss Margaret Trump (no relation, to best of my knowledge, to The Donald), who never, to my young eyes, looked a day under 80.
- Virtually every evening, Mom would call my grandfather and my single Aunt Annie (who lived at home with Grandpa) to see how they were doing.
- Perhaps the most significant example of her big heart was something Mom once did for me when she should just have stayed in bed. She would get terrible migraines – for which there was no medication till late in her life. (She died young, of multiple maladies, in March 1974, just shy of her 62nd birthday.) So painful and violent were these episodes that often for two or three days at a time she’d rarely get out of bed except to vomit. But one exception sticks in my mind. It was in my early teen years, well before I had a driver’s license (I was probably still in eighth grade), and I had a date to go bowling with a girl I was sweet on. It must have been during a school vacation, or perhaps on a Saturday when Dad was working (which he usually did), but Mom was my “ride.” Not wanting to disappoint me, she dragged herself out of bed and drove me to pick up my date and take us to the bowling alley. (Obviously, if I’d been more mature or considerate, I’d have called and postponed the date, but that never entered my self-centered brain. Nor did Mom suggest it.)
- In summertime, Mom would drive me to the beach – or sometimes to a lake or swimming pool – and sit there all afternoon, no doubt bored because she wasn’t much of a swimmer (Dad was) and risking a headache from the bright sun and heat, but determined to give me some fun in the water.
- Every year, as summer approached, Mom would prepare me for the coming vacation-time beach activities by having me gradually develop a protective suntan for my pale skin, lying in our backyard hammock – five minutes on my back, then five more on my belly on day 1, then 10 minutes on each side the next day, then 15, then 30 – till I was tan enough for long stretches at the beach.
- Mom also struggled to make sure I ate nourishing food. When I was quite young, the pediatrician said I was anemic, so Mom wanted me to eat liver. However, because I hated liver, she came up with her own version of that classic Jewish dish, chopped liver. Mom’s had so much egg in it that it was a cross between chopped liver and egg salad, but I ate it happily.
- Mom also found another way to get liver into me. When she bought a whole chicken, she’d skewer the liver on a long, wooden-handled fork and roast it directly over the flame of our gas range. I liked the charred edges. Another small victory for Mom!
- She also did her best to get veggies into me. I hated many of the strong-tasting ones – asparagus, spinach and beets especially. The first two nearly made me gag. However, when I went off to school and ate lunch in the cafeteria, Mom discovered that I liked the school’s version of chili. Now in early 1950s New Jersey, I can only imagine that school-cafeteria chili was not exactly a dish that anyone in Mexico would recognize. Moreover, I’m sure that chili was entirely outside the culinary experience of a “nice Jewish girl” from the Bronx whose immigrant mother knew few dishes, if any, beyond the sort of heart-unhealthy, cholesterol-on-a-plate specialties that killed off all her brothers by their 50s. But Mom saw chili as a vehicle that would get vegetables into my belly. And if the school’s version of the dish would have been an enigma to anyone south of the Rio Grande, my mom’s further reinvention of it – to include lots of frozen peas, carrots, green beans and corn niblets – would have looked and tasted positively alien. But I loved it and gobbled it right up.
- Another favorite childhood dish was spaghetti. Again, this was a little out of Mom’s Jewish-cooking comfort zone. She served it with tomato sauce straight out of the Del Monte can. No additional flavoring, but I loved it anyway. And because, I’m guessing, she’d heard that real Italian spaghetti was served with cheese, but, being unfamiliar with Parmesan, she’d also give me a chunk of Velveeta on the side. Hey, don’t sneer. It may not be gourmet, but it’s still nutritious.
A few amusing memories:
- While Dad was always the one who, when my parents got together with friends or relatives, told jokes – he was a wonderful raconteur – Mom was the one who, after someone else told a funny story, would whisper the punchline of a related joke to Dad, who would then regale the company with it.
- One day, our neighbor, Betty, was telling Mom about an unusual decorated bowl she’d bought at an antique shop a few days earlier and how she’d already used it to serve spaghetti at a family gathering. She asked if Mom knew anything about this kind of bowl that she (Betty) had never seen before. Mom took one look at it and told Betty it was an old chamber pot. (For young readers: in the era before indoor plumbing – not as long ago as you might imagine – people used chamber [read “bedroom”] pots to relieve themselves indoors so they wouldn’t have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night.) Mom told Dad and me that evening, with considerable amusement, that Betty had been mortified at having used the thing to serve food to her family.
- Here’s a memory from when I was in sixth grade. I was in Joe Palaia’s class; he was one of the best, most memorable teachers I’ve ever had, going way beyond the “three Rs” to have us do challenging assignments that would broaden our horizons and instill self-confidence. One I remember well was when he had us form teams of two and prepare sales talks for a fictitious product to present to the rest of the class. I teamed up with my good friend Richard Gasparian (“Gassy,” famed for being able to demolish a small apple in just three bites), who lived just a block and a half away. I no longer remember the “product” we were promoting, but I do recall that we had a couple of brainstorming sessions at my house, and that my mom, who was listening in from the kitchen, contributed what was probably the best comic “line” we wound up using: “Does your tummy do flip flops?” We thought it was hilarious.
- Mom was a great cook, and one of her talents was a creative ability to use leftovers as the basis of a fresh new meal. She would often grind up the remains of last night’s pot roast in her old-fashioned, hand-cranked meat grinder and make it the foundation of a delicious hash we’d all enjoy the next day. However, I recall one day when her leftover dish flopped big time. She’d combined the previous evening’s goodies with a can of cream of mushroom soup, and the result was not exactly a hit. I must have been about 10 at the time, and I still recall telling Mom – foreshadowing my future career in diplomacy! – that it tasted “polluted.” I have no idea how the word popped into my head. This was years before environmental awareness became widespread, and, as I recall, my dad said something that indicated he was impressed that I knew the word. But Mom was not impressed. She was insulted, and she made her reaction quite plain.
- One of the other delicious things that Mom produced in the kitchen was a traditional Jewish preparation – grivines (pronounced GRIV-iness), onion pan-fried to nearly a crisp in schmaltz (chicken fat) – that would be used to flavor a variety of meat dishes. Whenever Mom prepared grivines, she would put it in a glass dish that she’d place, temporarily no doubt, on a shelf in the kitchen closet. I’d always see her putting the stuff in the closet, but never seemed to be around when she took it out and used it. One evening at dinner, as Mom and Dad discussed their day, and Mom said something about the grivines she’d made, I piped up and announced, to both parents’ amusement, that she’d put it in the closet again, and that by now the closet was probably chock full of chicken fat.
- I remember another announcement I made about Mom’s activities. It must have been during summer vacation, and because she had some clothes shopping to do and I was too young to be left at home by myself, she’d taken me with her. Tagging along while Mom shopped was one of my least favorite things to do. When we sat down to dinner that evening, Dad asked how her day had gone. I piped up and said she’d bought another ridiculous-looking hat. Dad thought that was funny. Mom most decidedly did not.
- Here’s a memory that’s more about me, but Mom and her younger sister, my Aunt Annie, played starring roles in it. I was quite young, and I remember talking with Mom and Annie about the differences between boys and girls. I listed a few of the best-known ones and then added an original one of my own. Girls, I said, “don’t have ears.” It made perfect sense to me at the time, because all the women I knew wore relatively long hair. The two ladies laughed, lifted up their hair and showed me their ears. You learn something new every day!
A few more random memories:
- Pistachio was Mom’s favorite ice cream, but it was an infrequent treat. However, it was usually available at a Barton’s confectionary store, one of which was located near Penn Station, so we’d often stop there after riding the train up to New York to spend the weekend with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins by the dozens.
- Mom kept a kosher kitchen, largely out of a desire to have our home be a place where my grandparents, all four of them traditional, old-country Orthodox Jews, would feel comfortable. This meant two regular sets of plates, flatware, pots and pans, kitchen towels and sponges – one each for meat and dairy; another nice set of dishes and silverware for company; and two more sets of everything (including pots and pans) for Passover, when anything having ever had any contact with leavened bread had to be put away for the eight days of the holiday.
- Neither of my parents had ever had a furry pet – Dad was of the firm belief that four-legged creatures belonged outdoors – but they acceded to my wish for a parakeet. Mom took a special interest in the little guy, Dudley (whom she named because, when we first brought him home, he was so frightened that he cowered in the corner of his cage, leading us to think he was going to be a dud), who would get excited whenever anyone walked past the cage. Her response was often to ask him, “What’s the difficulty?” – typical Mollie Daniel phrasing. It was something the bird eventually learned to repeat, further endearing himself to us.
- She had an unerring eye for beauty. After I’d left for college and she had more free time, Mom would sometimes find beautiful antique objects, a few of which my wife, Sandra, and I still have – a stunning orange-hued rug from Afghanistan, and several gorgeous ceramic pieces, including a dazzling blue-and-orange jar of unknown (to me) origin.
- Perhaps Mom’s most lasting gift to me was the love of classical music. She listened to it every day on the radio in our kitchen. (Dad had to put up a special antenna on the roof to pick up a clear FM signal from New York, which was almost out of range.) While my friends were listening to rock ’n’ roll, I was grooving to Grieg. Mom started me early down this path. The first record I remember having – 78 rpm1 – was the Toy Symphony, usually attributed to Haydn. Later, she introduced me to Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s electrifying – especially to a boy – fifth symphonies, both of which are still favorites.
- Mom made sure I experienced music not only via recordings and the radio, but in person. She was the driving force behind our family’s attendance at three concert series2 – the Monmouth Little Symphony (an amateur ensemble that performed four times a year in the auditorium of Asbury Park High School, which I would eventually attend), a series of solo and chamber music recitals at nearby Long Branch High School, and a third series of concerts on the stage of a large movie theater in Red Bank.3 One of the most memorable of the latter was a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra under the legendary George Szell, who somehow coaxed a tsunami of sound out of the orchestra in the finale of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with – to my astonishment – only tiny movements of his outstretched fingertips. Mom also got us to attend some memorable performances by dancers and musicians from as far away as West Africa, Spain (a flamenco troupe), Russia (the Moiseyev Dance Company) and Indonesia (a gamelan ensemble) at Princeton University, about an hour’s drive from home. One summer, she got my dad – who hardly ever made time for a vacation – to drive us all to the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts so we could attend Boston Symphony Orchestra performances at Tanglewood and ballet at the Jacob’s Pillow Festival. Dad enjoyed music and dance too, but Mom was the one who took the initiative.
Thanks for everything you did for me, Mom! I wish I’d better shown my appreciation while you were here among us. And Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers I’m still lucky enough to have in my life.
1. Have you ever wondered why phonograph recordings are called “albums”? It’s because back before everything was recorded at 33 1/3 rpm (“long-play”!) a piece as long as a symphony was recorded on multiple 78 rpm disks which came in paper sleeves bound together in a sturdy, handsome album. That’s the way I first experienced symphonies – flipping disks over and putting on the next one in the album every five minutes or so. Often, one side of a disk couldn’t accommodate even a single symphonic movement.
2. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that in her later years, Mom’s love of music led her to serve on the board of the Monmouth (N.J.) Symphony League, together with her friend Lucille Katchen, mother of the late concert pianist Julius Katchen.
3. One of those concerts in Red Bank was a guitar recital by Andres Segovia. Following the concert, Dad took me backstage and introduced me to Segovia, whom he’d met some years earlier at the factory of Mario Maccaferri. I was a young boy – perhaps 10 – and I recall Segovia smiling and gently patting my head.