Monday, December 3, 2012

Our Force of Nurture at 90

I just got back from Florida....and boy, are my arms tired. My arms, my ears, my brains. Come to think of it, just about all of me is tired. It was a crazy busy weekend....Mom turned 90. She was so excited when I walked through the door, she fell over. ...Not to worry...nothing broke. 

My mother is a force of nature. Beyond all odds, she and my dad just marked their 69th wedding anniversary in November. But more about that in a bit.

My mother was the second born to Ben and Bessie Simon in Brooklyn, New York on December 1st, 1922. Ben and his brother had a butcher shop. My grandmother was a chic and fashionable socialist because her husband made sure she was. Grandpa was a butcher; there was always food on the table. But, suddenly, in 1936, Grandpa Ben developed kidney stones and, from complications that everyone has a theory about, passed away, leaving Bessie with 3 kids and no income. Of course, one might think Uncle Labeh would've helped to feed his brother's widow, but  apparently not. He pretty much left them to starve. Grandma Bessie, on the other hand, decided that would never do, so she bullied her way over to Orchard Street, got the goods, and opened a small shop in what had been my mother's bedroom. From an early age, my mother learned to make lemonade from lemons, to never say die, and to stand up to injustice. Those early lessons continue to serve her well.

A bookkeeper's job at Blum Folding Paper Box was more than just a job. She met this guy Sid there. The way she tells it, she told him in no uncertain terms that he couldn't date her and the switchboard operator at the same time. He opted for Helen Simon. The rest, as they say, is history....and her-story. He got drafted, went to basic training, came home on a furlough, got married, made my mother a camp follower in places like Louisville, Kentucky, then went overseas. Mom moved back to Grandma Bessie's until Dad came home from the Battle of the Bulge and the bridge too far at Remagen with his telegraph key still in his pack. 

[I have that alligator bag!]

They moved to Manhattan, lived a madcap Manhattan life in the same building as Shuster from Superman, and stayed there until my brother came along..and they went back to Brooklyn for bit until their radical co-op, Bell Park Gardens, was ready.

From Brooklyn to Bell Park Gardens in Queens, to North Bellmore further east on Long Island, they kept moving to bigger places for a growing family. Mom stayed home and did mom things. Oddly, my friends liked my mother. They hung out in our kitchen. She was the keeper of information. And her popularity went beyond the kitchen. The regional director of our youth group, USY, asked her to go to convention as an advisor. I was horrified. My friends were thrilled. She went.  I sulked. I made sure I was on a different bus to Atlantic City and a different floor at the hotel on the boardwalk (FYI: that's pre-casino AC) and I avoided her as much as possible...except when I needed something from her suitcase that I couldn't possibly fit in mine. 

Mom is one of those supportive moms even when you fight tooth and nail and declare everlasting animosity. Well, that's part of being a daughter. And as loathe as I am to admit it, I learned from her....and I delighted when my kids considered Bubbe's house their second home. Every summer was a month with Bubbe. Mom was running the financial end of a tennis club in those days, so the kids went to tennis camp as soon as they could hold a racquet. 

Shabbat at the Rodney
Thanksgiving was at the old Rodney on the beach in Bal Harbor. Relatives galore and mom in her element organizing stuff. Watching her with our kids was an education. Why wasn't she this nice when we were growing up? She finally explained that grandkids were a dividend, and after she's spoiled them rotten, she could just hand them back to us. Some kind of divine justice.

My mother is many things to many people. She always looks for the bright side...when she's not predicting incipient doom for my father. She loves unconditionally....when she's not explaining what I can improve at any given moment...these days, mostly my choice of shoes.  She is unfailingly patient...except when she wants the stick thing from the thing on the desk or in the drawer...she's not sure which but look and you 'll see it. She is a believer in the good of all humankind...unless you're a Republican (like my dad) in which case there's no hope for you whatsoever. People always ask how my mother is doing. I think that's because she has a Rolodex in her head and she remembers the smallest details about people and lives and and their families. 

But most of all, she's my mom. Oh, okay. She's Bruce's mom, too. And she is a force of nature and nurture. She's been the stabilizing presence in our lives. She's the rock when we need a rock, and the pillow when we need a place to lay our heads, if only for a moment. 

And this weekend, she was the birthday girl, surrounded by her friends in shul and later at a small dinner party in her honor. My brother and I were actually in the same room at the same time...a rare occurrence even though we talk on the phone weekly. At that table sat my dad, his sister, my mom's younger brother and his wife, close friends from Delray Beach, and worth a special mention - the son of our first next door neighbors in Bell Park Gardens. As Artie's mother, Juliette (z"l) babysat my brother so I could arrive, my mother would babysit Artie so that his sister could arrive in the same room at the same hospital two months later. 

Helen Simon Schwaidelson is many things to many people, and loved by them all.  
But to us, she is Mom.

Happy 90th, Mom. And here's to many more. 

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Take a moment to appreciate your parents.
Remember: without them, you wouldn't be here. 


  1. What a great tribute! She is the most wonderful Aunt.


  2. I needed that Tip of the Week (: Miss you!! Stop by soon!

  3. Well done, Susan! Beautiful tribute and what a gift for you and yours to be celebrating!

  4. Wow - what an interesting story - Misha ought to set it to music!

  5. WP - Great appreciation blog - pick of the year.

  6. Your Mom sounds really, really wonderful. I would nominate her for Sainthood, but I have a hunch she's Jewish.

    How do I get an invite to her 100th birthday bash?

    1. Well, for starters, you'd have to give up on the "Anonymous" part. Then, there's this application process........hint: it includes defining the phrase "stick thing" in the form of a question. They're big JEOPARDY fans.

    2. I'll take Alta-cockers for $1000, Alex.

      A. Used by old Jewish people to scratch their itches, message their tushes or annoy their spouses; not to be confused with stand up routines by old Jewish comedians.

      Q. What is a "shtick thing"?

      Do I get an invite, WP?

  7. I'm no scholar, but I'd say you shined up good ol' Mitzvot number Five pretty nicely. Well done, Susan.

  8. We love and miss her too.
    Susan: what a great tribute.
    Sara & Harold

    btw-- so true that Rolodex thing

  9. Loved the part about USY and sulking. And kids hanging out with my mom in the kitchen. Could have been my story too!

    My family went from Boston to Boca, I'm the last one left here. I joke about getting the "old Jew hook" to FL in a couple of years. Isn't aliyah to eretz florida mandatory for those of us of a certain age?

    The photos from the era are wonderful. They all dressed so glamourously, maybe the clothes were better then? I have the same bag in my closet too.

    Thanks for the smile and walk down memory lane on such a gloomy evening! Diane