HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, it seems like this the season for goodbyes. But that’s how the universe works, doesn't it? In cycles. My mother certainly knew that. I said goodbye to her, too, a few weeks ago.
She was 84, and gorgeous. I mean—look at her! This is a very recent photo. She had multiple myeloma, and rheumatoid arthritis, and after a while, nothing was really working very well. Except her brain. Which was, always and always, hilarious, funny sharp—and so self-actualized it’s hard to believe.
She was in her twenties in the fifties—look at those eyebrows! I think this was her engagement photo. She met my dad in college, and they ran off to Chicago, where he was the music critic at the Chicago Daily News. She told us tales of their wild and cool life in the night club scene--hanging at the Blue Note with Harry Belafonte and Studs Terkel and the like.
She went to the Chicago Institute of Design and had a life-long passion for the arts and fashion and civil rights and politics. Later, she and my stepfather collected contemporary Russian art, and their house was an absolute gallery.
Mamacita, as I called her, a remnant from all the family vacations we spent in Mexico--well, she was pretty amazing.
When I was a kid, she made sure I had the World Book Encyclopedia, and I read the whole thing (the white leather-like ones with the green trim) from cover to cover. A to Z. She took us to the library, and hardly ever complained that I--a complete klutz and complete loner--never wanted to play outside. She didn't rat on me when I sneaked Marjorie Morningstar and On the Beach and Ten North Frederick from their bookshelves. She knew they were too old for me, but it didn't matter, I was reading. She put up with my addiction to MAD Magazine (what, her worry?) and my insane craziness over the Beatles.
(Even when I cut my own hair in a Sassoon, up over one ear on one side and long on the other side. 'What do YOU represent?" my aghast step-father said when he saw me. My mom just smiled. "It'll grow, she said.)
(The photo below is my--fifth birthday? At our house on Cherry Lane in a Chicago suburb.)
Her mantra to me, back then? “Go and find out.” ME: Do you think that drug store has Superman comics? MOM: Go and find out. ME: What does this word mean? MOM: Go and find out. ME: How do I…? How do you…? Where do I..?" She always had the same answer. She’d shrug, then tell me: “Go and find out.”
And now I’m an investigative reporter. Huh.
And I look back, now, amazed that she put up with all of us. When my sister and I would clean our room by stashing everything under the bed. Whoa, I bet she NEVER caught on to that one. And when we had to clean up the kitchen, I vividly remember one occasion when I asked: "Do I have to wipe the countertop?"
Yes, she said. You do. Do I have to wipe off the stove? Yes, she said. You do. Do I have to wipe off the kitchen table? Yes, she said, exasperated. And then she ended the discussion with: "You have to wipe off EVERY HORIZONTAL SURFACE." My siblings and I still say that to each other.
She had advice for EVERYTHING. When it came to love, she had LOTS of advice. “You have to get out there. No boys are going to come knocking at your door asking “any cute girls live here?”
When considering a beau for marriage, you must first see him drunk, sick, and with their mother, she warned. “How he treats her," she'd remind me, "is how he’ll treat you.”
She also said to watch how guys treat their friends. Would you like you kids to grow up to be just like him? she'd ask, raising that eyebrow. If not, just say no.
And always her famous: "Remember, it's not all about YOU."
There was the episode of the hair spray--we used hers (Adorn) on our dolls when we weren't supposed to. Somehow that was a big deal--I still don't understand it. We were allowed to have one Coke a week. We could watch Perry Mason with my father if we DID NOT TALK.
There was the year she said we had outgrown Christmas trees, and we were Jewish anyway, she reminded us, so no tree. We did fool her on that one. (My sister Nina and I sneaked one in, in the middle of the night, decorated with popcorn we got at a movie theater. It worked perfectly.)
There was the revelation of the Thanksgiving deception, when Mom admitted she'd been stuffing both turkeys with oyster dressing, but telling us kids one was plain. ("You think I'm going to make two kinds of dressings? You're nuts, kiddo.")
Everyone in the writing seminars I teach hears one bit of her advice. When I was in the midst of writing PRIME TIME, my first book, I got about halfway through and realized I had no idea what I was doing. Terrified, I called Mom and said, "You know, I love my book, and I think it'll work. But I'm just not sure I can finish it." Mom paused, and then said, "Well honey, you will if you want to."
Ah. And so I did.
She' s immortalized in PRIME TIME and the others in the series--now it can be told--as Charlie McNally's bossy-but-fabulous mother, and she knew it. (Now you're in on the secret, and might recognize some of her quotes in the books!)
I never made a major decision without consulting her. She was always right. Just ask her.
She loved THE OTHER WOMAN, and I'm so happy she got to read it. "It's ABOUT something, dear," she told me.
A few weeks ago she decided, as she told us kids, it was time for someone else to take her spot on earth. She had "wrapped up her life with a big red ribbon" as she put it, refused all treatment and stopped eating. She was absolutely (and I know this is amazing) not sad, not fearful, not
upset, not sorry. "I'm happy," she told me. "This has all been wonderful."
So there I was, in the hospital in Indianapolis week before last, tears streaming down my face. Getting ready to leave, knowing I would never see her again. "Don't cry," she said from her bed. "It'll make your eyes puffy."
I burst out laughing.
Her voice was very soft by then, but she added: "Use cucumbers."
A moment later, she opened her eyes. And said to me what she's said every time we parted for the last--oh, ever since I can remember.
"Vaya con Dios, honey."
"Vaya con Dios, Mamacita," I whispered.
To you dear Tarts, too, at this season of change. Vaya con Dios.
And use cucumbers.