Today, July 20, 2014, I read this for my mother at her funeral service. I have copied it here. I think the first thing that you should know is that, my mom was awesome. Really awesome. And all of you that knew her knew what a great sense of humor she had. She was so funny and she loved to laugh. I would come over to her house meaning to just drop something off and we would end up in the kitchen having tea and just laughing and telling stories. I told my mother everything. My husband would call and say where are you? And I would tell him I was with my mother and he knew he wasn't going to see me for a few hours. My mother left me a lot of beautiful memories for a lifetime of stories.
I can only share some of them with you here today but I will be talking about my mother for the rest of my days. She was the first person I loved, the first person I smiled for and to say that I adored her is an understatement. She will always be my heroine. My mother told me a lot of stories growing up about her mother, her grandmother and all the really amazing women in her family and her life. Her stories were so vibrant that even if I had not met these people, her words always left me with pictures in my head. She would always say to me “Vanessa, you inherited all of my vices and none of my virtues.” and then she would smile, because I think she was quite proud I inherited her strong will. You see, my mother was always quite determined, and when she got a thing in our head, she would find a way, even in the rest of the world was not quite sure she should.
My favorite memories will always be coming in to her bedroom at night and getting in bed with her while she had her evening ice cream. She used to share the ice cream bowl with her favorite cats, who would wait at the end of the bed until she was done and then lick the bowl. Her favorite cats were never the easy, friendly ones. She loved the difficult cats who did not always come to you, but when they chose you, they loved you completely. My mother always appreciated a bargain, a coupon or gem of a thing underpriced at a flea market. She taught me to haggle and she taught me to walk away if the price was too high. But mostly, she understood the value of things, and she knew the value of joy in what you loved was not a thing to be taken for granted.
My mother loved opera, cats and chocolate. Not necessarily in that order. And she loved to travel. Many times, I traveled with her and she took me to the most wonderful places but the times I did not get to go, she always brought me something. The souvenirs were lovely but the best thing she brought home were stories.
Once I asked my mother what she would do if she won the lottery. She smiled and told me “I will never win the lottery because I don't gamble. I learned my lesson a long time ago about gambling.” and of course, there was a story to come with that. Once when she was quite young, she and some friends went out to Coney Island for the day and they ended up doing some gambling. My mother bet it all and lost it. Her friends ended up leaving and she got into an argument with the boy she was with and he left. There she was, alone without any money or way to get home and in quite a fix. In desperation, she combed the beach for empty bottles to turn in for enough change to catch the subway and after a long time, she had enough. As she was riding home on the subway, she told me, she made a deal with God. She promised she would never gamble again if God would arrange for her to have an opera ticket whenever she really needed one. And God kept his part of the bargain. She always got an opera ticket when she needed one. Even the most extraordinarily difficult tickets to get. My mother always found a way.
When she first heard that The Three Tenors were going to do a concert in Italy in 1990, I could feel her excitement and I knew this was a concert she simply had to attend. That concert was going to be magic and tickets were brutally difficult to come by. In the first round of sales, she was not able to get one. By sheer coincidence, my mother had gotten a grant to go to Italy that summer and do research, so that was the beginning of the stars aligning. On faith alone, and without a ticket in hand, she traveled to the ancient Baths of Caracella and was lodged in a nearby convent. A woman named Laine was there with her daughter and they did not have tickets either. Laine had gotten a tip earlier in the day of a woman who had two tickets for sale and she invited my mother to go with her, but alas there were only two tickets and not three. Still, my mother did not give up, she spent all day looking and asking and finally, she ended up sitting and waiting at the box office hours before the concert. Then, miraculously, a few tickets became available. Because she had been so kind to the woman at the box office, my mother was the first to be called over when the returns started coming in and she got her ticket at last. Turns out, this was the beginning of a very beautiful friendship with Laine and those two had more adventures than I can describe here today but I can tell you, I loved hearing about every one.
Opera was always important to my mother but as important was education. I don't think I understood how important for a long time until she told me this story. My mother got her Bachelors degree in English from Hunter College but she wanted more, so she applied for a scholarship and was accepted to Yale University into their PhD program. I asked her once why she chose Yale over other Ivy league universities and she smiled a wry smile at me and said “It was close enough to New York that I could still take the train to the opera whenever I wanted.”
My mother came of college age in the 1950's when America was telling women to stay home, be housewives and don't think too much. But education was important to her. Hanging on the wall in Forsyth, Georgia are the diplomas of her grandmother, and her mother. So, she pursued a higher education in a time when women went to college to get their “MRS” degree and quit as soon as they would accomplish that goal. Though my mother had a lot of suitors, she met and married my father at Yale in her first year, but she never once considered giving up her education goals. She actually only missed one class when she was pregnant with my older brother and that was when she had to take the train to New York to give birth. The following semester, she returned to school and was called in to the office to discuss her scholarship. It had come to administrations attention that my mother had gotten married to my father, a fellow scholarship student, pursuing his degree in English. She was told that she was losing her scholarship. My mother was stunned. She couldn't understand what she could have done. She was an A student. When she asked for a reason, she was told that administration no longer felt she needed the scholarship and that it should go to some young man who needed it to have a career and support a family. After all, she was told, it was unseemly for her to undermine her husband in this way, she was married, she did not need her education, she should now be supportive to her husband. My mother then asked “Am I being kicked out of the program?” He said no, she was just losing her scholarship. She asked “If I find the money to pay for school, can I stay in the program?” In my mind, I imagine the shocked look on the administrators face as he hears this question. And the answer. “Sure, if you can find the money, you can stay and finish.” In my mind, this man did not expect my mother to do it. But he did not know my mother very well. If you put a brick wall in front of my mother, she just found a way to climb it. And because my mother was who she was, she found a way. She worked two jobs and went to school full time, she got some help from her family and she finished her PhD, while raising my older brother. I cannot begin to tell you what this means to a little girl who happens to be her daughter. The day she told me that story, I knew my mother was magic. I knew that I held in me a piece of that magic and I knew that day that I would always find a way to reach my goals because she had. She had showed me that the impossible is sometimes possible anyway. As she stood beside me the day I graduated from college, I knew that I had found a way because she taught me not to give up on your education when you really wanted it. My mother loved us all fiercely and we loved her just as fiercely. An extraordinary woman. An extraordinary life.