I ALWAYS considered my dad to be the family artiste. The showman. The bon vivant. Mom? She was the handmaiden.
It’s my birthday and I’m thinking of her. She’s been gone 42 years, and I’m saddened that I scarcely realized how extraordinary she was until long after she was gone.
Dad was the fat, spoiled youngest of seven, with a charge account at the candy store around the corner from the family’s brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Wealthy and Jewish, they had a highly vocal parrot named Polly (a name that at some point in time must have seemed original) and a cat, whose name I never learned. Dad went to Wharton.
Mom was the second of 11 children of Polish Catholic immigrants, raised in a coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania. She dropped out of school after the eighth grade, working in a cigar factory to help support the family. My grandfather lost his sight and hearing in a mining accident.
I mean, can’t all mothers cut hair—and devise styling tricks that would not be seen for another 30 years?
I knew she wrestled herself out of that coal-mining town and came to New York and became a beautician, working at a salon near Broadway, doing hair for the showgirls. To support herself through school she worked as a housekeeper for my grandfather and my dad, his siblings grown and gone.
They married after World War II, not an easy match in the days when religion was a massive barrier, never mind the lack of education, and family wealth and so forth. It was many years before my dad’s family accepted my mom, even though she studied and converted.
Aren’t all mothers fantastic cooks who can whip up a stuffed breast of veal for a Tuesday dinner?
I think it was her cooking that sealed the deal. She was a fine cook to begin with, but when Dad was overseas, Mom continued to care for my grandfather, learning the fine points of latkes, brisket and the lightest of matzoh balls—better than my grandmother’s.
She could have opened a deli, and won raves.
Dad grew up to be a portly man, with exquisite taste and style and a rather overwhelming personality. A furniture designer and manufacturer who resembled Bill Blass, his suits were handmade, as were his French-cuffed shirts and his shoes. His handkerchiefs were monogrammed linen. He chose the silks for his pocket squares and ties. Of course, there were hats and coats and gloves as well; these were simply expensive. He traveled with a steamer trunk.
It seemed Mom spent her mornings taking shirts to the cleaner, brushing his suits, ironing his handkerchiefs. Then visiting the butcher, the baker, and the market for dinner.
Around noon she’d head downtown to Dad’s furniture showroom, a cavernous space, open only to the trade.
Can’t all mothers arrange flowers?
There were five or six ever-changing vignettes in the showroom, which required ever-changing floral arrangements, and seasonal showings of new furniture. She did the flowers for the vignettes in vases she selected, and more for the entry and for the tabletops that were dotted about. Fantastical dislays: Chiquita Banana headdresses made of the faux flowers and leaves she picked out at a wholesaler downtown.
Her fingers were magical. No need for frogs and wire supports, she twisted and twined, going by instinct. Mop-headed hydrangeas mixed with greens and sprigs of this and that as flying punctuation. Wouldn’t purple and orange tulips be glorious here? Or there?
The Waldorf-Astoria could have welcomed her work.
Mom was brilliant with real plants as well, though the Christmas cactus and poinsettias tended to bloom around Valentine’s Day. We had a wonderful terrace that wrapped our corner apartment on the Upper East Side, with an unobstructed view of all downtown and a glimpse of the East River, and planters with boxwood and bulbs, something always in bloom. (After Dad died she grew marijuana for some young friends, but that’s another story).
In the summer we’d play Scrabble out there, on a big round wrought-iron table (now on my back porch). Mom would regularly beat Dad, one three-letter word after a two.
So as we approach Thanksgiving Day, I say thank you, Mama, for the gifts you’ve given me. So many I simply assumed came from Dad, the showman, really came from you. Love, Stevie.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” has a lot to be thankful for. Like the rest of us.