I often wonder when people pass away if they can still hover a few days and get a closer look at what’s happening down below on earth. Like our creator, can they see all? My mom passed away in April, and if she can see that I’m not wearing lipstick, allowing my animals on the furniture, and not always styling my hair, then I’m in big troubles, as one of my children used to say.
“Let me ask you something, and tell me the truth,” my mother said, standing in front of my mirror one day. “Does my bosom look too big in this sweater?” She was 89 and getting ready to go to the nutrition center at the Montauk Playhouse, where she would be the only woman at a table of men. “I don’t want them to think I’m showing off,” she said of the other guests, most of whom were at least 75. The statement says a lot about her; yes, she was vain, but she was also very kind and cared about other people’s feelings.
Mother’s Day is on Sunday, so how can I not write a column in her honor? But I promised David, my editor, that it wouldn’t be a sad one. She died on April 6 at 92 years old, after living a good, long life that should be celebrated. And my mom loved celebrations, especially if she was the center of attention, which she often was, mostly when she got up and sang around a piano or took to the dance floor.
Whenever we had family gatherings out here in Montauk, a bunch of us would inevitably head down to the Shagwong late at night, with my 80-something mother in tow. She flirted with the waiters and even had a crush on one of them, whose nickname is Hollywood — for his good looks. She also befriended one of the chefs, who occasionally sent her greeting cards on her birthday or gifts for no occasion, one a Yankees shirt after he learned of her favorite team. After she passed, he was one of the first ones to come to my house and offer his condolences. She would have loved that!
While consoling me recently, an older resident of Montauk told me to just keep hearing her voice in my head, and I immediately thought, Do I have to?
There was a wake for her in the Bronx on her 93rd birthday on April 9. My sister, brother, sister-in-law, two grandchildren, and I were with her when she passed away in the hospital. As I looked down upon her, I couldn’t help but think what beautiful, unlined skin she had. She was always the first to tell her children and everyone else to use sunscreen, and was a walking advertisement for it. Her proudest moments came when people, especially doctors, expressed shock when learning her age. She was a looker, my mom.
As much as we loved her, though, her advice wasn’t always wanted. She was in show business, a professional dancer, and her words of wisdom always had a bit of vanity to them.
She hated my naturally curly hair, which is long and can sometimes look quite wild. In my teen years, she bought me a fall, which was basically a long blond fall of fake hair, similar to what these days would be called an extension. I wore it once in public and was teased unmercifully by my Bronx friends, so back on its Styrofoam head it went, never to be worn in public again. But don’t think I didn’t preen in private before my mirror while wearing that long, fake hair.
She always told my sister and me that we should go to a stylist to get short, layered haircuts. My hair being what it is, which in all fairness is genetic and mostly her fault, a short, layered cut would make me look like Bozo the Clown, or worse.
When we were younger, she hauled us off to Mimi de Paris for perms, as if I needed a perm, and short haircuts. I remember being dragged kicking and screaming because I didn’t want my hair cut. And Mimi was a fake, a girl from the Bronx with bleached blond hair.
As I got older I let my hair grow in defiance. But she never let up. When I picked her up from my sister’s house to take her to my house for dinner, the first thing she would do when she got in the car was reach over to tuck my hair behind my ears. “Why don’t you pull it back into a ponytail?” she would ask, with a bewildered look on her face, as if I hadn’t wanted long, straight hair my whole life. As she got on in years, I learned to ignore her hair comments and tell her I was getting it styled next week, which always made her smile in anticipation of my new short, layered hairdo.
She was a pip, our Marie, and said the damndest things. But we loved her, deeply and thoroughly, even though, quite frankly, she often drove us crazy. My siblings and I are nothing like my mother. She never left the house without a swipe of red lipstick. I don’t wear lipstick, always gloss or balm, my sister doesn’t wear lipstick, and thank God my brothers don’t wear lipstick.
She always had her hair coiffed and sprayed, and she dressed in what she called one of her cute little outfits. If a couple of pounds were gained by one of her children, she had no qualms about letting the culprit know and always commented on our outfits before an event.
If Mom is looking down on us from above, she has probably already made a lot of new friends, all males I’m sure, and might attempt to send us a message. I just hope it’s not about my hair. I’m imagining walking into my bedroom one of these days and finding a levitating hairbrush hanging in the air. That might be all it takes for me to make an appointment with Mimi de Paris just for my mom.
Janis Hewitt is a senior writer for The Star.