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Life story
January 1, 1940
 

On her own terms


After a long and fulfilling career as a film professor at Fordham, as a writer, and critic, my mother took what was supposed to be a short leave of absence.  She had chronic laryngitis, and having tried a microphone, and even a bull horn she decided she should give her vocal chords a break. 


After about a minute of idle time that spring she began serving as a child rights advocate in Connecticut.  She placed all one hundred pounds of herself in some rather rough neighborhoods trying to explain to parents who had abused their children why the children were being taken from them.  While she enjoyed the challenge of putting her small frame and the fear that made it quake in some very tough situations, she soon realized that her true skills with regard to her crusade lie in her mental prowess rather than her physical strength. 


She decided that she would become a lawyer for children’s rights.  She saw her path, and began to work her way toward it.  She aced the LSATS, and Applied to several law schools.  Where each school asked for a brief supplementary statement my mom inserted this perfectly fitting poem:


I bring

A beginners mind,

A survivor’s strength,

An earth-mother’s perspective,

An advocate’s persistence,

A writer’s way with words,

A filmmakers Vision,

Courage

Scared into me

By single-handed sailing,

Outrage

Welling up in me

After requisite healing,

Surety of success

Stemming from accomplishment.

 

I seek

A community

Of scholars

Committed to public service,

Solid grounding

In legal

History and theory,

Intimacy

With ins and outs

Of procedures and loopholes,

Ways and means

Of effecting social change.

 

I promise

Engaged participation,

In-depth scholarship,

Pace-setting research,

Public service leadership.

I thank you.


If she was going to get into law school to do what she wanted to do, she was going to get in on her terms.  She was accepted to each school that she applied for- no less than six.  She chose FSU- the one that offered her the best scholarship/fellowship.


She was in her fifties.  I am not sure when my mom decided that she was going to live her life exactly on her terms, and that that was going to be her guiding principal.  I do know that during the time between her divorce and the end of her tenure at Fordham she developed her own ideas about how things should be done.  I know she found the courage to follow her own well informed well prepared, brilliant voice.  I missed it.  She was mom after all, and when we were together her greatest concern always seemed to be for me.  That that too was on her terms.  It took being away from her, and hearing stories from the friends she made along the way for the idea to hit me:  My mom was a hero for individualism.  She was not a hero born, but developed through struggle, defeat, persistence, and triumph.  


Recently, she told me stories of her youth.  She was a smart, beautiful, young woman growing up in a bustling middle class neighborhood in the Bronx.  She was doted on by two loving parents and an Aunt who spoiled her.  Her family spent summer weekends on the beach- either at City Island or on very special occasions at Jones Beach, or the Hamptons.  She had plenty of dates as a teenager, and many good friends with whom she had the privilege of sharing everything in trust and friendship.


Like so many young women growing up in the fifties she felt as though her life were fairly laid out before her.  Feeling pressure from her local catholic church, and a word of encouragement from her parents which she may have mistaken for obligation, she joined a nunnery.


Though she had no desire to do so, she felt that it was her duty to please all of the people in her life.  Whether her mother and father really wanted that for her, I do not know.  I get the impression that they were proud of her regardless of what she decided to do.  I do know that while she was in service to the church, she finished cum laude at Notre Dame College of Staten Island, and went on to earn a masters at NYU.  She taught at several schools, before realizing that really she could not be a nun.


Soon after giving up her first “vocation”, she met my father, and again did what she thought other people wanted. She married my father, though she had misgivings about him.  Her mother and her aunt thought he was charming.  He was handsome, successful, and seemed to be an American story in the making.  It turned out otherwise.  She told me that the several bad years of marriage were worth the trouble because during that time they adopted me.  But something else happened during the short years of her marriage.


In her mind she had the crystallization of her own revolution. She regretted missing the revolution of her generation; having spent it cooped up in a nunnery, and then shacked up with a broom, and an apron in a shag carpeted Yonkers apartment.  She regretted never enjoying the scene that every other person of her generation seemed to have experienced.  The day after my mother divorced, she put flowers all over her Dodge Dart.


I believe her own revolution was far more profound, and had far more staying power than the one her peers smoked, tripped, and rocked out to.  Though hers was late, it was a true renaissance of the mind, and of the spirit.  She had tried everyone else’s way, and it was time to do things on her own terms.


She would raise her son on her own terms, she would earn her PHD in film on her own terms, she would make her own documentary, write her own books, revues, articles, lectures, all on her own terms.  She would chair the Communications department at Fordham on her own terms, ruffling plenty of feathers along the way.  She would develop her own curriculum from which to base her lectures.  As a child and a young teenager, I used to sit in on her classes.  She would literally change the way her students saw films, how to make films, how to write about film, and how they looked at life itself. 


Because nothing short of excellence was rule one of her terms- who could argue with her?  Everything she did, she managed with one hundred and fifty percent effort, even more commitment, backed by well prepared talent, and knowledge.  It exhausted her.  And they did argue, and sometimes they won.


As her son, having the perspective of the child, it took years for me to fully comprehend the magnificence of her achievements.  When I look at only the highlights of her curriculum vitae, I am astonished: Scholar, and professor simultaneously, award winning documentary film director, a full career as an esteemed professor, writer of two books, scores of articles, reviews, lectures, research, symposiums, learning to sail, earning a captains license, studying law, working as a mediator for the state of Florida- these are just a few highlights mind you, all while raising a very difficult firecracker of a son.  Oh yes, all done on her terms.


Of course to me as a child, she was mom.  Mom who did not allow me to have sugar- regardless of what all the other kids were eating.  Mom who made sure I got my homework done, and made sure I was in the best schools, even if it meant moving… again,  and made sure she knew who my teachers were, and made sure they knew that I was not to have any sugar, regardless of what the other kids were having.  Mom who stood taller than the jolly green giant (no canned veggies either), who made sure I was signed up for the best programs, camps, and so on, wherever we went.  Who sent me off to school with fresh home baked bread with no sugar, but honey, and whole grains.


She made sure that every minute of every day I knew that I was loved no matter what, that I could count on her no matter what, even when all I wanted to do was to be my own man, at nine, then really at fifteen…To which she answered,  “OK follow your own Bliss.  But I recommend you read Thoreau first, and Whitman, and maybe Rilke, Pirsig…. [And on and on]…, so that you can better begin to define what that Bliss is and how to achieve it”... 


She taught me to love boldly, and to live fully, to think for myself, but to be routed in the knowledge of the ages.  She gave me every advantage afforded by this age, and this nation, without spoiling me.  How did she do it? How did she manage all of those achievements for herself, and raise a curly top devil alone, with no help? I don’t know.  I suppose it was because she created her own terms, and met them with more effort, and even more commitment.  Ah well, she was smart as hell, too. 


In more recent years I find I lost perspective again.  I knew her mind to be one that needed to be engaged, or risk despair.  She had found a passion for buying homes, fixing them up (with my help) overhauling gardens, and then starting again.  I could not understand this passion, and was convinced that she was in need of more to do, more to be connected with.  She seemed to be slowing down.  When I saw her sad, I pushed her do more to stay active.


I was far too critical.  While in her “slowing down” phase she overhauled countless houses, and cultivated several brilliant gardens in each.  She did much of the labor herself.  She painted a lot, opened a gallery, and sold several of her pieces.  She traveled all over the United States alone, camping along the way, meeting people, sharing life.  She lived in Maine, Massachusetts, California, Florida, and Rhode Island.  She wrote, continued to teach at several schools, programs, and colleges.  

 

It took a conversation I had last week with a neighbor and friend of hers for me to realize what an extraordinary event her “slowing down” time really was.  Her friend told me of the relationship that my mom had built with her daughter.   To her child, my mom was a “fairy Godmother” who worked in her magic garden of flowers, herbs, and greens, sharing the fruits of that garden daily.   Imagine the wonderful effect that had on that child’s imagination, and perspective.  Imagine what joy that relationship must have given my mom. 


It made me wonder about how many other people (hundreds of students aside) had been touched by this woman, mom, painter, artist, adventurer, pioneer, teacher, leader, advocate…. Human.  I would like to know.  This has been the first installment of her story.  I ask anyone who has a story to share it here, or wherever you would like to put it.


In the last few months my mom and I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time together. We retold stories that we each already knew, and a few that were before unknown.  We have always been close, and there was not a lot that needed to be said with a “sorry” at either end of it. 

She wanted to live this last part of her life as she had lived so much of her life before- on her own terms. She asked me to make sure that happened.  It was an honor to do so, with the help of Newport’s Visiting Nurses.  With their help she lived her last days in comfort, with dignity, and with joy.


Two weeks ago she told me that she was happy and content.  It was the first time I had ever heard her describe herself as content. For all of the things she did, she had always found some kind of satisfaction, but never contentedness. Nothing was ever good enough.  She told me that what made her so happy now was that I was willing to slow down and spend time with her, and “just be” with her.  I can’t help but think that maybe if she had worried a little less, committed a little less, prepared a little less, she would have had enough steam to “just be” a little longer.  But you know- she really would not have been content with that.

I know somewhere there is a lesson that someone will try to enlighten me with.  All I can think of is this:  Live life on your own terms, but don’t let it kill you. 

July 26, 1940
 
Born on July 26, 1940.
January 22, 2011
 
Passed away on January 22, 2011.
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