My mother died this week a few months before her 105th birthday. That she was so old suggests who she was.
We have said for years that what kept her alive was overwhelming cheeriness and her determination to live; but others, most people, frequently said to me, “You must have great genes.”
And indeed my mother’s parents lived late too. But my brother the sociologist told us, as we gathered last weekend in my mother’s apartment, that genes account for no more than three percent of longevity. The rest, he said, is the way we live and luck.
So apart from luck my mother deserves the credit for her long life. Playing tennis until she couldn’t. Driving until she shouldn’t – and then for a few more years. Surrounding herself with friends and after they died with comparative strangers whom she made friends. Most of all gathering about herself her children and grandchildren at least one of whom visited every few days. Not to mention nieces and nephews and the children of old friends not still around.
She had quite a following.
My mother simply loved living and for the people who saw her that was infectious.
She was in great shape at her 100th birthday and we celebrated it at my sister’s home. We gathered – her six children, spouses, twelve grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren – to toast her and roast each other. Most of all to eat the foods we prepared for the event.
We are an eating family, some including me might say excessively so, and like most Jewish (and Italian and Iranian and Korean et al), we celebrate birthdays and holidays and most other days with food.
As a family in the 1950s when we were living in the family’s home we ate dinner together; we even ate breakfast together. Can you imagine that?
Although our food was influenced by my father’s having been born in Sweden (herring and knaeckebrot for breakfast), my mother made the food decisions.
She came from a wealthy German-Jewish family and her mother didn’t cook. Her mother had a cook. The family’s meals were prepared by Miss Hen (one generation out of Slavery) followed by Bobbelee who started working for my grandparents when she was 15 years old. (She lied about her age.)
My mother may never have turned on a stove until the War.
But in 1942 my father, a Public Health Service captain, was assigned to Florida and my mother had to learn to cook. Happily she had an aptitude.
Remember: There were no frozen dinners then. Convenience foods (if indeed they are foods at all) came after the War.
Certainly people didn’t go to restaurants to eat. Fast food hadn’t been invented and food was hard to come by.
Our family dinners were simple — it was a time of simple food. I have memories from the War when rationing demanded from even experienced cooks a level of ingenuity that our affluence today has made entirely unnecessary.
We didn’t have meat very much; we certainly didn’t have butter. But even without ingredients easily obtainable now we ate very well.
It was in the Fifties that my mother’s cooking flourished. She used to describe her meals as “the flower of my art.” Scallops, pot roast, Swedish meatballs, Beef Stroganoff, always vegetables simply cooked, nearly always potatoes that my father loved, salads, and desserts. We ate well.
The dinner table was chaotic. Six children, my father trying to tell stories from his workday, my mother trying to keep our attention for my father. She was the cook; she was the mistress of ceremonies.
When the beautiful leg of lamb was served, someone (probably me) would say, “Mom, we just had lamb.” And my mother would bolt from her chair at the foot of the table, go back into the kitchen and bring back her black and white notebook, look through it to say, “We last had lamb on March 10th.”
Dinner wasn’t always joyful. My sister Carla regularly knocked over her water glass and, in anticipation of my father’s disapproval, would begin to cry. My brother and I would quarrel. Sometimes the older of us hovered over the plates of the younger. (“Have you finished, Mike?”)
But whether joyful or not, stormy or not, our dinner was a family time, the most important family time. And although my father always dominated our family my mother was always in charge of the table.
I knew my mother for 76 years and so of course I knew her far more as an adult than as a child. Although she had a rewarding career as a social worker she took time away from her profession to be a full-time mother. She loved those 18 years as a full-time homemaker.
She loved her life after as a fairly senior social worker. She loved being a wife and mother. She loved her social life. She simply loved living. It is sad to lose her most of all for that reason.
Until quite recently she would say often “I know I have to die but I don’t want to.” And so inevitably she has now been been deprived of the one thing she had left and most of all didn’t want to lose.