Our Editor Recalls: ‘I Remember Mama!’

Wednesday, May 05 2010 07:11:53 PM
nick1 MOM AT 18. Where my good looks come from.

Mother’s Day 2010 approaches, and for all mothers, living or not, it is a very special day. It may be a Hallmark holiday, but, darn it, this one is a good one. Even more special in some ways than Mom’s birthday was the outpouring of appreciation for Mom’s specific contributions of selfless motherhood that my brothers, my dad and I provided on each Mother’s Day from when I can first recall it to my mother’s passing in 2002 at the age of 88.

Not a whole lot was required, actually, beyond a card, maybe a small gift and the most important thing, cooking for Mom! (Well, given our collective skills in that particular category, it was a relief when we decided to all just go out to eat that day).

My mom, of course, was the best mom in the world. Others may dispute that, but they didn’t know my mom like I or the others in my family did, so there!

There are countless mom stories that everyone who enjoyed the benefits of a great mom can tell, and certainly I am no exception. A lot of them involve just the mundane things, like the countless times I returned with my team in a school bus late at night from an away basketball or baseball game in high school, only to see my mom sitting in the old Nash Rambler in the parking lot, waiting to drive me home.

I trained my mom not to ask how I did in the game, unless I was willing to offer the news first. If I didn’t have anything to say, it meant I did poorly, and didn’t want to talk about it. She never disputed me on that rule.

She tried so hard to make all of us happy and especially to enjoy the holidays when I was growing up, even if she did get it wrong and try to order a “Yogi Bear” baseball bat for me instead of the “Yogi Berra” one I told her I wanted.

Another example of that was when I told her how much I loved the music from the original Flash Gordon serials, made for Saturday matinees in the movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s that were played on our only TV station channel that broadcast when I was a kid.

She went to all the trouble to squint and read the rolling credits on the show, day in and day out, until she gleaned all the relevant information, and then wrote the studio that produced the series to ask about the music, which turned out to be Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

They wrote her back with the information, including the specific recording, the label and when it was made. Mom went to the local record store to try to get one for me, but was crestfallen to learn it was not in stock, and out of print.

My poor sweet mom thought it needed to be that very specific recording, and not any modern recording of the same work. So she sadly told me the news at my birthday of how hard she’d tried, but failed to get what she thought I’d love.

So illiterate in such matters we all were, as we were living in a small seaside town of 300 in central California in those days, that I did not discover for years, after we moved to a big city, that “Les Preludes” was, indeed, readily available in more modern recorded versions.

Her extraordinary effort in that memorable case was typical of Mom. But I like to recall one of my favorite stories, of a time and an event that launched my newspaper career at the ripe old age of seven.

The author of “I Remember Mama,” which became a Broadway play, a movie and a TV show by the 1950s, was the exact same age as my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who grew up as the daughter of two Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco in the first decade of the 20th century. My grandmother was 11 at the time of the great San Francisco earthquake, and on her 100th birthday, I videotaped her describing what it was like that day in 1906.

In “I Remember Mama,” which was originally run as a monthly series of vignettes in a magazine, the mama tried to help her daughter (the author of the series/book) launch her writing career by meeting up with a famous touring author on her own, and exchanging some of her best recipes from the “old country” in exchange for getting the author to read her daughter’s manuscript and offer advice. The subsequent advice (“Write about what you know”) led to the series and the novel.

My mother, unfamiliar with “I Remember Mama” but of Norwegian (and French) stock, did much the same for me. My mother drove me 20 miles inland to the county seat one memorable day to inquire at the county’s school supply building about the acquisition of something I had learned was called a “hectograph” that my teacher used.

It was a thin layer of gelatin on top of a support sheet that, when a special soft pencil was used on a master copy, would absorb the pencil lead from the master copy, and then be able to replicate that copy on as many as 10 (each getting fainter than the one before) other sheets. It was the mimeograph machine, or copier, before such things existed.

I wanted one to produce my newspaper. Go figure, at age seven, it was what I really wanted to do. We walked into this cavernous warehouse, and when my mother spoke to the one person there, sitting at a desk in the center of the place, her voice echoed through the building. The woman working there was amused at the request, but politely told my mother that the supplies there were not for sale to the public.

My mother moved closer to the woman, and spoke in a whispered tone that I could not make out. All I know is that after about a minute, the woman disappeared behind some supply selves and came back with a small, elongated box. There was no exchange of money. My mother turned on her heels, and led me out, beaming.

Thus my life-long career was launched, and it was my mom who saw to it that it would happen.