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Memories of My Mother (2)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:468:]]BIG DEAL


My mother died today. But she had actually left us a long time ago, her identity erased by Alzheimer's Disease – bit by bit, drip by drip, in a painful process that would be heart-wrenching in any situation but was especially poignant with my mother. For my mother, Effie, treasured her memories: to her, the past was not something to be discarded like an old shoe but something to revisit again and again like an old friend.

Indeed, one of the activities that she enjoyed was making photo albums of people, places, and events. She had dozens of albums – at least 80 or 90 by my rough count – ranging from 11 x 14-inch mega-albums down to 4 x 6-inch mini-albums. They were invariably labeled on their spine in my mother’s distinctive handwriting with such practical titles as “Family A-H,” “Tom’s Graduation,” and, my particular favorite, “Friends and the Lemon” (which would often be referred to as “Friends of the Lemon”). There were two 4 x 6 volumes of the Lemon series, which was a bizarre collection that only my mother could concoct of people posing with the lemon tree that she was growing by her desk. “Would you like to see our lemon tree?” she would ask guests. People were amused and would pose awkwardly with the tree, and Effie got a kick out of their reaction.

My mother had a puckish sense of humor. During the 1976 presidential campaign, our family ­­– life-long Democrats – accidentally received campaign literature from the Republican in the race, Gerald Ford. The packet included some phony snapshots of Ford with his dog and his family, with faux handwriting on the back saying, “This is a favorite shot of me and my dog” and “This is a favorite shot of my family.” Effie took the snapshots and placed them in her “Friends” album under the letter “F” for “Ford.”

Effie had catchphrases that she would use constantly, and anyone who knew her will remember her favorite sayings: “I haven’t seen you in 10,000 years,” “Not me, kid,” “That’s stupid,” “Who’s bright idea was this?” “Big deal,” “Who cares?” and my father the grammarian’s particular bete noir: “She’s a prick.”

“You can’t say, ‘She’s a prick,’ Effie,” he would say to her.

“Why not?”

“Because a she can’t be a prick. A prick is male.”

“Well, she’s still a prick,” she would say, grammar be damned.

My father, George, who married my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1949, was continually exasperated by my mother’s stubbornness. When we were growing up in New York City, a blind man and his wife happened to live in our building. My mother would constantly refer to him as “the blind guy,” which bothered my father, probably because it defined the man by his ailment.

“Don’t call him the blind guy,” my father would say. “He’s got a name. It’s John.”

“Who’s John?”

“The blind guy!” said my father, falling into her trap.

“There, you see,” she said, triumphantly.[[wysiwyg_imageupload:478:]]

My mother hated pomposity and never let my father, a brilliant wordsmith and award-winning advertising copywriter, get too full of himself (the family jokingly referred to him as “The Puppet King”). Effie (her full name, Efftihia, means “happiness” in Greek) had herself come from humble beginnings. She was born in Greece in 1921, the first child of Thomas and Mary Hartocollis, but she spent the first five years of her life with her grandparents in the countryside outside of Athens. That was because her parents had gone to Brooklyn, New York, where Thomas managed real estate and Mary managed him. If Effie felt abandoned, she never said so directly, though she hinted at her feelings when she would retell the story of her youthful years with her maternal grandparents, and how her mother was shocked, on returning from America, to discover that Effie had adopted her grandparent’s surname in place of her own. “I had forgotten my parents,” she would explain.

My mother came to America in 1939, where her three siblings had all been born. “In the early ’30s,” George recalled in 2008, “her father had deposited his wife and four children in Greece (to preserve their Greekness of language and morals) while he worked away in Brooklyn, sending checks and showing up for short periodic visits at their outpost in Athens.”

It was while attending Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, that she met my father, a Chicago-born Greek-American attending classes at the college as part of his army training. As he said to me years later, “I had heard there was a Greek girl at Clark, so I went up to her at a college dance and asked her to dance. She thought I was interested in her because her uncle [with whom she was living] owned a restaurant and was ‘wealthy,’ so she tuned me down. Again and again. And the cooler she got, the more interested I became.”

My mother’s resistance apparently didn’t last long. Soon after that, they were dating, for as my father said in a 2008 memoir: “To the Greek-American me (almost all Greek-Americans had village roots), a ‘girl from Athens’ had a bit of the aura that ‘a girl from Paris’ held for almost anyone else: sophisticated, worldly, soigné, wow! When I was shipped off to my relatively un-bellicose tour in Europe, our romance continued by mail.” Although they rarely talked about it, their’s seemed to have been a romantic, passionate love. Once, my mother showed me a shoebox full of letters from my father during the war. I looked at one: it was covered with handwriting on both sides, but the writing was only three words, a phrase repeated dozens of times: “I love you.”

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:472:]]They had an old-fashioned love, one that really lasted through good times and bad. For my father, gregarious and outgoing in his nature, was probably not the easiest man to live with. Flamboyant and larger than life, he seemed to dominate every situation he was in and my mother ­– though she never complained about it – probably had some regrets about giving up her career as a social worker. She was, in fact, quite proud of her advanced degree in social work (her colleague, Carol Gardiner, once told me that Effie was very effective in her job), but family came first, and she had three boys to raise.


I remember that childhood with fondness: though not known as a touchy-feely person, my mother would often say, “I love you,” to us and often say to me (or Nick or Peter), “You’re one of my favorites” – never mind that you could only have one favorite.

We learned English from my mom, too (she refused to teach us Greek because of an incident she repeatedly told about her cousin, Jimmy, running away from school in Worcester, Mass., because his classmates made fun of the fact that he could only speak Greek). Although she lived in this country since she was 17, she always spoke with a distinctive accent – something that we never noticed growing up. The point came home to me (and Peter) when we were corrected (at different times) by our school teachers over the pronunciation of the word, “didn’t.”

“The word is ‘didn’t,” they would say.

“That’s what I said,” would be the reply. “Dint.”

“No, not ‘dint.’ ‘Didn’t.’”


“No, didn’t.”

We would go back to our mother and report the complaint and she would listen sympathetically, saying, “That’s stupid. Dint they listen to you?”

My mother spent her happiest years raising her family, but was almost as happy when she started working at the family store, Greek Island, a popular boutique of clothing, jewelry, and all things Greek that operated for most of its life (1963-1986) at 215 East 49th Street, in front of the historic Amster Yard. Effie loved socializing, and hob-knobbed with a number of celebrity customers, from Paul Newman (“his eyes are so blue”) to Katherine Hepburn. When Jacqueline Kennedy Onnasis, a famous Grecophile, came into the store in 1968, five years after the shop had opened, Effie was gracious but direct in her opening comment. “What kept you?” she said to Jackie O.[[wysiwyg_imageupload:473:]]

“The shop,” as she called it, soon came to dominate her life. She loved riding the subways to work (“They’re fast. They get you there 1-2-3”) and loved making special orders for customers (I often remember her working until 3 or 4 in the morning, altering a dress or more typically creating something new with imported fabric. She would show me the dress she had created with great pride, to which she would always add a label, “Made in Greece.”)

She was also fiercely protective of the store. When there were a number of after-hours break-ins at the shop, my mother got mad. She came up with a crazy plan to solve the problem:  she went down to the store and sat in the dark by the front door with a baseball bat and a camera. As she matter-of-factly explained it: “When someone breaks in, I will take his picture with the camera and then hit him over the head with a baseball bat.” We couldn’t dissuade her from her mission – but my father and brother stood watch across the street to be sure nothing happened. Nothing did.

It was after the closing of the shop that my mother’s life began its downward spiral. She loved the activity of the store, loved to be around family, loved to be busy. But after 1986, the shop was no more, her boys had moved away (Nick to San Francisco, Peter and me to our own apartments in New York), and my father was at the office. She began drinking more, and perhaps it was then that the Alzheimer’s first started to break down this remarkable woman. She began forgetting things­ – first minor memories and then major ones. She denied there was a problem, however, and fought it with all the weapons at her command. When Peter took her in for a memory test, he reported this exchange between her and the doctor:

Doctor: “What year were you born?”

Effie: “1921.”

Doctor: “What year is this?”

Effie: “1991.”[[wysiwyg_imageupload:476:]]

Doctor: “So how old does that make you?”

Effie: “You figure it out.”

But the illness gave no quarter and slowly and mercilessly erased the personality she had spent so many years perfecting. The scholarship student, insightful social worker, hard-working shopkeeper, talented needlepoint “artist” (she made dozens of pillows out of old fabric, which she would give to family and friends), wonderful cook, great storyteller, constant reader of fiction and non-fiction alike (her harshest charge against someone once was, “He doesn’t read, can you believe it?”), and devoted mother and wife – all of that was eventually taken from her, as she became a ghost of herself. It took a long time – I always believed it was my mother’s stubborn willfulness that kept her cognizant for so long – and the last thing to go was her card playing.

My mother loved to play cards. It was ingrained in her from youth. She often told the story from her early teenage years, when her mother needed a fourth person to fill out a card game. “Come down and play, Effie,” Mary called to her daughter.

“I can’t, mother. I’m studying.”

“You can study anytime. Come play cards, now.”

It was always a good time to play cards in Effie’s world – and she clung onto it for such a long time that even her doctors were amazed. When she couldn’t read or write anymore, and her cooking skills were gone, she could still whip you at cards. My poor father often would sit for hours on end, condemned to non-stop games of Onze, a kind of gin rummy game, until he would finally say “enough,” or be relieved at his post by a family member or friend.

But even that, too, finally was taken away. Her powerful will was broken, her ability to continue the battle, gone. The memories, so precious to her, were now only preserved in books or in the memories of others. I remember visiting her in that friendly yet ghastly nursing home where she spent the last years of her life after my father died in 2009. The place was populated with a Fellini-esque gallery of old men and women, in various stages of pitiful dementia. There was the little birdlike woman who would come up to me conspiratorially and say, “Help me please, darling, help me.” Or the bald man with one side of his mouth turned down in a perpetual frown, who would talk to me like an old friend, but always repeating the same phrase, “Hiya, Mac, can I get a quarter for a cup of coffee?”

Although it was hard for me to take, the nurses seemed to handle them all with great care and affection. They were particularly fond of Effie, who was feisty almost to the end. When she didn’t like something she would stick out her tongue (or even spit out the offending food), speaking in a mixture of Greek, English, and gibberish. It didn’t phase the staff, but they were curious. At one point, a nurse asked me if the word “Scata” meant anything.

“Yes,” I replied, curious. “Why do you ask?”[[wysiwyg_imageupload:477:]]

“Your mother was using it the other day when we were feeding her. We thought it was a word of approval.”

“Oh,” I said, amused. “It's the Greek word for shit.”

As the months went by, my mother’s lucid moments became less and less. There were times when she would surprise you by looking at you intently, as though trying to place you in the jumbled world of her mind, and then would say, quite clearly, “You’re a good boy,” followed by, “I love you.” And, invariably, you would quickly reach out to her, asking for something she could no longer give – an observation, a thought, even one of those distinctive, ridiculous phrases that so defined her personality.

But she never said them again. Toothless (she refused to wear her dentures) and stooped, she spent much of her time wandering the halls of the nursing home, grabbing at the walls, endlessly searching for something she had lost – a memory, a moment, or, perhaps, a way home.

In the end, I think she found it. For, as I sat by her bedside for the last time, Effie still seemed to have a very strong presence, but now she was finally at peace. And then I thought of the albums, the meals, the laughter, and the tears. Of George and Effie, always together, even when they were apart. "Is George coming?" Effie used to say when I would visit her in the middle stages of her Alzheimer's. To each, the other was the most important. My father died in January 2009 -- but only after he had successfully seen that Effie was placed in a top-notch nursing home. And when my father was laid up in the hospital once, I brought my mother to visit him. "It should have been me in there, not George," was her comment when we left.

After she had died, I thought of the last time I saw her alive, tapping on the arm of her wheelchair, seemingly impatient to move on. The doctors later told us that, in the end, she passed quickly. Within minutes of a call from the nursing home warning of her imminent death, she was gone, almost as though she knew it was time to go.

I talked with Nick and Peter soon after that, and we imagined what Effie would have said about her condition of the last few years if she had been able to talk ("You should shoot me, boys"), and Peter told us that he always liked to imagine that Effie, when sleeping, had entered a happier world, where her family and friends were all recognizable and life was one big card game.

"She's probably sitting down to a card game with George right now," said Peter.

"And," I added, "she's probably sayIng to George, 'I haven't seen you in 10,000 years. Good to see you, fella.'"

 I love you, mom.

July 20, 2011