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Memories of My Mother




“I miss mom. Don’t you?” said my younger brother, Peter, one day soon after Christmas.

"I think about her a lot.”

“I try not to think about her at all,” I lied. I wanted to change the subject. “What’s the point?”

In fact, I was unconsciously repeating one of my mother’s favorite phrases: “What’s the point?” she would often say, though not in any existential fashion. She would say it as she would say any other number of peculiar catchphrases that were so uniquely hers: “Not me, kid,” “He looks dead,” “That’s stupid,” “I haven’t seen you in 10,000 years” (which she might say to a friend she hadn’t seen in a while, not caring how old that would make them both), 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.

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.”

Effie and George Soter, with firstborn, c. 1955.Effie and George Soter, with firstborn, c. 1955.

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.”

I often think of that shoebox full of letters when I think of my mother. She was so fond of her memories, of recalling the happy moments from her past. She was a collector of keepsakes, her desk a rat’s nest of odds and ends – a program from a show I had been in, a grade-school notebook from my older brother now in San Francisco, a bookmark from my younger brother’s bookstore. But her greatest memory trove was the collection of photo albums. My mother would spend hours assembling photos of trips, dinner parties, birthdays, and other special events into albums. “Have you seen the latest album?” she would say with pride, and then present it: photos under plastic sheets, with captions and commentary by Effie.

She was an obsessive chronicler of memories. I always knew that, but it came home to me when I was recently helping my father clean up his apartment. In the process, we came across a thick, stiff-backed stenographer’s pad, with my mother’s distinct handwriting on the cover: “From 9.28.89 to 9.08.99.” I flipped open the book and saw two columns of writing. The first entry said: “9.28.89 (Audi) Beets. Salad. Cranberry Pie.” The next entry was “10.1.89 Chris’s birthday. Egg lemon soup. Leg of Lamb. Potatoes. Broccoli. Corn. Salad. Cake. Baklava.” The next: “10.12.89. Poker. Addie, John. Fish Soup. Guinea Hens. Broccoli. Rice. Salad. Apple Pie.” And on and on, an almost daily log, for pages and pages of what she had served and to whom she had served it – an amazing book of its kind, a memory book of memories no one should care about, so typical of its writer, so sad in retrospect.


Effie and Tom, c. 1957.

Effie and Tom, c. 1957.

Sad because my mother, though she is still alive, is barely recognizable as the feisty woman who would say things like, “If I were you, I’d jump out the window” and “That’s stupid.” In the early ‘90s, she developed Alzheimer’s and the illness slowly and mercilessly erased the personality she had spent so many years perfecting. A scholarship student, a former social worker, a shopkeeper, a talented needlepoint “artist” (she made dozens of pillows out of old fabric, which she would give to family and friends), a wonderful cook, a great storyteller, a constant reader of fiction and non-fiction alike (her harshest charge against someone once was, “He doesn’t read, can you believe it?”), and a 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. When I see her these days, stooped and vacant, being led around by a nurse, I often want to cry or cry out, “Where did you go, mom? Why did you go like that?”

But then I’ll take her hand and lead her around the room myself. And she’ll smile a vacant but pleasant smile, and somewhere inside her I have to believe that a part of her still knows me, or at least knows my feelings. And sometimes, all too rarely, there is a glimmer of acknowledgment if not recognition. “You’re a nice boy,” she will say, suddenly. “I like you.”

I miss you, mom.

September 2008