by Judith Fein
I was sleeping on a cot in her living room. Early morning sun was streaming in through an opening in the white linen drapes and she was standing over me.
“I was thinking about it all night,” she said. “I can’t believe you don’t know who Usher is!”
“Usher?” I asked, dragging myself from dreamland.
“Yes, Usher. Have you been living under a rock? He sings R &B, has won 5 Grammies and is a major philanthropist.”
I looked up at my 91-year-old mother.
“Okay, ma, you win. It’s important. I’ll find out all about Usher,” I conceded.
She doesn’t just know about Usher. At 85, as a result of her rabid interest in Eminen, she gathered her dear ones at a restaurant in La Jolla, threw some signs and began: “My name is Mickey and I’m here to say/I’m coming out as a rapper today.” The mouths of her guests and the entire staff of the restaurant fell open.
I live in New Mexico and couldn’t make it for the rapfest, so I called the next morning to find out how it went.
“Judie!” she said, with her usual excitement and vigor. “I’d love to tell you all about it, but can we talk later? The book club is coming to the rec room and I have to go set up the tables and move the chairs.”
I was going to remind her that she had eight and a half decades behind her and she didn’t need to schlep furniture, but I desisted. Like Frank Sinatra, my mother does it her way.
The book club is important to Mickey because she’s been a bibliophile all her life. She subscribes to the New York Review of Books and can give you a thumbnail review of every printed opus from Moby Dick to Three Cups of Tea.
Until a few years ago, Mickey ran seven miles a day. She made a big loop that included Pacific Beach and half a dozen people came out of their houses to greet her every day. They still invite her to their family gatherings and call her to get a jolt of energy and encouragement when they are feeling tired, overwhelmed or distressed. She remembers every detail of what they told her the previous time they called, and she asks with real interest about their kids, friends and colleagues.
When Mickey was 89, she was the oldest of the actresses in a sold-out show in San Diego called The Far Side of Fifty. According to many audience members, she was the hands-down star.
For my mother’s 90th birthday, my sisters and I hired the dance teacher –Daniel--who trained dancers for San Diego’s version of Dancing With The Stars. We did salsa, tango, merengue. And guess who was Daniel’s partner? Mickey, of course.
The last time I visited her, the phone rang. It was someone’s kid calling for advice about which colleges she should apply to.
“Ma, how do you know about colleges?” I asked her. “You haven’t gone to one for 70 years.”
“It’s important to know which ones have the best departments in different fields,” she said. “It changes and I try to keep up with it.”
As Mickey talked, I glanced over at her wall, and looked at the odd pencil marks. “What are those?” I asked.
She explained that when her grandkids were growing up, she measured them and made a mark on the wall that corresponded to the tops of their heads each time they visited.
“So when they came the next time, they could see how much they had grown,” she explained.
I should mention that her grandkids are not the flesh of her flesh. They are the children of her ex-son-in-law and his second wife. And she’s friendly, of course, with her ex-son-in-law’s second and third spouses.
The phone rang again. It was one of my sisters, asking my mother if she knew an expression in Yiddish. Of course she did. Mickey is a Yiddish storyteller. It rang a third time. It was one of the waitpersons in a restaurant my mother frequents, calling to say she took my mother’s advice and applied to school to become a pharmacist.
Usually, when one writes about someone who is 91 years old, the emphasis is on the past. I realize, as my fingers and the keyboard collide, that I could easily do that about Mickey but the most significant thing about her is the present. That is where she lives. From pesticides to politics, from medicine to marketing, Mickey stays abreast of things. Not because she thinks she should, but because she is vitally interested.
It doesn’t surprise me that my mother gets 40 cards and 20 calls for her birthday. Her network is large and extends from San Diego to New York and from San Francisco to New Zealand. At each birthday, and many times in between, Mickey says she is slowing down and that it’s a bitch to get old. She can’t get up from the floor as easily after she does her morning push-ups. And her boyfriend gave up driving at age 90, so she has to take a shopping cart and bring back the comestibles on foot rather than throwing the bags into her car. “I go grazing around La Jolla for dinner every night,” she says. She no longer runs—although I am convinced she could—and she limits her activities to two or three a day rather than 10.
She can thank her genes, good fortune and 45 years of running, folk dancing, gym, walking and floor exercises for her stamina. But what really keeps Mickey young? I think it’s that she knows how to listen. When you call her or visit with her, she makes you feel as though your daily life is the most important thing in the world. If you are sick or sad, she calls to check up on you. If you tell her you have an important meeting, the phone rings as soon as you get home and it’s Mickey, wanting to know how it went. If you are upset, she commiserates and offers advice only if you ask her.
What I never tell Mickey, although I feel it very strongly, is that I would be devastated if she were gone. I am not the only one who feels this. Her presence is vital to my family, my mother’s friends and extended network and scores of people I don’t know even about. She’s my biological mother, but she’s everyone’s Jewish mother. Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t call Mickey and ask to be “adopted.” It’s because she gives people hope about aging well. Because she knows a lot from living for nine decades. But mostly, it’s because Mickey is a people person and she deeply, genuinely cares.
For Mother’s Day, I could give Mickey flowers or another piece of the large, ethnic necklaces she loves to wear that are half the size of her chest. Instead, I offer her my solemn promise not to introduce her to too many more of my friends because I know her living room isn’t large enough to house all the cards and gifts she gets from her current and future adopted children.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 80 publications. Together with her husband, photographer Paul Ross, she also gives travel talks, teaches travel writing and sometimes takes people on exotic adventures. Her website iswww.globaladventure.us