Friday, October 2, 2009

Today My Mother Would Have Been 84

Today is my mother's birthday. She would have been 84 today if she hadn't died of a heart attack 16 years ago on Mother's Day.

I'm sure others have this experience but, even now, there are moments when something happens in my life and my first instinct is to pick up the phone and call my mom to tell her about it. When I got engaged a month ago the first thing I wanted to do was tell her.

Even putting aside my bias, I think the case can be made that she was a remarkable woman. She had polio as a child and was raised, along with her younger brother Peter, by her mom--who was a practicing trial attorney, having gotten her law degree from NYU in 1908, 12 years before women could VOTE--after my grandfather died very young. She went to Smith, got her masters in music history at Columbia and then married my father and began having their three children, starting with me. After Bobby was born, she decided she wanted to teach so she went back to Columbia and got her PhD while raising the three kids. She taught there and later at George Washington until her death.

Mom had two qualities that made her special. As my brother-in-law, David Sattler once said, she had the ability to find the nugget of good in everyone she met. Everyone was a potential friend although at 5-foot-3 and about 110 pounds, she took no guff from anyone. When my dad was executive director of The Kennedy Center, the chairman of the board was Roger L. Stevens, who may have been brilliant but was one of the rudest men I've ever met. He had a habit of calling the house and, if someone other than my father answered, simply saying: "Martin Feinstein," commanding whomever answered to go find my father. Once, when Stevens called and issued his command my mom just said, "No Roger, it's Bernice, don't you recognize my voice?"

That stopped Stevens for a moment and FORCED him to say hello and ask if my dad was around. Another time, at a party, Stevens, having had a few drinks, stumbled over and said, "well, I guess it's time to say good night." Mom's answer was: "How can you say goodnight when you haven't said hello yet." On another occasion, Stevens had flowers sent to the house for some occasion addressed to, "Martin and Dolores." When my dad got home that night mom said, "So who is Dolores?”

In spite of the fact that the polio left her with a limp, mom played some tennis and loved golf--even though the lowest score she ever shot in her life was 106. She and her pal, Mary Frances Doyle used to get up every morning on Shelter Island and be on the golf course by 6:30 because they didn't like seeing anyone out there. They played the back nine and were in the clubhouse drinking coffee and having a cigarette (unfortunately) by 8. Mom would then go pick up the papers, drive home and fix my dad breakfast when he woke up. Anytime they saw someone within three holes of them, Mom and Mary Frances would sit down on a bench and wait to let the group play through. They couldn't stand having people behind them. The pronounced themselves, "dingbat golfers," because they had little clue what they were doing. It was pretty funny given that their combined IQ was probably over 300.

Because my dad was often traveling, it was mom who took me to ballgames as a kid. She was hardly a big sports fan but she learned--because it was important to me. I still remember a rare afternoon when the Mets were rallying late and she was jumping up and down right along with me. An usher walked over, pointed at the players on the field and said, "which one's your husband?" Mom, who was probably 40 at the time, thought that was pretty cool. When I began writing in college she started a scrapbook with every story I wrote at the Duke student newspaper until I was writing three of four a day and she said, "I'm sorry I can't keep up." I understood.

The year that I was doing "A Season on the Brink," I came home for a few days when Bob Knight sent the players home for the Christmas holidays. The first morning I was in town I went to my parents’ house to have breakfast and, well, get my laundry done. I was sitting at the kitchen table while she fixed breakfast and telling her about Life With Bob. She listened intently, then sat down and said, "I'm thrilled you're here you know that. But if you want to talk like your friend Coach Knight, you should spend the holidays with him."

Apparently I had gotten into the habit of adding profanity to almost every one of my sentences and was completely unaware of it. When I got back to Bloomington I suggested to the assistant coaches we start a kitty where we each threw in a buck anytime we cursed--we were ALL doing it--and use the money for a dinner at season's end. We ate very well. Knight didn't participate.

Mom never forgave Knight for the things he said about me when the book came out. She was happy it sold the way it did but that didn't really matter. What mattered was that Knight said things about me that she knew weren't true. At one point she asked me if Knight was delusional. "I don't know anything about sports," she said. "But I know Bobby Knight curses all the time."

When I started showing up on television periodically she would watch and call me afterwards. "You were very good," she would say.

“Thanks," I'd answer. "What did I say that you liked?"

“Oh, I have no idea what you were talking about but I liked your tie."

As much as my dad knew about music and the performing arts, mom knew every bit as much. That's why their marriage worked for almost 41 years. Dad would often ask her opinions because he respected them and she never minced words. Once, when the great tenor Franco Corelli launched into the big aria in the final act of La Boheme, mom turned to dad and whispered, "this is god-awful, what in the world is wrong with him?"

"He's singing the wrong aria," dad answered.

Mom listened for another moment and said, "It's not even from the right OPERA. My God, how drunk is he?"

She had more superstitions than anyone I've ever known--many of which she passed on to her children. On the night that Christian Laettner hit the famous shot to beat Kentucky, she called me and said, "well you can tell your friend Coach Krzyzewski I won the game for him." (She never completely forgave Mike for not publicly defending me after 'Season on the Brink,' came out. I forgave him, mom didn't. She could really hold a grudge).

"How did you win the game for him?" I asked.

"I left the room. I knew if I left the room, they would win."

She had unique relationships with each of her children. She and Margaret would shop together and go to aerobics classes. She played golf with Bobby and shopped with HIM because he was a clothes horse. (The only time I heard mom use profanity was on the golf course. She always said it was okay while playing golf because if you didn't use profanity what was the point of playing golf?) She and I went out for Chinese food once a week because we always loved it.

The day of her funeral was the saddest of my life. She died very suddenly during a family trip to Bermuda to celebrate (belatedly) my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. What I remember most about that day is all the people who showed up--friends I didn't even know my mother had. Two women who worked at The Giant in McLean, where my mom shopped, came because she had always been so friendly to them. Former students, colleagues, lifelong friends. It was amazing.

When we got to the cemetery, it was raining. There had been great debate among Bobby, Margaret, dad and I about whether to include a Rabbi in the service. Neither mom nor dad was religious at all, especially when it came to organized religion. Margaret wanted her Rabbi, Jack Moline, to officiate. Because we all liked Jack--and knew mom liked him--Bobby and I and my dad agreed. At the cemetery Jack asked us if we wanted to honor the Jewish tradition of putting a spade of dirt into the ground as a final gesture of respect. I was against it. My notion was to get dad out of there as soon as possible.

“I think you should think about it," Jack said. "I know it's raining, but an awful lot of people have come out here for your mom. If it gets to be too tough on your dad, just get him out anytime you want."

I agreed. And so, after Jack had described the tradition to everyone and added that the family would understand if people didn't want to stand in the rain to participate, the ceremony began. There were at least a couple hundred people there, probably more. I believe every single one of them stood in that rain to show their respect and their love for mom. I asked dad repeatedly if he was okay and he said yes every time. He was as touched and amazed as all of us were by what he was seeing.

When everyone was finished and it was time to leave, Jack walked over to my dad and said, "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that. You were truly blessed."

We all were.


Anonymous said...

Very moving

Laura's Husband said...

And THAT'S why your mother was, and still is, so very proud of you...well written! Thanks for sharing those stories with us.

Aaron said...

Mr. Feinstein,
Thank you for sharing the story of your mother. I have enjoyed everything of yours I've ever read, and quite honestly, this might be the best of the bunch.

While this probably was difficult to write on a difficult day for you, I want to let you know how much I appreciated and enjoyed reading the entry.

Best to you and your family!

Vince Spence said...

What a wonderful woman. I love her philosophy about cursing on the golf course.

And, who was Dolores?

Anonymous said...

Really weird question, but did John get divorced very recently? I've now seen two references to him being engaged but a wife, Mary, is in the acknowledgments of the books I've read. Or did she tragically pass? I googled John Feinstein divorce but couldn't find anything....

JDM said...

Was wondering same thing myself, anon, but didn't want to pry.

Jay said...


A great article and memorial to your mom.

Having lost my dad and needing to write a piece for a memorial to him a few years ago, I know what it must've been like to write this.

pierre said...

Unfortunately,Sue and Jerry passed away too! I am sorry they did not live long enough to see their first grandchild graduate from highschool and fulfill her dreams of attending Duke!