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My Mother: The Ultimate Fearless Role Model

Posted: 05/13/2012 12:00 am

The first experience of fear I remember was a particularly strange one. I was 9 years old. Over dinner one night, my mother started telling my younger sister, Agapi, and me about the time during the Greek civil war, in the 1940s, when she fled to the mountains with two Jewish girls. As part of the Greek Red Cross, she was taking care of wounded soldiers and hiding the girls.

She described the night when German soldiers arrived at their cabin and started to shoot, threatening to kill everyone if the group did not surrender the Jews the Germans suspected (rightly) they were hiding. My mother, who spoke fluent German, stood up and told them categorically to put down their guns, that there were no Jews in their midst. And then she watched the German soldiers lower their guns and walk away. And just hearing it, I remember the fear rising inside me, not just fear for my mother and the danger she faced but fear for myself. How would I ever live up to this standard of fearlessness?

My mother did not let financial concerns stop her from leaving my father when I was 11-years-old. For my father, as for many Greek men of his generation, there was nothing wrong with extramarital affairs. "I don't want you to interfere with my private life," I remember him telling my mother when she complained. His marriage was part of his public life, his affairs part of his private life. But that was not okay for her, and even though she had no job and no obvious way to earn money, she took her two children and left, trusting that somehow she would make ends meet. And, somehow, she did.

My mother was the ultimate non-thing person. For instance, there was the time we tried to give her a second watch for her birthday, only to have her give it to someone else two days later. "I already have a watch," she explained.

She told me once that she operated like the government: She first decided what it was that her children needed and then she set out to find the money. My mother was one of the original deficit financers. She made ends meet by borrowing or by selling her possessions, from a carpet brought by her parents from Russia to her last pair of gold earrings. My mother's real wealth was the fact that she never made decisions from a place of lack. Even when she and my sister and I had to share a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, she always radiated abundance. When I said I wanted to go to Cambridge, she never said, "We don't have the money." Which we didn't. She was a dreamer and always believed that the universe would conspire to bring forward the resources to fulfill her dreams. Which in her case were all dreams for her daughters.

When I started making money -- after my biography of Maria Callas became a big bestseller -- my mother saw this financial success only as a passport to freedom, which for her meant never having to make decisions based simply on the price tag. She taught my sister and me all about abundance: that it has more to do with your state of mind than your actual bank balance. And she was constantly living in a state of offering. Food, of course, was her favorite thing to offer, but it was a metaphor for so much more. I'm convinced that she absolutely believed that something terrible would happen to her children -- and her grandchildren and her friends -- if they went 20 minutes without eating. Nobody could ring our doorbell, whether the Federal Express man or a parent dropping off a child for a play date, without being asked, indeed urged, to sit down and try whatever she was cooking in the kitchen. And nobody could leave our house without goody bags filled with food.

My mother took control of her own status and defined her own worth. So she was freed from the petty turf wars and ugly envy of the status game, freed from fear about how "they" ranked her and what privileges "they" would bestow on her. By deciding her own worth and radiating the confidence that comes with this, she was secure in her status regardless of her life's circumstances. Getting rid of the fear that the status game generated allowed my mother to connect in a much deeper way with people at all levels of life.

She cut through hierarchies and showed everyone fortunate enough to come into contact with her that we're all cut from the same cloth. She approached life by liking everybody, and because this feeling of trust and connection is contagious, everybody liked her right back.

One night, while I was living in London, a member of Parliament I was dating at the time brought the Prime Minister Edward Heath to dinner. My mother was in the kitchen, where she could be found most of the time, talking to the plumber, who had come to fix a last-minute problem. As I was leaving the kitchen, I overheard my mother asking the plumber what he thought of the prime minister. I didn't hear his reply, but a few minutes later my mother had engineered a sit-down between the prime minister and the plumber around the kitchen table so they could talk things out.

Later in life she put into practice her beliefs that there is no job that is beneath anybody and that one's status is not determined by what one does for a living but by the qualities and dignity one brings to the job. In the mid-seventies, she went to Los Angeles for an extended visit with my sister and her then-husband. After about a month, when it became clear that my sister's husband would rather not live with his mother-in-law, my mother, not wanting to bother anybody, decided she would just strike out on her own.

But to do this, she was going to need a job. So she thought about what she knew how to do, what her talents were. What she came up with was that she knew how to manage a home -- cooking, cleaning, and making everything run smoothly, on time, and with a minimum of friction. It was what she'd done all her life, and she was good at it. She put an ad in the paper looking for someone who needed a house manager. Lo and behold, she got a call back, went for the interview, and got the job. So she found herself in Santa Barbara, taking care of a beautiful family and their teenage kids, all of whom immediately fell in love with her. Aside from all the household duties, my mother would counsel the whole family on her organizational ideas, which she dubbed, "creative order." More often than not, the kids would end up in my mother's room, talking through their problems with her.

She had taken the job with no sense of inferiority, and so it never occurred to the family to treat her as inferior. She simply went there to be of service and to earn a living, never forgetting exactly who she was. And, of course, when she got her first paycheck, she tried to give it to Agapi and me because she said she didn't need money, since she already had room and board.

Her adventure ended when I called her and asked her to please come to London. I need you, I told her, if I'm ever going to finish this book. My mother had never been able to resist a call of need from one of her daughters. So she flew to London and managed my little flat instead, keeping the kitchen going all night while I was furiously working to meet my self-imposed deadline.

Her job in Santa Barbara had been one more way that she taught her daughters by example how to cut through hierarchies and never wait for authority and leadership to be granted from without. Her solutions to problems would sometimes seem simple and obvious, but that was because of the fearlessness and trust with which she approached the world and moved through it.

I was blessed to have my own mother as my ultimate fearless role model. She and I were different in one key way: She lived in the rhythm of a timeless world, a child's rhythm; I lived in the hectic, often unnatural rhythm of the modern world. While I had the sense every time I looked at my watch that I was running out of time, she lived in a world where a trip to the farmers' market happily filled half a day, where there was always enough time for wonder at how lovely the rosemary looked next to the lavender. In fact, going through the market with her was like walking through the Louvre with an art connoisseur, except that you could touch and smell and taste the still-lifes.

The last time my mother was upset with me was when she saw me talking with my children and opening my mail at the same time. She despised multitasking. She believed that it was simply a way to miss life, to miss the gifts that come only when you give 100 percent of yourself to a task, a relationship, a moment. She was quite certain in her belief that many of our emergencies were actually manufactured.

My mother embodied the qualities that we need to grow into as we grow older -- especially simplicity and a connection with the sacred. For all those blessed to be in her orbit, it felt as if these dimensions of life were taken care of.

While our goal at the beginning of life is to see what we can make of it, my mother used to say that as we grow older, the goal is to see what it can make of us. Well, she made of life a grand adventure -- and it made of her a magnificent tour guide.

My mother, who lived with me most of my life -- through my marriage, childbirth, and divorce -- died in 2000. Her death forced me to confront my deepest fear: living my life without the person who had been its foundation. I did lose her, and I have had to go on without her. But the way she lived her life and faced her death have taught me so much about overcoming fear.


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