Ode to Mother Sylvia -- Owed to Mother Sylvia

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Beverly Wettenstein New York City-based journalist, national public speaker, media critic and woman

Our family story of "The Four Pillows" exemplifies the formidable perseverance and fortitude of my maternal foremothers.

Grandma Rose Gordon was 16 when she left Russia with two girlfriends to come to America. Her family was planning to join her later. But her father died in a fire and she never saw her family again.

She traveled with four large feather pillows, which she used to make a bed in streerage class on the ship. Later, the pillows were placed on Grandma and Grandpa's bed. They had four daughters and a son. When my parents married, Grandma gave my mother one of the four pillows.

During WW II, Grandma organized three weddings within nine months. My mother was the first bride. She made the headpiece and veil. Grandma made her bridal gown, plus the attire for everyone in the formal wedding party. She also cooked food for the reception and was hostess to the out-of-town guests.

If author Sue Grafton wrote my mother's life story: S is for Sylvia, her distinguishing characteristics would include:

Sacrificing - She never puts herself first.

Savoir Faire and Savvy - She always knows the proper thing to say or do in any situation. I worked with Tish Baldridge, Jacqueline Kennedy's White House Social Secretary and etiquette doyenne. In problematic situations, I ask myself, "What would Mother and Tish do?" I may not always rise to their high standard, but I do respect their elegance.

Scholastic - She is always learning and taking courses. We went to the Library every Saturday. In her 40s, after my sister and I had graduated college, and my brother was in High School, she earned her college degree. Last year, in our nightly phone call, I asked, "What's new?" She replied, "I'm a coed. I enrolled in a computer course at the college." She had retired twenty years earlier.

Scribe - Upon graduation, she became the public relations director for the college. She still believes in writing personal notes. I'm not surprised anymore when people tell me they cherish her heartfelt correspondence, usually in a perfect handmade card, with treasured photo or appropriate artwork.

Scrupulous - My elementary school Report Card had Academic grades on one side and Citizenship grades on the other side. Mother explained that the Citizenship grades were the most important. She practiced what she preached. See more about her philanthropy later.

Sculptor, Collector, Artist - She received her first John Rogers statuary as a birthday gift. Eventually, she collected and restored about 50 pieces. When I visited Versailles, the furnishings, doors and decorations looked familiar. Mother had replicated the faux painted finish in our home interior design.

Seamstress - She made many of my clothes and most of my special occasion outfits, including my Prom dresses, Graduation dresses and Bas Mitzvah dress.

Self-contained, Solitary - She is definetely her own person. When asked what she wants, it's always, "Peace and Quiet."

Sensible - She is quite pragmatic and accepting of changing social mores. The experience at the college -- working with a diverse, younger student body and staff -- may have informed her open mindedness.

Sensitive, Simpatico - She is considerate of others to an unusual degree. For example, if the postman delivered the wrong mail, she personally returned it to the post office, instead of leaving it on the mailbox, so as not to embarrass him.

Shy, Soft-spoken - As the second-oldest of five active children, it took years for her to find her own voice. Growing up, she would go into another room just to hear herself speak. Grandma sent her off to school with her older sister when she was just four years-old and she graduated High School at 16. Today, her theme song could be Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman. Hear Me Roar!" "I'm in charge!" is her popular refrain.

Sibling - She is close to her sisters and brother.

Sincere, Supportive - She is honest -- with no pretense -- and never critical.

Singular Sensation - She is truly an original.

Stimulating - She is my informant on the latest news and pop culture.

Socially responsible - She created biographical videotapes for nuring home residents to share with their families. She knits shawls for hospital cancer patients and baby caps and blankets for children in foster care.

Strong - Almost 89, she endures physical infirmities in silence. She now walks with a cane, monitors her diabetes and other maladies and manages her medical regimen. But she never complains. I expect she concealed the burden of caring for my father, who died the week of his 85th birthday in 2000. When contemporaires complain about their head-to-toe ailments, she calls it their "Organ Recital."

Surprising - Always!

She has lived more lives than Shirley MacLaine and made more comebacks than Hillary and Bill Clinton combined.

Recently, she made her fourth "911" call to the ER. Every senior living alone should have a health alert pendant. Mother concedes she has also learned some life lessons. She has emphysema. Unbeknownst to us, the fumes from waterproofing the basement forced her to call "911." Following the first hospital visit, she refused to go to the rehab facilitiy, insisting she could care for herself, alone at home. Mother doesn't always know best! Now she agrees the best course of action is to go directly to rehab from the hospital.

While the Census Bureau may have classified my father as the "Head of Household," my mother was really the head and shoulders of our household. She was the one everyone leaned on -- including my father. Mother was in charge of the family finances. She even took a course with H&R Block to learn about the tax laws.

I used to take growing up in a large family for granted. Each of my parents was one of five children. As the first-born of 24 grandchildren, I appreciate the advantages of a close, large family. We got together with the family almost every Sunday and holidays.

A natural beauty, my mother doesn't focus on looks or maintenace, or go to a beauty parlor. In fact, when I left for college, there was no budget allowance for haircuts or clothing alterations, because she does everything herself. She always looks fabulous. Once, I invited her to watch my interview on a local TV show. I asked why she was so dressed up in a stylish suede suit. She explained that she had arranged a business meeting at the station. Cablevision has honored her for producing a TV show for, by and about senior citizens.

Mother was the original Green Queen. She never throws anything away and always recycles. Post-production, she knitted unusable video tapes into durable shopping bags. Now she knits strips of food store plastic bags into handbags and totes. Hint: the Red Lobster Take-Out bag makes a lovely Red trimming. She collects outdated wallpaper sample books and creates signature shopping bags and placemats with the pages. The wallpaper books may weigh more than she does.

She created footless pantyhose way before the fashion designers. The lower portion is used for anklets and the body portion for pant liners. Stockings that are not wearable ultimately become stuffing in her homemade pillows. She showed me how to save printer ink by canceling the Alignment Page cycle and using the lowest density.

One Halloween she made me a dress from my father's old ties. That was vintage stylish Sylvia. She made an "Egghead" headpiece with eggshells for my brother.

Someone asked her if she made her shoes because she made everything -- from cloting to furniture, to laying the basement floor. She wasn't in many home movies because she was always behind the camera at every event.

Her dining room table serves as the epicenter of her one-woman cottage industry. Within reach are two printers, Xerox machine, TV, CD player, video tape machine, shredder, computer and telephone. A multitasking maven, her hands are never free. She is usually knitting the shawls, hats and blankets, as she watches TV, tapes an alternate show and reads the newspaper.

With all the medical tests she's taken, they may have discovered a strong backbone -- and a funny bone. But there isn't a mean bone in her body.

When I realized my parents were aging and protecting their privacy, I started calling nightly to check in on them. She's started sending me cryptic E-mail messages. Sometimes she's unintentionally funny. Once, on a visit to a new shopping mall, Mother said, "I'll meet you in a half hour at Happy Jacks." The scary part was I figured out that the store name was Friendly Frost.

Accepting her Supreme Court nomination, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg paid tribute to her late mother, who died the night before her high school graduation. "I pray that I may be all that she would have been, had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons."

Mother was born the year before women could vote in America. She always encourages me to pursue my goals, especially as a women's advocate. Early on, she nurtured my journalistic ambitions. I was the High School correspondent to the local newspaper. Every Friday night she delivered my column to the editor.

I've spent almost two decades researching, writing and speaking about remarkable women leaders. My mother still tops the list of women I most admire.

Sue Grafton could not solve the mystery of Sylvia Gordon Wettenstein. At my best, I do reflect, "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. I am my Mother after all."

The story of "The Four Pillows" has fulfilled its legacy in strong, self-reliant, resilient women -- from Grandma Rose to Mother Sylvia. Happy Mother's Day.