It's a total shock to the system the first time you realize your mother had a life before you were born.
So you can only imagine how my sister and I felt, at ages 7 and 10, when we were grocery shopping with our mom one afternoon and were stopped in the cereal aisle by a nice-looking man who looked up from his cart and said, "Edith?" My mom smiled, greeted him enthusiastically and introduced him to us as someone she used to work with. "She was a cute tomato," he grinned, and I can't tell you anything that happened after that because I was transfixed by those words.
CUTE TOMATO? My mom was a cute tomato?
After he walked away, my sister and I looked at our mother with new eyes. "What can I tell you?" she laughed, pushing her cart and shrugging her shoulders -- which somehow seemed a little higher and straighter.
Wow, I thought, admiringly. My mom had felt no need to explain or go into any more detail because she was so comfortable in her own skin. To her, who she was back then was still who she was now. That was fascinating because, to me, they were two completely different people!
I wanted to know more about this person who was named Edith, not "Mom," "Mommy" or "Ma!" Although I loved the Mom/Mommy/Ma woman with all my heart, I was fascinated by Edith. I did a project for school, entitled "We Are Family: Three Generations of Women," so I had an excuse to ask her all kinds of personal questions about her past. But the best part was going through her old photos, because they proved that Edith really existed. And she was hot!
There was Edith in her short shorts on the Boardwalk, and looking like a bathing beauty in a tight-fitting strapless number on the beach. "We were a little risqué," she admitted, unapologetically.
My mother seemed most at home, well, at home, but Edith was out there, riding horses and bicycles. "I also got a medal for basketball," she told me. "I was pretty athletic, you know." You were??? No, I didn't know!
There were many men in these photos who were not Dad/Daddy/Da, and they all had their arms around Edith. "There were a lot of fellas because I was a cutie pie," she said, matter-of-factly. OMG! Who was this woman?
In all of these photos, Edith is the epitome of the fashionably-dressed woman of the '40s and '50s. She's wearing boxy jackets and pencil skirts for work, and cute little blouses with Peter Pan collars and long, billowy skirts for play. She's even donning gloves and a wide-collared, form-fitting dress for evening.
As I pored through piles of pictures of Edith traveling, laughing and just having fun with an eclectic variety of people, I realized she was someone I would have wanted to be friends with.
All these years later, as I've become a mom myself and the playing field has been leveled, I can proudly say I am friends with the woman who is both Edith and my mom. She is still my role model, the person I call daily to share the minutiae of my life. And she can still surprise me with impassioned and eloquent book and movie reviews, girly gossip and hilarious comments that are far removed from the "mom" box.
Now, at a very young 83 years old, she still goes for regular manicures, sports a wristful of bracelets and has a secret obsession with pointy, high-heeled shoes. She continues to wear simple, beautiful jewelry around the same neck which four grandchildren have lovingly burrowed into. She may not describe herself as "stylish," but happily accepts my daughter's highest compliment -- that she is "stylin'."
Recently, my mom took my sister and me to one of those inexpensive accessories shops that are her favorite haunts. As she enthusiastically tried on scarves, a gorgeous, young African-American saleswoman -- wearing sky-high stilettos that my mom immediately zeroed in on and admired out loud -- took her under her wing, showing her half a dozen ways to tie them. Next time we turned around, the two of them were hugging like long-lost best buds. This is the effect my mother has on people.
In My Mom, Style Icon, author Piper Weiss points out, "Style isn't just about the clothes; it's about the way they are worn." Audrey Hepburn would have been stylish in jeans and a t-shirt. Princess Di exuded style even before she married into royalty. It's a woman's substance and soul that give her real style, and my mom has those in spades.
I know it's almost required for daughters to roll their eyes at their mothers, deeply sighing that they don't want to turn into them. But, honestly -- well, I'm just hoping that the cute tomato doesn't fall too far from the vine.