You’re never too dead to be a Jewish Mother” – Mallory Lewis

My mother, Shirley, was definitely not your “typical” Jewish mother, nor was she anyone’s typical mother, or for that matter typically anyone.

Her sense of humor was an amalgam of Kielce Poland (where she was born in 1924), Ridgewood, Brooklyn (where she was raised), Queens, New York (where we lived) and her unflagging chutzpah which was somewhere between hysterical and a little charmingly yet alarmingly meshugge. In fact, her exploits became the talk of Flushing, Queens and extended all the way to Bayside, Queens. Those who had the nerve, referred to her quirk as Shirleyisms.

SHIRLEYISM: True, when we’re hurt, mama’s bereft. But Shirley’s revenge involved sharp objects, like scissors. If boys broke up with me, mom “edited” them out. Permanently. She spent days busily hunting down all my photos with them – and became the first Jewish Mama “guillotiner.” I had 100 photos of me standing next to headless humans in penny loafers. To drive home her insult, she’d toss them outside and stomp on them. Given how many boys broke up with me, our sidewalk was a sea of teenage boys’ heads. During one particularly bad “boy” period, The Department of Sanitation cited her for littering. The fine was $500. I asked if they could cut me in, citing “pain and suffering” – mine after hearing my neighbors yell: “Hey Marnie … I see David broke up with you – again!”

SHIRLEYISM: My mother was the only person who was ever expelled from a workshop at the Learning Annex. The course was called: “Women Risking Change.” I later found out she was expelled for “risking too much change.” According to the women’s libber instructor, while postulating the seven levels of “risk” my mother quipped: “Mamala, why don’t you ‘risk changing’ your attitude so you could get maybe a date and stop teaching this chazzerai?!” Ma didn’t tell us right away that she was expelled. She pretended to go for the rest of the semester. We also noticed our freezer was bursting with “challahs.” What does challah have to do with “Risking Change?” Ma explained she only schlepped to the Learning Annex in Manhattan because “it was next to the greatest challah bakery in the City and ‘Writing for Profit’ was filled up.” It was between “Fun with Einstein’” and “Risking Change.” Her only comment? “I should have gone with the Jew!”

SHIRLEYISM: My mother was the “Ask Shirley” of the neighborhood, beauty parlor, appetizing store and places in-between. All would come for her wisdom, her empathy. Machinery, however, was not her strong suit. When Shirley got a flat in the parking lot behind her stores on Springfield Boulevard, she went into Abie’s deli. “Where’s the flat?” he asked? “Left rear” said Shirley. “Is it on the top of the tire or the bottom?” he inquired. “The bottom,” said Shirley. “Too bad,” he answered. “If it was on the top you could have made it home.” Shirley moaned. “Oy, do I have bad luck or what?” She called the garage. Marvin the mechanic asked her where the flat was. “On the bottom,” she said, now a maven, adding, “I know. I know. If it were on the top, I could have made it home.”

When my brother was three, he toddled down the block, and seeing kids in a pool at a neighbor’s house behind a wrought iron fence that was once a guard rail in Sing Sing, he stuck his head through slot. Unfortunately, once “in” he couldn’t get his head “out.” The neighbor tried bending, twisting, pulling. Stuck. They ran to get my mom. A crowd was now forming. Thinking fast, Shirley ran to get a tub of Crisco in order to slather him then slide him out. His legs flopped but his head wouldn’t move. Someone called the police. They showed – along with two rescue units, the fire department, an ambulance, the people who run the “jaws of life,” and three newspapers. Fewer government officials tried to get Bin Laden out of his “cell.” By now, my brother in the hot sun was hunched over and baking. The head of the “jaws of life” who couldn’t get hold of my brother’s bottom, but smelled something weird, yelled, Who the heck put what on this kid?!” His wrecking crew demolished the fence and my brother was freed. A police photographer then asked Shirley if my brother could put his head back in what was left of the fence for pictures. My mother yelled: “May deyn blut vendn tsu alkohol azoy ale di fleas aoyf eyer guf bakumen shiker aun tantsn di mazurka in deyn boykh knepl!!” (Which sort of means “May your blood turn to alcohol so all the fleas on your body get drunk and dance the mazurka in your belly button.”) Not good. My father wound up donating to the Police Benevolent Society that night.

SHIRLEYISM: Shirley had many talents. Athletics wasn’t one of them. To her, walking was an Olympic event which is why I found her lying in bed with five ice bags between her knees. It seems my little brother made her a “Class Mother.” The class trip was to the World’s Fair; 40,000 acres of walking. She put on a girdle for the first time in 20 years and got on the school bus. The boy seated behind threw up on her. When they arrived, the ever-efficient teacher gave her eight nine-year-olds and a map. Better you should give an elephant tap shoes. “We’ll meet back here at exactly four. Check your watches!” said the teacher, who briskly disappeared. Two minutes out and Shirley’s thighs stuck together from the girdle. As she went to toss the map, the boys ran. Using her famous Shirley logic, she tied their jackets together so she wouldn’t lose one. She didn’t. She lost eight somewhere between the Unisphere and the World’s Largest Cheese. Screaming and chafing, she picked up the pace to half a mile per hour which made the chafing pick up the pace of the screaming. After six hours, she hobbled her way to a little bus that took her to every single exit. Finally, at the last exit, she saw school buses and staggered out. It was now 5 o’clock. All the boys on the bus, including the Missing Eight, stood up and applauded as they pulled her in.

As I light a Memorial candle for this irrepressible, hysterical, often impossible, and uncommonly quirky Mom, I remember the singing. Not in the car in front of my school mates. No. With my father.

I was little, lying in the back seat on long trips. The two would sing songs from the 1930s and forties. No words were spoken. My father might start with “It’s Only Make Believe” and my mother would join in. At the end, she would continue with “I’ll Be Seeing You” and he would begin “As Time Goes By.” As they continued, so very happy, for hours, I realized that between her Shirleyisms and Dad’s steady eye, they had found the secret … one that eludes so many today … always picking up from one another, as they did in life.

Thanks mom. I remember.