May 10, 2006
I don't believe in visiting cemeteries and spending time over the grave of a loved one on Mother's Day or Father's Day.
I think the best ways to honor the people you love, who have passed on, is to visit them in your mind, all year long.
Now that I think of it, I guess it was because Mother's Day is coming up and I was feeling sort of lonely that I went on my sentimental journey on Sunday afternoon. My wife, the beautiful Judy Licht, was in East Hampton with my daughter Jessie. I was in the city watching over my son J.T.'s fun-filled SAT test weekend.
Sunday was a pretty day and in the afternoon I jumped into my car, put on my iPod to a playlist I call "Old Rock" and drove.
I like to do that sometimes. Just drive, listen to music, and think.
The sign on the West Side Highway heading downtown read Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. I thought, "Why not?" In minutes I was out of the tunnel and making the decision. Would it be the Verrazano Bridge into Staten Island or the Belt Parkway into Brooklyn? Then the old song "Earth Angel" by The Penguins came on.
Earth Angel, Earth Angel will you be mine?
My darling dear, love you all the time.
I'm just a fool, a fool in love with you
Earth Angel, Earth Angel
The one I adore
Love you forever and ever more
The song made the decision for me. I wanted to go back to the old neighborhood. Actually, I wanted to be 16 again. But I settled for going back to the old neighborhood.
As I drove the Belt Parkway, the water on the bay sparkled as the sun hit it at a perfect angle.
In the far distance, on my right, I could see the old Coney Island parachute ride looking tiny and red against the beautiful blue sky. I passed Lafayette High School.
I remember on graduation day, when I barely graduated, my mom saying, "I think I went to this school more than you did."
She probably did. Every time I got into trouble and was suspended she would come up to the school, walk into the office of the dean of boys and say, "He's a good boy." She was persuasive. I made it through school, thus becoming the first Della Femina in the history of the Della Feminas to make it past the eighth grade.
I cruised onto West 7th Street listening to The Fleetwoods singing "Mr. Blue" and parked opposite my old house. It is the tiniest house you have ever seen. It was perfect for us because, until I came along, the whole family was tiny.
My mom was just four feet, 10 inches tall. My dad towered over her; he was five feet tall. My grandfather was four feet, nine inches. And my grandmother was even shorter. My family on both sides was tiny. When I was 16, I reached six feet tall. My family looked at me like I had turned into Andre the Giant.
My mom never raised her voice but she always got me to hear what she had to say. She arrived in this country many years ago and really saw America as the land of opportunity. She was an immigrant and she didn't get to become a citizen until many, many years after she got here. My grandmother and grandfather never learned a word of English and never became citizens.
I think of them when I hear these idiots scream and march and carry on against the latest wave of immigrants. As the son of immigrants, I say let's give them all green cards, register them, and allow them to go to work. Someday their work ethic will save this country.
Speaking of work ethic, my mom never heard the term "work ethic" and probably didn't understand what it meant. But that never kept her from having one.
Years ago my mom called me up and said, "Jerry, I'm worried about you."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I don't think you're working hard enough."
"I don't think you're working hard enough," she repeated.
"Mom," I said, "all over America mothers are telling their sons that they are working too hard and you're telling me you don't think I'm working hard enough?"
"People are happier when they work hard," she replied. "I think you're happier when you are working hard. I want you to be happy."
"How do you know I'm not working hard?
"Because when you call me in the morning (I called her every day), sometimes it's after nine o'clock and you're still home."
I then proceeded to tell her that I was an advertising writer and writers don't have to be sitting at a desk in order to be working hard, and thinking is hard work, etc.
"I still think you'd be happier if you worked harder," she replied.
I laughed, but the next day I was in my office, sitting at my desk, at 8 a.m.
Life wasn't always easy for her but she never complained and she always found a way to survive. There was always the "cocktail ring."
I believe the "cocktail ring" was a ring that was passed on to her from Italy. I don't know what it was worth, certainly not more than a few hundred dollars. But the ring kept my family going in the 1940s. Whenever we were broke or the rent had to be paid (it was $22 a month) or we needed food for supper, my mom would take the cocktail ring to our friendly local pawnshop in Coney Island. The pawnbroker would give her $12 for the ring. He wouldn't even talk, but as she came through the door with me and my kid brother in tow, he would reach into the cash register for the $12.
On payday, when my father would hand her his salary, we would take another trip to Coney Island to get the ring back.
In 1967, I started my ad agency. I asked my mom if she wanted to invest. Now things were pretty good for her and my dad so they invested $1000 in the agency. The agency prospered and at one time we decided to buy the stock back from the original investors. I went to my mom's house in Brooklyn and brought her a check for $22,000. It was the most money she had seen at one time. She suddenly got very quiet. She had tears in her eyes.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "I was just thinking about my old cocktail ring."
I thought about the old cocktail ring as I sat in my car thinking about my mom. My eyes filled with tears.
As I pointed the car towards Avenue U, Dion and the Belmonts were singing "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Happy Mother's Day, Mom.
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