The ad popped up in my e-mail the way it always has: “1-800-Flowers: Mother’s Day Madness — 30 Tulips + FREE vase for just $39.99!”
I almost clicked on it, forgetting for a moment that those services would not be needed this year. My mother, Margaret Friedman, died last month at the age of 89, and so this is my first Mother’s Day without a mom.
As columnists, we appear before you twice a week on these pages as simple bylines, but, yes, even columnists have mothers. And in my case, much of the outlook that infuses my own writings was bred into me from my mom. So, for once in 13 years, I’d like to share a little bit about her.
My mom was gripped by dementia for much of the last decade, but she never lost the generous “Minnesota nice” demeanor that characterized her in her better days. As my childhood friend Brad Lehrman said to me at her funeral: “She put the mensch in dementia.”
My mom’s life spanned an incredible period. She was born in 1918, just at the close of World War I. She grew up in the Depression, enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, served her country in World War II, bought our first house with a G.I. loan and lived long enough to play bridge on the Internet with someone in Siberia.
For most of my childhood, my mom appeared to be a typical suburban housewife of her generation, although I knew she was anything but typical. She sewed many of my sisters’ clothes, including both of their wedding dresses, and boy’s suits for me. And on the side, she won several national bridge tournaments.
My mom left two indelible marks on me. The first was to never settle for the cards you’re dealt. My dad died suddenly when I was 19. My mom worked for a couple of years. But in 1975, I got a scholarship to go to graduate school in Britain and my mom surprised us all one day by announcing that she was going, too. I called it the “Jewish Mother Junior Year Abroad Program.”
Most of her friends were shocked that she wasn’t just going to play widow. Instead, she sold our house in little St. Louis Park, Minn., and moved to London. But what was most amazing to watch was how she used her world-class bridge skills to build new friendships, including with one couple who flew her to Paris for a bridge game. Yes, our little Margie off to Paris to play bridge. She even came to see me in Beirut once, during the civil war — at age 62.
The picture of her in Beirut makes me think back in amazement at what my mom might have done had she had the money to finish college and pursue her dreams — the way she encouraged me to pursue mine, even when they meant I’d be far away in some crazy place and our only communications would be through my byline. It’s so easy to overlook — your mom had dreams, too.
My mom’s other big influence on me you can read between the lines of virtually every column — and that is a sense of optimism. She was the most uncynical person in the world. I don’t recall her ever uttering a word of cynicism. She was not naïve. She had taken her knocks. But every time life knocked her down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists.
Six years ago, I was in Israel at a dinner with the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, which publishes my column in Hebrew. I asked the editor why the newspaper ran my column, and he joked: “Tom, you’re the only optimist we have.” An Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, was seated next to me and as we walked to the table, he said: “Tom, I know why you’re an optimist. It’s because you’re short and you can only see that part of the glass that’s half full.”
Well, the truth is, I am not that short. But my mom was. And she, indeed, could only see that part of the glass that was half full. Read me, read my mom.
Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always try to end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant. Late in his career, after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple — just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough voice: “Have you called your mama today?”
On the day of the filming, though, he decided to ad-lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences.
So on this Mother’s Day, if you take one thing away from this column, take this: Call your mother.
I sure wish I could call mine.
Thomas Friedman, The New York Times. Call your mother.