Angel Without a Halo
By Michael L. Thal

My mother died in June, soon after her eighty-sixth birthday. After the funeral, when the guests had left, my family sat in the living room of Mom’s two-bedroom apartment, deep in thought. We reflected upon our positive experiences with mom. We concocted a martyr. In reality, mom had her faults. She was human.

The doorbell rang, disrupting the solitude we’d embraced. George, the elderly doorman, took the elevator to the fourteenth floor to convey his condolences. He had tears in his eyes and his voice trembled. After he left my sister-in-law, Stephanie asked, “Was he so close with your mother?

“He was touched by her caring nature,” I said. “When others treated him as a hired hand, Mom regarded him as a friend.”

My cousin Joni, a party planner, thought it a good idea for us to sit in a circle and reminisce. “Let’s each of us tell about one thing Mom left us. The one thing that touched our hearts the most.”

My twin brother, Elliott, a 51 year-old teacher, spoke first. “Mom helped me with my homework and encouraged me to go to college. Without her I would’ve ended up in Sing-Sing.” During the early years of his childhood, roots of decency and respect had been firmly planted. “I usually invited my friends over for dinner. They unanimously agreed. I had a cool mom.” Tears flowed freely down the cheeks of a man built like Jessie Ventura.

Selective memory failed to recall my mother’s temper. One June mid afternoon, after being dismissed from the elementary school across the street from our home, we found our mother engrossed in a phone conversation with her best friend. Elliott, being the annoying eleven year old he was, got on mom’s nerves immediately. He was such a pest that she hung up on her friend, a rare event.

“You come here this instant!” she screeched. Of course he took off running to the far side of the dining room table. She made the fool’s error to run after him. He saw it as a game and continued running and then darting under the oak wood table that could seat ten comfortably. In frustration, mom picked up a bronze candlestick that sat on the nearby counter. When El bolted for the front door, she threw it at him. Elliott’s skull split open like a watermelon on a hot summer’s day. She rushed him to the doctor’s. He said he fell. She condoned his lie. That was the last time I ever saw Mom pick up anything in anger.

Elliott’s wife, Bea, was like the Biblical Ruth to Naomi. “Mom showed me the true meaning of charity, integrity, and respect.” She looked at her husband and daughter and said, “We shared this apartment with her for a year.” A Florida hurricane devastated Bea’s home. Without a second thought my mother invited them to live with her until their house could be rebuilt. “Never did she make me feel unwanted. Even for Christmas, she put up a tree just for me.”

Jennifer, then 24, recalled the summers she spent with her step grandparents. “I’m sure Grandma had better things to do with her summers than play with me. But she opened her heart and home and we spent our days shopping, playing cards, and going to the beach. I have those wonderful memories.”

But Mom’s kindnesses weren’t committed without tally. She expected payment, a thank you or a considerate phone call. And if you forgot, she’d provide a subtle reminder. Jewish guilt was her form of revenge and she used it like a surgeon maneuvers his scapula.

Harry, my oldest brother remembered when he was in fifth grade. “Mom grounded me for talking too much in class. I had to come home immediately after school, do my homework, eat dinner, and go directly to my room. I learned my lesson. And I learned to focus.”

The three of us learned to follow the dictums of our mother. There was always “the belt” that threatened us whenever we neglected to follow the course. She used it rarely. When I reached adulthood she admitted, “Dad or I had a policy of hitting the bed. All we wanted to do was scare you guys into line.” The occasional welts on Elliott’s side after a “needed lesson” were due to a rare miss.

“Remember when the Perts moved next door?” I asked. They were the second black family in our neighborhood. “Mom and dad refused to move. They didn’t believe in white flight and figured that we could use a dose of racial diversity. Their decision left me with a deep understanding of racial harmony and respect.”

Which was kind of confusing. My mother and father would talk about the “shvatzes,” a derogatory Yiddish word for African-Americans. First, a poor black family moved in a few houses over. They let their property turn into a slop heap. When the Perts moved next door, they expected more of the same. But this couple was different. He was a landscaper. His house and front yard made ours look dull in comparison. His yard was picture perfect for “Better Homes and Gardens.” Ours for “So-So Homes.” So my parents would smile across the lawn at them. They never partied together. They only had friendly brief conversations across the fence from each other’s yards.

Mom and Dad didn’t move until their three sons were in college. Later I learned it was more due to economic reasons than white flight. The value of their home depleted and they couldn’t afford to move to the more affluent Northeast section of town. Once we were gone, they sold their home at a loss and bought a condo on the waterfront in the next county.

My cousin Joni, five years my senior, sat quietly on the couch opposite me. Her voice quivered, “I lost my mother when I was twelve and now Aunt Vivian. She raised me like her own daughter. I’ll miss our long phone conversations, trips abroad, and her visits during Passover and the High Holidays.”

One summer Joni, Bea, and Mom went to Europe together. When Stephanie, Harry’s wife, inquired about her summer plans, Mom said, “Joni and I are going to Europe with one of her friends.” She intentionally lied because she just didn't want to spend her time with Stephanie. Mom didn’t enjoy the company of her eldest son’s wife, and wanted to spare her feelings. Unfortunately, this bit of information came out at the funeral. Relationships between Stephie and her husband’s family have been strained ever since.

We sat there for a long time holding each other. And hoping it was a bad dream. Maybe Mom would come out of her bedroom, smile, and say, “Who wants to play cards?”

Back in Los Angeles, I took my children to the park for a memorial service for Grandma. They too needed closure. Channie (17), my eldest daughter said, “I’ll never forget that summer when I flew by myself to Florida and spent a month with Grandma. She made me feel all grown up.”

What she didn’t say was that after a week she wanted to come home. “It’s boring here. And Grandma’s too strict.” I then had a talk with Mom. When Channie came home she talked of the card games, trips to the pool, and weekend with Uncle Elliott.

Koren (12) had spent the previous summer in Hartford with Grandma and Joni. From the mouth of a babe, my mother’s essence was summed up. “She always put everyone before herself. She was strong in her heart and mind.”

Mom had a way of trying to discipline her grandchildren when all she needed to do was be quiet and smile. She’d use worn out techniques of verbal abuse and innuendo to get results. It was very pre-Spock psychology that didn’t work on her children and was ignored by her grandchildren. Her first grandchild hated her for it. Mom learned. She changed. Her youngest granddaughters don’t recall her earliest futile attempts. She became a better grandma.

We had two funeral services for Mom, one in Florida where she lived, and the other in New Jersey where she was buried. It was appropriate for a woman who helped develop and mold the minds and consciences of her children and four grandchildren.

In the final analysis, mom had her strengths and weaknesses. I remember the last trip we took together. Mom and I drove up to Cape Kennedy. On the way back she didn’t like the way I was driving. I was either going too fast or too slow. So she relied on her tongue to rein me in. I explained, as calmly as possible, “I’m doing my best, Mom. Can’t help if we’re caught in rush hour traffic.” She thought about this for a while. And you know what? She apologized.

Which wasn’t rare for my mom. When she knew she was wrong, she’d do something about it. She was a woman capable of personal growth right down to the last months of life. She was an angel without the halo.

Michael taught in the public schools for 28 years. He's the author of two novels, "The Legend of Koolura" and "The Light: An Alien Abduction." Theformer won the Word Weaver's Award for Excellence.  He has had 21 articles published in local and national magazines.  For "When the Music Stops: AFamily's Fight with Deafness," Michael was awarded Honorable Mention in the Feature Article category of the 72nd Annual Writer's Digest WritingCompetition.  Not bad for a contest that attracted over 18,000 entries.  Michael is a certificated reading specialist and teacher in California. Contact Michael.