Happy Birthday, Dear Mom

"Mom, did you have birthday parties as a child?"

"Oh, it was so long ago, who remembers?"

To make room for her, I scooted over to the corner of my daybed that doubles as a couch. Although my mother died in December of 1981, she annually visits me on her birthday, which is today, January 30.

I loved that she hadn't primped for this pop-in. She was wearing a white chenille bathrobe with blue embroidered flowers, and her long black hair with hardly any gray, fell loose down her back. (When Mom was alive, she piled her thin strands atop her head, like movie actresses of the time.) Her face, still absent of wrinkles, lacked her usual rouge, lipstick, and mascara. And the wedge house slippers she wore to add height, were on the floor nearby.

Before reaching over to put an arm around me, she hoisted the stuffed dog that I nightly nestle. "Oy vey," she said, as she tossed it off the bed. "How about finding a guy?"

"Let's not go there." I said. In my mother's dreamy visits, she often worried I would remain single. And although she had a lousy second marriage, to a guy 20 years older than her -- who had her clipping coupons and counting pennies -- she insisted a woman needs a man. "I never want to be a burden to my kids," was how she framed it.  

To shift the conversation, I said, "Happy 103rd Birthday, Mom!"

"Shah! That's a horrid thing to say."

"Okay, okay, sorry, no years. I know you never wanted to be an old lady, but I'm just trying to bring us up to date." (Whenever Mom saw a hobbler with a cane or walker, she'd wince. A heart attack just shy of 69 foiled that fate.)

I continued: "So, what I've been pondering, along with my question about birthday parties, is why I was not more curious about your life when you were alive?

"Why did I never ask you about your childhood, your teen years, your relationship with your own mother, romances? Now, all of your siblings are gone, and other than photographs, I have no clue as to who you were before I came along.

My mother laughed. "You and your daughters put your whole lives out there, so you think anyone who doesn't share is meshugah. Well, some of us are happier being private. Especially in my day; we didn't hang out secrets as if they were damp dresses on a clothesline."

"Nice metaphor," I said, impressed with the imagery. "So, did you want to be a writer, too?"

While I waited for her answer, I snuggled closer. I felt her body's warmth and sniffed the familiar scents of her Lux soap and Prell shampoo.

"Writer? That was out of the question in my day," she said. "Back then, as soon as you were old enough -- I was 19 -- you got out of the house and got married. Remember, I had three sisters and four brothers. My mother pushed me towards your father."

"I know the story," I said, glum as I recalled their testy marriage. "I used it in my memoir. When you protested and said you didn't love him, Bubbie said, 'you'll learn to love him.' But, you never did, did you?"

We were both silent for a few minutes. "What can I say?" she said. "We were married for 25 years before he died. He was only 48. You said in your book that I nagged. But if your father had listened to me, had stopped smoking, stopped noshing, paid attention to his diabetes, maybe he would've lived longer.

"Okay, Mom, this is your birthday. I don't want to bring either of us down. I know you're not going to hang around too long, so before you go, tell me what I can get you as a gift."

"Tell Faith and Jill how much I kvell about them. That would be a gift. Such talent, such good mothers. I'm a very proud grandmother."

"Mom," I said. "Isn't there something you'd like, just for you? I know it'll be make-believe, but I'd like to give you something you've always wanted."

She turned to kiss me on the cheek. Somehow, she had changed her appearance: She now wore face powder, rouge, mascara, and lipstick. Her hair was back in its upsweep. And instead of the chenille robe, she was dressed in an eye-catching sweater and slim skirt.

"Remember me like this," she said, staining my cheek red. "That's my gift." Then, she swung her legs over the daybed, slipped into high-heel pumps, and was gone.