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Mother’s Day Memories

By Sara Nuss-Galles 

Mother’s Day was a complicated time in my childhood. My mother had survived World War II in Europe, and she had difficulty taking joy in life. For me, Mother’s Day was an opportunity to heal my mother’s pain and make her happy.

Making-do was a credo in our house and I learned young that frivolous spending relegated one to share a circle in hell with sinners who left food on their plates. So I strove to make my presentation special.

In Chicago, Mother’s Day coincides with the bloom of spring. We lived in an apartment, so I often appropriated gifts from other people’s property.

One year, I settled on lush purple lilacs hanging over a chain link fence. When I came “shopping” on Sunday morning, a curler-crowned, housecoat-clad woman came out dragging trash.  She spotted me in flagrante delicto and chased me down the block, yelling and waving.

“I call principal. What school you go?” she scolded in the Polish-accented English of our immigrant neighborhood.

“St. Pat’s,” I chirped. Those kids treated us public schoolers like gutter snipes and I liked imagining a snooty St. Pat’s girl in trouble.

At home I presented my mother with a pickle jar full of lilacs. My mother inhaled their perfume and rewarded me with a smile. Two days later, as the blossoms dropped onto the kitchen table, I heard her mumbling as she cleaned up.

Another bittersweet spring I admired a classmate’s pin. No sooner did I finish than she offered it to me for 50 cents so that she could buy her mother a gift. It was a flamboyant purple enameled flower, studded with rhinestones, only a couple of them missing. A tiny spring made the stamen “boing” when touched. It was irresistible, and I had to have it.

In the 1950s, 10 cents bought three Cella’s Chocolate Covered Cherries, 20 Mary-Janes, or a new comic book. Since the concept of allowance was as foreign as white bread to my parents, 50 cents was serious cash.

I searched parking meter curbs for coins, a slow, steady source of my income. But as Mother’s Day neared, I determined to sell my comics. Keeping an Archie and a Superboy, I hit the street, peddling my dog-eared comics to other immigrant kids the way I acquired them, for two and three cents each.

I had 37 cents when I met my friend for negotiations. I insisted that too many rhinestones were missing. She was unmoved. I complained that the stamen drooped rather than “boinging.” She made a rude face. Desperate, I delivered my coup de grace: she would not find another buyer by tomorrow, Mother’s Day. She pondered. I cajoled and pleaded. Finally, she grabbed the coins and thrust the pin at me. The jewel was mine!

This treasure required presentation, and my junk drawer rummaging produced a dented white box and aspirin bottle cotton. I nestled the pin within.

On Sunday, my mother opened my gift. “Where did this come from?” she asked in Yiddish, an inscrutable expression on her face. I related the saga and the sale of my comics. She regarded comics as a waste of money and time, so I knew she was pleased. She thanked me, placed the box on the window sill and resumed cooking.

My parents did not believe in restaurants, and would not succumb to the American mishigas of “going-to-restaurants-to-be-poisoned.” As usual, my mother prepared dinner and cleaned up. I’d expected something different.

Days later, I heard my mother chatting with our neighbor. Her family had given her a corsage! What a restaurant they had eaten at! Then, I heard my mother, who never praised her children, describe the beautiful pin her “little Sara” had given her. I glowed.

I never saw the pin again. It was probably relegated to some cluttered drawer. My mother’s life, and, perhaps her taste, afforded no opportunity for such “splendor.”

As I grew older, I babysat to earn money and my annual quest to honor my mother continued: a black satin evening bag, a gilded dresser-top set, and the “Evening in Paris” cologne that intoxicated me. She never said much on receiving the gifts. Yet I understood that she was touched in a way she was unable to express. My last Mother’s Day gift, months before she died, was a gold heart with a small diamond, which she wore on a chain around her neck. I now wear it around mine.

 

Sara Nuss-Galles lives in Laguna Niguel and is a member of the Third Street Writers group in Laguna Beach.

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