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I Remember Mama

There are many times I miss her. And some of her idiosyncrasies still make me laugh.

By Barbra Williams Cosentino

Many of us have similar mom memories from childhood — the intoxicating aroma of fresh baked cookies, the magic elixir of a motherly kiss on a scrape or scratch, the "don't make me tell your father" threat.

A black and white photo of a woman holding her baby. Next Avenue, mom, mother's day
The author as a baby with her mom, Gladys Wagner  |  Credit: Courtesy of Barbra Williams Cosentino

But we each have our own idiosyncratic memories that pop up, unexpectedly, in the weirdest places and at the oddest times. Sometimes I get huge pangs of longing when I realize I'll never see her again, even though there were many times when she was alive that I wished she'd fall off the end of the earth or at least go somewhere far away (without cell service) for a very long time.

Being Gladys Wagner's daughter wasn't always easy.

Like the little girl with the curl, when my mother was good, she was very, very good and when she was bad, she was horrid. She said some pretty awful things to me, but I can actually laugh at some of them now that she's been dead almost eight years. Do I miss her? Of course I do. She loved me fiercely, although, as I often said to her, "You have a really funny way of showing it."  

When I Miss My Mother

I miss her when I have a dental appointment.

Mom's Uncle Joe was a dentist who adored his patients, treating them all like family. My mother said that when he was a newbie just out of dental school, he would pull a tooth out by tying a string to the office door and wrapping the other end to the tooth to be pulled, and then swinging the door back and forth. I never quite believed her.

But maybe it was true, because Uncle Joe was quite a character. When I had to have a baby tooth pulled, he did it in the regular way, and then gave it to me wrapped in a piece of cotton, telling my mom to make sure that the tooth fairy left me a big payout because I had been such a good patient.

I miss her when I'm at the nail salon. A beauty school graduate in the 1930s, my mother worked part time as a manicurist when I was growing up. She'd come home on a Friday evening with her pockets full of quarters, the average tip for a manicure in those days. We'd sit at the dinette table counting the money and then I'd get to choose four quarters that I could keep.

Do I miss her? Of course I do. She loved me fiercely, although, as I often said to her, "You have a really funny way of showing it."  

When I became an adult, spending half my earnings on my nails, my mother was horrified to learn about how much silk wraps, acrylic tips and gel manicures cost. Today, whenever I put my hands under the lights to dry, I remember her saying that I was nuts to spend that kind of money.

Although she thought it was fine to occasionally go to a casino and dump quarter after quarter in a slot machine adorned with little pictures of apples and oranges, in the hope that the apparatus would spew out hundreds of coins in return. Once she won thirty dollars and acted like she won the million dollar lottery.

I miss her when I read articles about bullying. I remember once when I came home from fifth grade hysterically crying because a boy named John had been teasing me and calling me "hippopotamus." My mother racked her brain trying to figure out the best way for me to handle it. Finally, she said, "If he does that again, you just call him rhinoceros."

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"But Mom, he's so skinny. He looks like a string bean," I replied. "It doesn't matter," she answered. "No boy likes to be called rhinoceros." And she was right, especially because, when it happened and I did what she suggested, all the other kids chimed in and chanted, "John is a rhinoceros, John is a rhinoceros." He never called me hippo again.

What I Don't Miss

I don't miss her when I remember the nauseating aroma of Brussels sprouts that "you're going to eat whether you want to or not." (It was definitely not.) I don't miss her when I remember she would make me use nose drops that dripped down my throat, causing bouts of coughing and choking and a vile taste that stayed in my mouth.

And I certainly don't miss her when I remember her pretzel tree, a bizarre silver contraption with outstretched "arms" that no one else in the entire universe had ever seen or heard of. When my future husband couldn't figure out how to hang pretzels from this atrocity, Mom asked me, in a not-very-quiet voice, "Do you really want to marry a man who can't even figure out how to use a pretzel tree?"

My Mother's Philosophy

I remember playing Barbie Queen of the Prom with my friend Beth, who lived upstairs from me and had a dog named Doodles. Dipsy doodles were our favorite snack, which was how he got his name.

I don't miss her when I remember the nauseating aroma of Brussels sprouts that "you're going to eat whether you want to or not."

Whenever we played the Barbie game, Beth always got to go to the prom with Ken — everyone's dream date — and I always got paired with red-headed, freckled, nerdy Poindexter. One time, I asked my mother how come I never got to go with Ken. "It's because life isn't fair," she told me, a sentence that has stayed in my mind forever.

Sometimes I believe that she thought life wasn't fair because she had me as a daughter, instead of my cousin Sue. Sue was a good baby who grew up to be tall and slim and very smart.

"You were a good baby too, except that you threw up on me all the time," my mother would often remind me. "Before you were born, I always smelled like White Shoulders perfume. Afterwards, I smelled like turpentine and liverwurst. I loved you but I could have lived without the smell. Sue never threw up on Aunt Muriel."

I thought life wasn't fair, too, because Sue had my supportive, kind aunt as her mother, when I was stuck with Mommie Dearest. She wasn't as bad as that, actually, but she did have her moments.

Two more examples. When her friend asked me what my new, post-divorce apartment looked like, before I could answer, my mother said, "She furnished it in early Salvation Army."

When I got an (unfortunately) frizzy perm in 1976 after seeing Barbra Streisand in "A Star is Born," my mother told me my hair looked as if I had stuck my finger in an electric socket. Another time she told me I looked like Howard Stern.

A woman smiling with her mom at at restaurant. Next Avenue, mom, mother's day
The author and her mother  |  Credit: Courtesy of Barbra Williams Cosentino

My mother died at almost 97, with polished nails just beginning to chip at the edges and a pretty lace nightgown on because "Those hospital gowns are atrocious. Don't you dare bury me in one."

She wasn't buried though, because her final wish was to be cremated and scattered in the Atlantic Ocean near Coney Island, Brooklyn, where every summer her family shared a bungalow for two glorious weeks. "It was the best time of my life," she told me, raving about sultry days playing in the sand, jumping in the waves and eating ice cream every night after dinner. 

"I'm so happy to hear that the best time you ever had was in the 1920s, thirty years before I was born," I said, and she had the grace to look abashed.

Did she love being my mother? I look at one of my favorite photos from when I was little, her face wreathed in smiles and glowing as she held me close, and I know the answer, even though I can't ask her. There are so many things I wish I could ask her, and so many things I wish I could say.

I settle for going to Coney Island (where she jumped the waves and played a century ago), every year on the anniversary of her death, raising my face to the sun, whispering "I love you, Mom," and hearing what sounds like her voice replying, "I love you too, but you really need a haircut."

barbra consentino, writer
Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Queens, N.Y., and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting and mental health have appeared in the New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter and many other national and online publications. Read More
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