My mother – formally named “Henrietta, but universally called “Henny – was a beautiful, energetic, and loving woman. Brought up in the Bronx, she and her three sisters suffered the loss of their father while teenagers. Her oldest sister, Belle, managed to earn a college degree, but my grandfather’s death meant that mom had to drop our of high school to help contribute to the family’s finances.Without a high school diploma it was difficult to find a good job, particularly during the depression, but by assuming Belle’s identity, she was able to secure a well paying position at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, NY.
Belle’s boyfriend and later husband was responsible for introducing mom to my father. They married in 1939 when she was only 18. A move to an apartment in my paternal grandfather’s house in Brooklyn followed. And then two kids, me and my sister. When we reached junior high school age, mom got a job as a secretary to a hospital administrator. Somehow she had taught herself shorthand. A few years later she secured a position as secretary to the playwright screenwriter, and novelist Paddy Chayefsky.
Chayefsky, a native of the Bronx like my mother, was near the height of his fame. He was the most prominent of writers during the “golden age of television” in the 1950’s, famous for penning the television play “Marty” (which later became a movie starring Earnest Borginine). During the time that mom was in his employ, he had turned to writing screenplays for the movies. One of the highlights of my life was shaking hands with the legendary actress Kim Novak on the set of “The Goddess”, a film she starred in with Frederick March.
Among my mother’s talents (she painted, wrote a cookbook, and was famous for her baking) was a gift for penning little poems that she would compose for birthdays, anniversaries, and other similar occasions. They weren’t Shakespearean, but they often hit just the right note when they were offered.
Dad was a furrier, and, as far as I could tell, a good salesman but a terrible business man. But the fur business was quite volatile and it probably wasn’t his fault that he retired at one of its periodic low points. Nevertheless, he and mom had sufficient funds to purchase a modest house in Tamarac Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, and to travel extensively. While at home, they particularly enjoyed hosting my kids. We would periodically send them down south, and by the time they returned, mom would have fattened them up considerably - and bought them a new wardrobe.
My father’s dementia dealt mom a terrible blow. She was devastated when he had to be placed in a nursing home. And when he passed, she was crushed, Happily, another love entered her life. Ruby, a prince and a gentleman of the first order, was attracted to mom and courted her ardently. She resisted for some time, but he wasn’t to be deterred and ultimately prevailed. They became a loving couple, and their romance lasted for several years.
But dementia again entered the picture. Mom because forgetful. She and her friend Ethyl would joke that they belonged to “CRAFT” (can’t remember a fuckin’ thing). They insisted that as long as they were aware of their forgetfulness they needn’t worry about Dr. Alzheimer. But that wasn’t the case.
Ruby arranged an eightieth surprise birthday party for her. I noticed some ominous signs. As a tribute to her, I composed a bit of doggerel in her honor. She was grateful. It’s the only poem that I’ve ever written.
To Mom on Her Eightieth Birthday
It’s my turn to get back at you
It’s a task that I’ve wanted to do
Over multiple days
In numerous ways
It’s a plan that I never outgrew.
Whenever an occasion arose
Some committee specially chose
To sit Henny at home
To write out a poem
Not just some anonymous prose.
But now that we’re celebrating your day
There’s nobody around to convey
The special rhymes
The rhythmical lines
To honor you in your own unique way.
You’ll have to accept my best shot
Even if it’s not all that hot
A little ditty
Not very pretty
That shows that I love you a lot
Here’s what I’m aching to say
A motto to mark this great day:
There’s nobody better”
Wonderful in every way.
She’s a fabulous mother
A granny like no other
A founder of CRAFT
Her grandkids would laugh
When she mixed one up with his brother.
Ruby was a saint and looked after my mother for several years. Ultimately, it became too much of a burden. Her house was sold and my sister Elaine flew down to Florida and shepherded mom back to Long Island. Mom had gotten Elaine to promise that she would never be placed in a nursing home. So, with the proceeds from the sale of her house, and with a generous contribution from Elaine’s husband, George, Elaine was able to secure an apartment near their home. She hired two Philippine ladies to care for mom 24 house a day. Within a year or two, mom no longer recognized me or my sister. After a little while longer, she stopped talking and was confined to a wheelchair. Soon after she passed away.
What a horrible disease, both for its victims and for the people who care for them. And, as a scientist, it’s frustrating to not know its cause, nor how to treat it. In the next post, I’ll discuss some recent developments that hint at a better understanding of the disorder.