August 20. Today’s my mother’s birthday. She’d be 90. She was 82 when this photo was taken. Her hairdresser took it; and no, she hadn’t had her make-up done by a professional for the shot. She did it herself. She put her make up on like that every morning, without fail.
My mother was an identical twin and they were born slightly premature. Her disposition was 100% Leo: She always had a smile on her face. Always. She was very outgoing, gregarious even. She talked to everyone, including strangers in elevators, on the subway, in stores, wherever. And no one ever seemed to mind. They never tried to distance themselves from her, afraid she was a bit of a nut. They carried on conversations with her.
When my parents sold their house after I’d moved out, they moved downtown, into an apartment. It was a lovely, elegant building with a lot of old-world charm. The original owner, a Greek tycoon, sold it to a Quebec-born millionaire, J. Louis Levesque. A businessman, racehorse owner/breeder and a philanthropist, he sat on the Boards of blue chip companies like Air Canada, Canadian National Railways, Hilton Hotels of Canada, Provincial Bank of Canada and many more. Among the many honours he received during his lifetime, he was in the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award in 1972 and, in 1976, he was named to the Order of Canada.
When he bought the building my parents lived in, one of the conditions of the sale was that the wealthy Greek would move out of the penthouse, so J. Louis and his wife could move in.
Well my mother struck up a conversation with him, in the elevator one day. She instantly became his new best friend — to the point that, whenever he went fishing (which was fairly often, because it was one of his great passions), he’d personally deliver some of his catch to my parents’ apartment.
She had a positive outlook to the day she died, and also had a huge heart. Once, when her doctor — who she was seeing for her annual exam — showed up with a cold, she went home and made him a pot of chicken soup; which, as soon as it was finished, she then delivered to his office. She was like a ray of sunshine. She made everyone’s life a little brighter.
And then there was her Virgo side: The neat freak. Miss organized.
My mother made lists. For everything. Grocery lists. Chore lists. Birthday card lists. Car maintenance lists. Lists for everything she had to do; and lists for everything everyone else had to do. She had lists of her lists. And as soon as a task was completed, it would get crossed off the list. She was very methodical. And maybe a bit maniacal.
Her drawers and closets — in fact every cupboard and pantry, every cutlery drawer and broom closet in our house — were all things of beauty. At all times. They should have been photographed for decorating magazines. Although no one would have believed that people really lived in those rooms, because nothing is that perfect all the time. Except in my mother’s case.
Everything neatly folded, and in its right place. Perfect little stacks. Lingerie in one place. Sleepwear in another. Sweaters, in another, organized by colour. All her hangers faced the same direction. All her hangers were the same. Nothing half on, and half off a hanger. No over-crowding. Nothing was creased. Nothing was stained. And every season she’d transfer clothes from the bedroom closets to the cedar closet in the basement. And then back again.
If she wanted a sweater on the bottom of a pile, she’d remove the whole pile carefully. Take what she wanted. And put the whole pile back. When she took something out of the closet, she put the empty hanger right back where it had been. As soon as she removed that garment she’d check to see if it needed cleaning. If she could wear it one more time, it was immediately hung back up.
I take after my father. Whenever my mother came to my house, she said nothing. She respected my right to live as I pleased. But she would sigh. To this day I hear the sigh.
But it was her handbags that really got me. My aunt — her twin sister — used to call her ‘filing cabinet’. Because that’s what the inside of her bags looked like. Everything had its place. Everything was neat and tidy. You could see, at a glance, where everything was. And every night, before going to bed, she’d clean out her purse. She’d take everything out, and put it all back — perfectly.
It drove me insane. What I really wanted to do was just stick my hand in there, and mess everything up. I never did. But I did think about it. Often. Sometimes, my father and I would catch her doing it. We’d look at each other and shake our heads. He’d roll his eyes, shrug and grin. Sometimes she’d catch us in the act. She’d grin right back at us, shrug and start to giggle. And soon the three of us would be laughing our heads off.
There’s a lot more to my mother than these, particular anecdotes. Which is why I’m writing a book about her. But for today, these are enough. For today, it’s enough to remember her; and remember that it’s her birthday.
She loved birthdays. She loved celebrating them — no matter how old she got. No matter how old we got.
So today I’m celebrating her birthday, by sharing some of my memories with you.