By Perry Tannenbaum
She tells me that she has only met one other Mabel in her lifetime. Multitudes of people have told me that there is no one like her. Yes, my mom is unique. One in a billion. And in just a few hours, Mom will be 100. One century.
My dad, who died at a mere 97 years of age, was a fine man – and a devastating loss for Mom, who has now persevered without her soulmate since November 2012. At his funeral service up in Queens, New York, a dear friend of the family, calling upon his rabbinic wisdom, memorialized Harry Tannenbaum as a man who was “samé’ach b’chelko” – a man who was happy with his lot.
Mom was his happiness. His joy.
Spend a few minutes with Mom and you quickly see why. Mabel has a flair. Last week, she fell and cracked her head open on the edge of her night table, so she was rushed from the Brookdale Carriage Club on Old Providence to a nearby urgent care. Donning my trusty COVID mask after 1:00am in the morning, I sped up to the Atrium facility on Fairview Road to pick her up. The gushing wound had been neatly patched up with Super Glue, the nurse told me, obviously sad to see her go.
Before I could even fold up Mom’s walker and stow it in my trunk, the nurse felt compelled to pull me aside and tell me how special this woman is.
That’s nothing compared to one of Mom’s hospital exploits before she moved down here. This one happened a few years ago at the end of a solo visit from Mom at Passover. Most people would have a coughing fit in the privacy of their guest bedroom or, at worst, among friends and family at the seder table. Not Mabel Tannenbaum. She had her coughing fit inside an airplane cabin on the runway of Charlotte-Douglas Airport as her flight was readying for takeoff.
She stopped that show, sure enough, as they whisked her – sirens blaring, no doubt – to the Carolinas Medical Center in the heart of town. I was reviewing a premiere at Theatre Charlotte that night, so we didn’t hear about the calamity until after the show was over. Guilt-ridden and concerned, I rushed over to the hospital with my wife Sue and our friend Carol, worrying whether our precious drama queen was still alive.
You know she was. What might normally be a bustling, brightly-lit consultation area with desperate, clamoring patients and harried nurses rushing around them was now mostly vacant and dark. At one end of the room, haloed in bright backlight, was a crowd of excited staffers. As we drew closer, we could hear the laughter, and as we finally saw past the silhouetted heads or nurses and orderlies, we could see Mom – perched over the edge of a gurney, about 40 minutes into a 45-minute set of quips, anecdotes, travel misadventures, and bubba mysehs.
Mom with her makeshift nightclub audience.
Just a few weeks ago, I donned my mask and delivered our first CARE package of groceries and bagels to the front gate of the Carriage Club. The senior facility was already in lockdown and only employees were admitted into residents’ apartments. I went to the trouble of writing out Mom’s full name – and her apartment number – on labels that I stapled to each of the grocery bags.
The gatekeeper lady looked at me slightly askance.
“Oh, Mabel!” she burst out. “Everybody knows Mabel!”
Well, maybe not everybody. A few outliers might remain at Carriage Club who haven’t witnessed her holding court in the huge dining room with her late great friend Susan Cernyak-Spatz. If they haven’t sampled Mom’s ready wit, don’t you worry: Mom has no problem dipping into her catalog of greatest hits and immodestly retelling barbs she has levelled at a complete stranger on Broadway, a French waiter at a chichi Parisian restaurant, a hapless school administrator and numerous other accounts she has painstakingly perfected over the years.
People who speak to me about her needn’t profess their affection. I can hear it instantly in their voices when they say “Your mom,” “Aunt Mabel,” “Grandma,” or even “How is Mabel?” Other folks’ personalities can be described as acquired tastes. Not my mom’s. She always connects quickly.
Many of Mom’s enthusiasms have lit up my life. She was a music major and a theatre minor – or vice versa? – at Hunter College, and after seeing me off to grad school and married life, she reinvented herself as a math teacher and union activist at a public school far off on the rough side of Queens. Dad, the English major of the fam at Brooklyn College, met Mom at The Met more than 75 years ago. It’s a long evening when you stand in line for The Met’s precious few standing room tickets and then stand together for all three acts of La Traviata.
If I had turned out to be a latter-day Mozart or Milton, Mom and Dad would have been ecstatic. You can bet that I heard plenty of opera from Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and on LPs spun on an enthusiast’s turntable submerged in a hi-fi cabinet that Dad custom-built himself. Broadway scores like South Pacific or My Fair Lady occasionally invaded the opera rotation, along with cantorial gems from Yossele Rosenblatt or folksongs from Moshe Nathanson, Theodore Bikel, and Sharona Aron.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mom also pushed me toward the piano that also dwelled in our living room and hooked me up with lessons – from multiple teachers long after I’d demonstrated my lack of talent or interest. When my own low-fi record player took up residence in my room, Mom and Dad put up a nice façade of tolerance for the rock 45s and, not too long afterwards, the jazz LPs that blared forth.
Mom also encouraged my literary bent, no matter how silly or self-indulgent my efforts might be. At an early age, she egged me on to write a lengthy letter on a fairly formal writing pad to my Aunt Evelyn. Why or what I wrote in my anklebiter years is way beyond recall. All I remember is that my words were deemed golden. Decades afterwards, I learned that Mom was not particularly fond of Aunt Evelyn.
Then came my mighty sixth-grade masterwork, The Terrible Times. Subversively written between lessons or under the lid of my desk on large construction paper, folded in half and carefully ruled with newspaper columns and handwritten lines, The Terrible Times was my heroic attempt to bring Mad Magazine culture to the Yeshiva of Central Queens.
Miraculously, this magnum opus, with its frontpage scoop on the Jack & Jill tragedy and its heart-wrenching ad for Allied Kidney Disorders, was never confiscated or ripped to shreds. At a recent Zoom reunion, a classmate actually remembered looking over my shoulder more than 60 years ago as I worked on the front page – its bold masthead lovingly traced in Gothic type.
Mom treasured every word of this deathless juvenilia, preserving it in my room for decades until the paper itself had begun to disintegrate. Dust mites may have also entered the equation.
Unlike my Mad newspaper, Mom gets better with age. She’s a better grandma than was a mother – and a superb great grandmother. They call her GG-Ma out west in El Paso, where my grandkids are in lockdown. Teaching was only half of Mom’s reinvention after the nest was emptied. Travel was the other.
I can’t remember roaming further from Queens Village than Rockport or Gloucester, Mass., before I lit out for the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. As my schools and vocation took me westward to Bellingham, WA, and Eugene, OR, before I swooped down to the Carolinas – first Columbia and then Charlotte – Mom and Dad built their summers around trips to Europe or Asia, with a Morocco or Machu Picchu trip thrown in for variety. Once or twice, they headed west, once to Alaska and once – when I was at Western Washington U – to Vancouver and Victoria.
Israel was their favorite, inexhaustible destination. They went there 13 times.
Sure, they did the tourist thing to some extent, but every trip was a treasure hunt for artworks and artifacts – and an epic photo-taking safari. Mom was the photographer.
Luckily, she caught the bug when I was 11 or 12, buying a Ricoh twin-lens reflex. Picking out my bar mitzvah present was a no-brainer after that: the first Kodak Retina Reflex. On the Mostofsky side of my family, photography is in our veins. My zaydee’s Zeiss Ikon Ikonta, taped bellows and all, sits on one of my bookcases to this day, a few inches from Mom’s Ricoh Diacord, and my Uncle David ably wielded a Leica overseas during WW2. I’d love to get my hands on that baby.
Traveling widely and shooting as a tourist, a communications pro, and a journalist – with the prodigious ease and convenience of digital photography – I’m sure that I’ve taken thousands more photos than Mom ever did. She doesn’t narrate epic slideshows these days any more than she caters her legendary Seders up in Queens that rocked with laughter and hearty belches until well after midnight. Mom’s color slides, 25 boxes of them, and her Kodak Carousel projector are at my house now, along with a legacy of 19 thick photo albums filled to the brim with prints and memorabilia.
Yet you can bet that Mom still relives her triumphs and her travels. With her salty, humorous anecdotes, she hopscotches the world and the years. A post-show talkback after a premiere at Duke Energy Theater can evolve into an audience with Mabel after patrons adjourn to the lobby of Spirit Square. Up in her apartment, she might turn the relics, the ceramics, the souvenirs and the Judaica that fill the glass shelves of her three mighty breakfronts into an hourlong tour.
And you might be one of those who hears about Mom’s living room travelogue – or recommends that others come and take the tour.
Ah, but all those delights of getting to know my mom are paused. So is the birthday bash Sue and I had been planning at the new Chabad Center on Sardis Road. Last I heard, the clock hasn’t paused, and my urge to celebrate – even without music, streamers, wine, audiovisual extravaganzas, and resounding mazel tovs shouted by guests from near and far – hasn’t been dampened one little bit.
So: Happy birthday, Mommie! Mazel tov on hitting 100.
Your life, your energy, your brave endurance, your wide-ranging passions, and your uniquely vibrant personality are all worth celebrating. Especially now!