What I got from her
I have written a lot about my mother in this column, because she grew up in Cleveland Heights. I’ve told about the time, when she was a teenager, living with her mother and baby brother during the Great Depression in an apartment two stories above Uberstine Drugs on Coventry Road (now the site of Hunan Coventry), when the building caught on fire and their only remaining pre-Depression valuables—a Steinway grand piano and her late father’s Stradivarius violin—burned up, and my mother ran back into the burning building to retrieve the box with all of their money in it.
My mother and father both attended Roosevelt Junior High and Heights High. But they actually met at Euclid Avenue Temple. They were both members of the temple’s junior choir. My father wrote some music that he thought the choir might sing. The director asked if someone in the group could write lyrics for it and my mother volunteered, because, she told me a few years ago, she thought my father was cute. Interesting that two of their sons—me and my brother Noah—became professional singer-songwriters.
That’s not all I got from her, that I’ve used in my professional life. When my mother died, a few weeks ago, every comment, card and e-mail I received, from people who knew her, mentioned her sense of humor. She was quick-witted and her humor was odd and irreverent.
When I attended Coventry Elementary School, my mother worked next door at the Coventry Library, the system’s main branch at the time, as the secretary for the system’s head librarian. Once, when Dr. Benjamin Spock—author of Baby and Child Care, for more than 50 years the world’s second-best-selling book (after The Bible)—lived in Cleveland Heights, he called the library and identified himself. My mother, surprised, said, “Dr. Spock! I—I’ve read all your books.” He laughed, of course, having written only that one. She also, sometimes, accidentally (or maybe not) told callers, “I’m sorry, Miss lunch is out to Lynch.”
I remember walking with her, when I was 11, and she was pushing a double stroller with my 2-year-old twin cousins in it, and a woman came up to us, looked at the kids and said, “Are they twins?” My mother said, “Well, one of them is.” The woman nodded. I don’t know what she was actually thinking, though. That was typical.
Another typical kind of thing she’d say was like the time, when I was in the Heights Choir, and she was talking to another choir mother and mentioned that she had also sung in that choir. The woman said, “Oh, I didn’t know you sang.” My mother said, “Oh, yes. I used to sing like . . . Florence Nightingale.”
But it was mostly irreverent. Like the time in the '70s when she and my father went to Chandler & Rudd, the area’s only fancy food store at the time. They couldn’t believe how much everything cost. While looking around, they ran into an old friend and asked him about the rest of his family. He said, “Well, my wife, Sylvia, had a heart attack a few weeks ago.” My mother said, “She must have been looking at these prices.” Maybe not the most appropriate thing to say at that moment.
One time, I met a guy who was a relative of some longtime neighbors who had suddenly moved away. The next time I saw my mother, I said, “I found out what happened to Mr. Greenberg. His nephew told me that he was driving his delivery truck, hit a dip in the road, smashed his head on the top of the cab, and now he’s just a ‘vegetable.’” My mother thought for a second and said, “Squash?”
Even when she went into the Menorah Park nursing home, almost four years ago, at the age of 91, the first time she met the social worker there, the woman complimented my mother on her fingernails, which were painted a bright shade of blue. The social worked said, “My grandmother, who’s 95, just got her nails done, each one a different color.” My mother said, “Sure. She probably wants to get them all in before she dies.”
One of the last things she said to me was when I was visiting and had brought my two grandchildren. She wasn’t communicating very much anymore, so we were mainly just sitting and watching the kids. She hadn’t said a word since “Hi” 45 minutes earlier. Just to make some conversation, I said, “It sure is a lot easier being a grandparent than a parent.” She looked at me and said, “Tell me about it.”
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.