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Remembering Mom

By Janet Wikler

There is so much to say about my mother, Elinor Schloss Wikler, that I hardly know where to begin.  Perhaps I should start with an early memory of sitting in the living room in front of our old brown record player and listening with my mother to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale.  I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.  As we listened, Mommy told me the story that was in the music – about the happy people dancing outside, and then the storm coming, then the sky clearing and the people coming out to dance again in the glistening aftermath of rain.  As she spoke, I could hear the story in the music and see it unfolding in my mind’s eye.  To this day, the music of Beethoven – especially that symphony – moves me in a primal and deeply personal way.

Or perhaps I should start with the evening when Mommy showed me how to dance the Charleston.  She had a gaiety I had never seen before.  Her face shone with excitement as she moved her knees together and apart with a rhythm and motion that I couldn’t even begin to replicate.

Or I could start with the memory of Mommy teaching me how to navigate the winding stairs of the old stone house that we called home.  I must have been two or three years old.  Judy had just started school, and in the mornings I had Mommy to myself – a luxury I had never known before.  I bump- bumped my way down the stairs in a sitting position, and when I reached the bottom Mommy handed me a sugar cube.  Her face gazing up at me as I descended was as bright as the roses that climbed the front of our house and sweeter far than the sugar that melted on my tongue after I reached the landing.

I could talk about my mother singing me songs in French long before I started school – “Il Était Une Bergère,” and “Frère Jacques” and “Ainsi Font, Font, Font” and “Ma Normandie” – in her lovely, lilting way.  Joyfully I sang along, little knowing that this early exposure would enable me to master French easily later in life.

She sang lullabies, too.  Some of them were “real” lullabies and some were old popular tunes.  “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” was one of my favorites.

After I started school I loved our morning ritual.  I would stand very still as Mommy braided my hair.  She always made sure that the ribbons she tied around my braids matched the dress I was wearing.

She was a wonderful playmate.  We spent hours drawing, reading, and playing dolls together.  We made things out of clay and plaster of Paris.  She was childlike without being childish.  She had the gift of being able to relate to people of all ages as equals.

Mommy taught me how to draw, bought me a camera and film, and understood when I shot role after role of my dolls, trying to catch the elusive beauty I saw in them.  She introduced me to the world of books and reading.  She took me to the library every week, and she never failed to find books I would love.

We had wonderful books.  One was full of poetry with lovely illustrations.  I fell in love with poetry through a poem in that book that began, “Zoon, zoon, cuddle and croon, over the crinkling sea.  The moon man flings him a silver net, fashioned of moonbeams three.”  Magic was in those words and in my mother's face as she read them to me.

My mother was perhaps the most empathetic person I have ever known.  She was always able to sense and respond to one’s feelings.  Even after I grew up and left home she would know, from a great distance, if I were sad, or scared, or sick, or needed help.  She was that way for all her children – for everyone she loved.

And she did love.  She loved with an intensity that was almost frightening.  She loved with all her heart and soul and being.  Although she was intensely private, Mom was deeply passionate about her feelings – about us, about music and art and literature and justice and beauty and good and evil.

Sometimes a cloud came over her and she was sad for days or weeks at a time.  As a child, I saw the clouds descend and didn’t understand why.  How could I?  Even adults understood little about depression in those days; and there was very little that could be done to help.

When Mommy was depressed it felt as if the sun had gone out and the earth had shriveled up.  She tried to hide it, medicate it, but there was nothing she could do when the storms wracked her soul.  For me, it was like when the storm came in the Beethoven music.  I could only wait until it had run its course and hope that the sun would shine again.

My sisters and I tried hard to make Mommy happy, especially when we saw her so sad.  So did our father. 

Her sadness could not be lessened by anything we could do or say; but when she was happy she was radiant, beautiful, larger than life, the loveliest woman in the world.

She was funny, too.  She had a great sense of humor and she loved to laugh.  I loved hearing about the pranks she used to play on Murray, the housekeeper who had lived with her family when she was a young girl.

She loved Gilbert and Sullivan.  We learned the songs from many of their operettas and she took us to see the shows when they came to town.  Once we went to see Iolanthe in Longwood Gardens.  The entire show took place outside.  Surrounded by trees and fountains, watching the fairies in their beautiful dresses and listening to the music, I felt as if I had come to an enchanted country.  I wanted to stay there forever.

Some of my happiest times were when Mom would play the piano and my sisters and I would sing songs with her from the old books she had kept since childhood.  She would complain when a song had too many sharps or flats, but she would valiantly play it anyway as we sang along.  Some of my favorites were Whispering Hope, In The Gloaming, and Wait for the Wagon, songs that I still sing and that always make me think of Mom.

Mom had an incredible aesthetic sensibility; everything she touched she  transformed.  She didn’t care much for material things and was never a big spender, but she did appreciate beauty in every form.  She loved our old colonial house and brought out its unique charm in many ways – the pattern of the wallpaper in the dining room, the color of the paint on the woodwork, the shape of a curtain, the placement of a mirror.  She worked her magic so quietly that we hardly realized what she had done until, after her death, we missed her touch.

In the early days we planted flowers in the garden.  I loved going with Mom to pick them out – geraniums, petunias, zinnias, marigolds – and helping her dig up the earth with a trowel, set the seedlings into the holes, pat the soil around them, and give our new flowers their first drink.     

In later years, when I came home from college, and even later, when I came to visit from my own home in New York, Mom never failed to signal my welcome in her special ways – a vase of fresh flowers in my bedroom, bright, newly washed sheets on the bed, her soft face upturned in a hopeful smile. 

Mom was always in tune with us and with the times.  She discovered feminism before we did and was thunderstruck by the truths revealed in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  

Mom grew up at a time, and in a family, in which she was led to believe that she could not be both a woman and a professional working person.  She had wanted to be a journalist and she would have been a great one, with her incredible powers of observation and empathy and her extraordinary writing skills.  But like many women coming out of the Second World War, she gave up her dreams of a career to focus on family. 

She loved being a mother, but it was not enough; and as her children grew older she sought another kind of fulfillment.  When I was in high school Mom joined a writing group.  This was a great period in her life.  She had found very few friends in Abington.  Now she met kindred spirits and began to blossom in a new way.

In the years that followed she wrote many articles, poems, and stories.  Some were published in a magazine called Counsel; a poem she wrote for me entitled “Poem for My Daughter” was published in Choice, a literary journal; and an article she wrote called “Everybody Has a Beatle” was published in Counsel, then picked up by the Reader’s Digest and published in many languages world-wide. 

One of her new friends was a genealogist, and Mom did a lot of research into the Schloss, Miller, and Wikler families during this period.  She had a strong sense of family and a love of history.  It is largely through her efforts that we know a lot today about our family’s origins.

As she had loved being a mother of small children, Mommy was overjoyed when her grandchildren were born.  Once again she was able to use her extraordinary gifts with children. 

Yet still the clouds descended.  As she grew older, it seemed as if they came more frequently.   In her usual way, she found solace in writing and in reading.  When Mom discovered Virginia Woolf she felt she had found a new friend.

At Christmastime in 1981 Mom seemed tired and depressed.  She had recently lost a good friend to cancer.  Concerned, I persuaded my father to take Mom on a cruise.  We had gone on cruises when we were younger, and Mom had always loved them.  I thought she needed to get away and that a vacation might cheer her up. 

I went along too.  We left in April 1982.  Shortly after the ship pulled out of New York harbor, Mom began to have difficulty breathing.  We got off the ship in Bermuda and managed to get a plane back to Philadelphia the following day. 

For the next six months Mom endured chemotherapy treatments and battled the illness that was ravaging her body.  One day that summer, as we sat outside, she said, “I’ve been thinking about my life.  I never had a career; but I did raise three lovely daughters.”

I felt her sense of loss.  I said, “Mom, you have done so much more!  Think of your wonderful writing!”

She said, “Oh, well, that…”

“Mom,” I said, “I want your book.  Let’s pull together all your writing and make a book for our family.  I’ll help you; and I’ll make copies for Judy and Jo and Daddy and Jan and Holly.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Mom selected, re-typed, organized, and compiled her work.  I came home every weekend to help her.  I re-typed some pieces, got binders and other supplies, and worked with her to organize it all.  The keys on her old manual typewriter were sticking so I brought her a new electric typewriter.  She named it Lagoon because it was a lovely pale blue color.  In her typical way, she thanked me with a poem, which she entitled "Lagoon".

Mom made the final months of her life into a work of art.  She knew she was dying, though she didn’t talk about it directly.  Privately she grieved for the loss of her life and of the people and the world she cherished so deeply.  Working through this quietly, she demonstrated enormous growth.  As her body weakened, her spirit burned more brightly.  I had never seen her so courageous or so dignified.

A day or two before she died Mom spoke to me, to my father, to some other family members, and to some of her friends, individually.  To each she gave a parting gift of words.  For me she painted a kind and gentle word portrait that told me that she saw me as I was, loved me unconditionally, and gave her blessing to the choices I had made.  

One day I realized that we had organized and typed and compiled just about all her work.  I said, “Mom!  We are almost finished the book!  Isn’t that great?”

She replied, “I don’t want it to be finished.”

But it was.  The next day, October 10th, she died.  

People say that the spirit lives on after death.  Mom’s surely has.  I’ve never been much of a believer in miracles, but a few miracles did occur after Mom died.  We scattered her ashes in the back yard, and the quince bush burst into bloom.  This was October; the quince bush normally blossomed in May.

Then the mimosa tree that Mom had planted and tended suddenly died. 

Perhaps the most amazing miracle was this:  more than a year before her death, Mom had gathered some pussy willow branches from outside and placed them in an old crock pot on the windowsill in the living room.  She had expected them to bloom, but they hadn't.  She had left the branches in the pot anyway. 

Right after Mom died, the pussy willows in the living room burst into bloom.  They remained there, blooming, for seventeen years, until we cleaned out the house after Daddy died.    

Perhaps the way I feel about Mom is best expressed in her own words, in a piece she wrote and included in her book:

She carried that face within her


Like a sun, her self’s sun

Something in her was always rushing to that face


Toward the temperature of that face

Eager face,

Gentle and quick.

Something doe like

She knew about.

Any snapshot, she could tell you

Beyond the lithe grace

What radiated there

Almost to the pulse beat.  She could tell. 


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