Hello! It’s me, Meg. I’m here to tell you a little bit about my wonderful and witty mother, Eileen, who just turned 100 years old on December 15th. Can you believe that? 100 years old! Her birthdate is December 15, 1918. Just for some scale, she was born the month after World War One ended.
There’s not nearly enough room or time to tell you everything about Eileen – or how this intelligent, creative woman grew up in the Depression, wanted nothing more than to go to art school and paint (but ended up having to go to secretarial school to help support her family), got married during World War II and traveled the globe with the love of her life, our father.
A few things about my mom
Even though she never made it to art school, she taught herself to paint in oils, watercolors and even on porcelain. “I went to St. Lawrence Academy on East 84th Street in New York, just a few blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every day after class, I walked to that fabulous museum and immersed myself in the paintings. I was absolutely fascinated with the skill of the old masters and the sheer beauty of their paintings.”
She can do anything. I mean that. Right this minute, she’s sewing a skirt and putting its zipper in – by hand. She made slipcovers for all our furniture when we were growing up. She moved all the furniture around on a quarterly basis to keep it fresh and new. She was and is a gracious and elegant hostess.
She has the most colorful and vivid imagination and probably could have been a successful novelist if life had headed that way for her. Even as a child, she read voraciously and wrote as much as she could. “Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic: reading and writing I excelled in and loved – but the third was my downfall!” (that’s okay, Mom. I think I inherited that from you.)
She has a true gift for talking to people and connecting with them. From complete strangers to long-lost relatives, people are drawn to Eileen and her funny, lively and engaging conversation.
From flappers and Al Capone to neighborhood tomato fights
Eileen was born in New York to her vivacious, chatty mother, Lillian and her sweet father, William. There were four kids: Eileen, closely followed by Imelda (my middle name), Priscilla and Jack, the only boy. Eileen and Mel were best friends, inseparable their entire lives and got into plenty of hot water. Priscilla was younger and ran with a different group. And poor Jack died in an accident when he was about 12.
“My childhood took place in a very turbulent time in the affairs of America. World War I had ended, leaving a trail of wounded. The war had provided all kinds of opportunities for profit and change was in the air. The waltz gave away to the Charleston, women gave up their demure look, bobbed their hair, started smoking cigarettes, shortened their dresses and became bonafide flappers. I had a bevy of young aunts who all became true flappers. They were good teachers!”
I asked Eileen what world events shaped her life. “Charles Lindbergh and his heroic solo flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. And then the kidnapping and murder of his little baby. The crash of the Hindenberg. Gangsters, like Al Capone! The Depression.”
When I was little, I would beg Eileen for stories from her childhood. There were endless funny tales, from the pedal-cars they drove all over their neighborhood to “boyfriends” (a tassle-headed stalk from the nearby pond with whom you chatted vivaciously and flirtatiously while driving the pedal car). There was once the gigantic tomato-throwing fight that incurred the wrath of the Italian farmer whose tomatoes they were. And somebody threw a tantrum at a birthday party, jumped on the table and tap-danced in the birthday cake.
When the going gets tough…
Eileen grew up surrounded by a loving, Irish-German family. After high school, she wanted to study art and painting but the Depression was in full force and her father’s business was taking a hit. “After the stock market crashed, we all had to adjust from the carefree life we had grown up with to a new scenario of never-ending money problems. My parents worked so hard to keep up our standard of living. They were gallant people.”
She met our father on a blind date. He was from Queens and was a gifted athlete with an irresistible grin. After high school, he got several scholarship offers to play college football, but he turned them all down to stay home, support his widowed mother and take a job at General Motors in Manhattan. (His is a mailroom-to-executive kind of story that will be another blog, I promise!). Eileen and Bill (all his close friends called him Bud) fell in love and married in 1942.
After the war, they moved to Long Island and lived there for years, moving every once in a while to upgrade the house or neighborhood and welcomed my sister, Melissa. I showed up seven years later.
The world was their oyster
Then the adventures really began. My father’s career at General Motors was in full swing and he had been traveling the globe for them for years. They offered him a position in Antwerp, Belgium and that was the beginning of a decade and a half of living all over the world. After Belgium, it was Stockholm, followed by Beirut, London and Glasgow. “It was a wonderful, exciting life and I never regret a single moment of it” Eileen always says. She hated – and refused – to fly so she went everywhere by ocean liner and was always full of stories of dining at the captain’s table and meeting all kinds of fascinating people.
After our dad retired, they moved to a little seaside town in Florida where they could both enjoy the beach they loved so much. Eileen eventually moved here to Atlanta and today lives in her own apartment within a retirement community where the staff and fellow residents adore her.
Favorite saying: “oh that’s easy. Always leave them smiling. This was my mother’s favorite quote. She impressed this motto on me and I never forget it. The way is works is easy: think of something that makes people smile or laugh as you get ready to part company so that laughter is bubbling as you say farewell. They’ll never forget you.”
Words of wisdom for your grandchildren? “Have patience. Your turn will come! Be forgiving. Someday you may need to be forgiven. Save your money. There’s nothing like having a healthy bank account.”
Favorite cities: “Paris, New York and any beach, anywhere.”
Favorite book: “too many to count! Little Women, Gone with the Wind and soooo many more.”
Favorite movie: “oh, I could think of a million but Pretty Woman and the Devil Wears Prada are top faves.”
Favorite song ever: “so many songs! I love to sing and I love music. I inherited my uncle’s violin and learned to play. Later in life, I bought a baby grand and expected miracles, but that never happened!”
So, happy birthday to my mom, who has happily lived her life to its fullest and has no intention of going anywhere. Finally, I asked her this question:
The key to a long and happy life? “I don’t think I have any special key but I have been happy all my life. Oh and learn how to swim.
And a long life? “Don’t get hit by a bus.”