When my father passed away, my mother asked me to write a tribute to him. Doing so was extraordinarily cathartic and helped me through a difficult time. Despite that, it was not an easy decision to do the same thing upon my mother’s passing. Where my father had the overblown traits of a fictional character, she was far more nuanced and I was concerned that I might not see my Mom the same way my siblings had. Because of that, I drafted a tribute and asked my sister Joan to edit and enhance my thoughts. The result of that process is what follows.
This small passage was extremely painful to compose. I had the time to more leisurely craft Arthur’s tribute and I’d catch myself laughing aloud as I recounted the stories of his life. More to the point, that experience was made easier by my mother’s presence, her guidance, her suggestions and her appreciation for the finished product. This time I shed tears through every page.
Still, I’m glad it’s done and I’m grateful for a small opportunity to show the pride and love I will always have for my mother. If any of my siblings see her much differently, I know they’ll still share those sentiments and I hope they will agree she deserves the best tribute these circumstances will allow me to offer.
The year of my mother’s birth was her most closely held secret. That secrecy provided for endless jokes among her children and constant conjecture and bad guesses from grandkids and great grandkids alike. This document won’t reveal her age, but will say she was born into the Great Depression. The Bronx chapter of the Speirs clan was a big family in a long line of big families. “Betty Ann” was the middle child of five. Like most in their neighborhood, she said they were “poor but never knew it”. At our own dinner table she talked about a favorite childhood meal she called Gravy Bread when her mother served slices of white bread smothered in a previous night’s leftover gravy. That sense of frugality remained with her forever and I must admit we accepted her “depression sandwiches” with far less enthusiasm than she had.
After grade school in the neighborhood, she attended Walton – New York City’s last all girls public high school. Soon after graduating, she was hired by legendary talent agent Harry Conover and joined the modeling stable he dubbed “Conover’s Cover Girls”. Her modeling work and a job on the Fay Emerson Show in the early days of live television allowed her a few brushes with the powerful and famous, yet she rarely spoke of them later in life. She never took out old photos or ads for us to see. But if we managed to stay awake with her to watch old movies on late night TV, she might point out an actor or dancer she had dated and share a harmless story or two. In those nocturnal settings we all “met” a former beau named Tommy Rall who danced his way through Seven Brides for Seven Brothers among other Hollywood and Broadway classics along with a career in the American Ballet Theater. We learned that Deforest Kelly called himself “D” when he escorted my mother, that acclaimed author Ken Follett had been a decent actor and her suitor before being published, and that Christopher Walken was once a bleached blonde, pint-sized hoofer with the “stage mother from Hell”.
Friends and neighbors mistakenly defined my mother by her beauty. Growing up, neighborhood mothers would hear our names and say, “Oh, your mother must be Betty Goldberg. She’s so beautiful”. Of course, she was beautiful, but it meant very little to us. She was our Mom. She had married Arthur and – after a brief flirtation with the west coast – settled into motherhood and all that implied. Four babies in just over five years (and another four years later), quickly made for a full time job.
Whatever the formal job description called for, our mother’s actual role was to instill calm amid almost constant pandemonium. She was uniquely suited to that task. Though her combination of intelligence, beauty and grace made her far better equipped for the spotlight than any of the Goldbergs, she chose to live her life in the wings and never called attention to herself as anything other than a wife and mother.
Despite that, she had – at best – a casual relationship with the domestic arts. She certainly spent much of her time among seven people’s dirty laundry and producing the answer to each night’s inevitable question, “what’s for dinner?” But she only did so because we needed her to do it. She was never a woman in search of a perfect recipe and she had little use for white glove housekeeping. She surely delivered a stern warning or two concerning abandoned dinner dishes or unmade beds, but her heart was never really in it.
She found too much beauty outside the home.
She had a lifelong love affair with the New York City Ballet. Unlike the society matrons who knew they should be seen at the ballet, our mother fed her soul at Lincoln Center. She thrilled at the likes of Edward Vilella, Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, Jock Soto and Peter Boal. Those in the know insist the first ring provides the best view of the ballet, but Mom liked it right up front where she felt she was part of the action. She spent years complaining to the staff in NYCB’s subscription office about “failing vision” and those complaints eventually landed her front row center. She passed on her passion for the ballet to several of her children and introduced a sense of appreciation to all of us.
She also found beauty in art. As a young girl on a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum, she became fascinated by the flushed red ear of the subject in John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece “Madame X”. She wanted to learn more and never stopped looking and learning her way through museums, books and the lecture series at the Met. She particularly loved Michelangelo’s sculpture “David”, native American art, and the paintings of such masters as Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Amadeo Modigliani. Eventually she made it to Europe and added the Louvre, the Ufizzi and other great museums to her New York experiences. Closer to home, she loved Broadway theater and was never without a book on reserve at the Public Library.
We all understood that our mother was a woman caught between generations. Had she been born ten years earlier or ten years later she might have lived a drastically different life. She was born too early to ignore long established gender roles and not late enough to progress through college and a “real” career. She saw herself as a latent archaeologist but never displayed any bitterness concerning her actual life’s work as the full time mother of five – at least not to us. She may have dreamed of being on a dig of ancient Mayan artifacts, but she remained content shuttling us from place to place, providing lunches in brown paper bags with a single initial in the bottom right hand corner and dispensing discipline with the threat of a wooden spaghetti spoon (which to my knowledge never actually got any use and remained forever an idle threat).
When Arthur passed away, I wrote that much of what I liked about myself came to me from him. While I stand by that statement, I’d have to admit that much of what is actually good inside me came from my Mom. If Arthur provided us kids with our “color”, Betty gave us our character.
She remained religious throughout her life, but never blindly so. She could not easily quote scripture but she rarely had difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. She made certain that we were tolerant of others before all else. In the mid-sixties, she offered our home to the Fresh Air Fund to place an impoverished child for a two week summer vacation. Examining that act through a modern perspective it might seem condescending to force a young black child to live as a white child for two weeks and call it good will. In fact, however, it was a quietly courageous act at the height of the Civil Rights movement in America. I learned later that many of our smiling neighbors (who shall remain anonymous here) strongly voiced their displeasure at her plans. Yet she remained gracefully defiant and did the right thing.
More indicative of her character is the fact that she made a connection with the boy – not the organization that sent him. In future years, she eliminated the Fresh Air Fund and simply invited Kenny Harris of Bed Stuy to share our home whenever possible. Despite keeping tabs on him into his twenties, she always felt guilty after they eventually lost touch.
This past Election Day I sat in her living room and she reminded me that when Kenny came to stay with us, there were still too many states in which an eight-year-old David Goldberg and a six-year-old Barack Obama would not have been permitted to use the same public restroom. She was proud to have cast the vote she cast on her final trip to the polls.
Her human factor taught us so many lessons we didn’t realize we were learning. I was dumbfounded as a child to see her cradling a deteriorating, cancer-ridden friend in her arms and literally carrying her from the car in to our home following a trip to the doctor. She was visibly angry and upset the night the Gay Rights Bill was voted down – not because of any political agenda, but because of what it meant to people she knew and cared about. She spent many years helping “pattern” a severely handicapped girl in the neighborhood. She did the heavy lifting for the St. Pius X Rosary Society and the Youth Council and was omnipresent on school field trips and wherever else she was needed. She also gave what she could afford to favorite American Indian charities. True to form, she became disenchanted later in life when she asked the charity to stop sending her so much literature and simply give her money to those who needed it only to see her request go unheeded. Helping people was very black and white with her and there was no room for fanfare.
In our neighborhood, our house was known for its open door (literally as well as figuratively since we had no front door lock for many years). Those who passed through that open door know that her people-first approach was the hallmark of my mother’s home. Hundreds of boys and girls enjoyed her hospitality from the late fifties until the early nineties. But it seemed like she connected with most every one of them as individuals. She didn’t just know our friends’ names; she knew our friends – not with any semblance of being the “cool parent”, but simply as someone who cared enough to know. She talked to them and – more importantly – she listened to them. Even in her last days, she would ask after old friends and listen with interest to their updates.
Our family excursions to ballgames, restaurants, shopping malls and even vacations usually included a stowaway or two. One neighborhood boy was a latchkey child raised by a hardworking single mother. For a period of 4-5 years, he spent as much time in our house as his own. My mother loved him not because of any special connection, but simply because she thought he needed to be loved. His place was set at our dinner table without asking and tickets to movie theaters or ballparks usually included one for him. Around the turn of the millennium, I saw that boy – now a man with children of his own – for the first time in many years. He told me to make sure I thanked my father for all he had done for him when we were young. When I relayed that message to my parents, my mother’s face turned red and she asked incredulously, “Your father?” She went on to say, “I cooked for that boy. I did his laundry. I helped him with his homework. I held him when he was scared. And he wants to thank your father?”
While her reaction was completely understandable and her accounting of the facts correct, she came back in the room a few minutes later and somewhat sheepishly apologized. “You know,” she said, “He had a mother who loved him. I’m sure he appreciated what I gave him, but he needed a man in his life and that’s what Arthur gave him.”
That’s what Betty gave to all of us: reason, compassion, humility and the sensibility to offer what is needed with no expectations of return.
As our mother, that ability to establish a one to one connection was her greatest gift. She didn’t want to produce “the five Goldberg children” somehow marked by their similarities. She raised five individual people. Surely she taught us our moral values and set certain standards regarding education, decorum, etc. But she insisted that we become individuals and that we make our own mistakes. She learned as much as she could about what interested us and encouraged our interests even as they differed from hers or my father’s. She became conversant in comic books, sports, popular music and television shows from Howdy Doody through The Magic Garden. And she exposed us to as much culture as she could, attempting to balance my father’s sports-centricity by dressing us up and taking us to the ballet, the theater and the museums. She even struck a compromise with Arthur when one of my brothers wanted a baby carriage for a preschool Christmas gift by making sure Santa left a shopping cart under the tree instead.
Through the childhood and adult ailments of her sons, daughters and grandchildren, she also became something of a medical authority and was extraordinarily well versed regarding every manner of childhood disease as well as sarcoidosis, celiac disease, TMJ, peritonitis, various knee injuries, asthma and, of course, childbirth. Amazingly, she acquired this knowledge “without a net”; mistakenly believing her inability to touch type disqualified her from using a computer. After a trip to Arizona where she spent a lot of time in the company of a friend of mine who was a brain surgeon, the friend began to refer to her as “Betty Goldberg, AAD” explaining that the AAD stood for “Also A Doctor”. My sister, a nurse, noted her mother’s proud graduation from the Marcus Welby School of Medicine.
As important as anything my mother taught us was the ability to adapt and thrive. She spoke often of having two marriages though she spent a half century married to one man. As she explained it, her “first” marriage was filled with the frustration of trying to fit in and do what was expected of her while struggling with the impossible task of changing my father in to what a “head of household” was supposed to be. Eventually, her practical side prevailed and she reached an epiphany which told her to accept herself, her husband and her marriage for what they were. This “second” marriage was marked by her true emergence as an independent woman and a new kind of Mom, less steeped in postwar conformity and more at home in the promise of the future. In fact, Chris and Joan often reminded the rest of us that they were – in effect – not raised by the same parents and my mother never disagreed.
As a gradeschooler she gave me simple advice on adaptability that I still cite today. She told me there was no good in worrying about things outside of my control. She told me that there was never a point in her life where if she looked back 10 years she would find herself in the place she had thought she’d be “10 years from now”. She told me to educate myself for education’s sake and sent us all off to school each day by reminding us to “be smart”.
More than anything she ever said, she showed adaptability by what she did. When her beloved granddaughter became pregnant at 16 she put everyone’s disappointment and panic in quick perspective by saying, “the worst thing that happens is we’ll have one more person to love.”
Though far from perfect, Mom rarely got within shouting distance of six of the “seven deadly sins”. However, she’d have been the first to tell you she was not without a certain vanity. Hers was not a vanity marked by ego or exhibitionism but by an inability to leave the house without “her face on”, to bare her shapely legs after developing a few spider veins or to admit to turning 40, 50 or 60.
We teased her that the greatest conflict of her life came to the fore when she became old enough to qualify for a 15% discount offered to seniors at many chain restaurants. This confluence required her to choose between the vanity that would not allow her to reveal herself as a senior and that Depression-era frugality that really wanted to save the dollar or two.
Despite the inherent humor in that type of situation, we were well aware that our mother was never really cut out to be an “old lady”. When she began to show signs of age, she quietly resisted the courtesies offered the elderly and even resented younger folks offering a helping hand or surrendering a chair. She didn’t see herself as she saw other seniors and told me she sometimes wanted to shout, “It’s still me in here!”
She had watched her own father spend his final years frustrated by Alzheimer’s-fueled dementia and saw her mother fall into a post-surgical collapse that robbed her of her independence, her modesty and her dignity while slowly taking her life. Betty lived with a very real fear of a similar end. We will all comfort ourselves knowing she was spared that fate as well as the blindness she had come to fear since being diagnosed with macular degeneration.
Our mother’s life spanned the two greatest economic crises in modern history. She lived through extraordinary social conflict and wars great and small. She gracefully survived cancer and heart disease and did a pretty good job of making her life meaningful while playing the hand she was dealt. I’m certain different people will remember her differently – a beautiful woman, a devotee of New York City culture, a sister, a helpful neighbor, a welcoming presence or a concerned friend.
But I’m just as certain of how she would want to be remembered. She was mother to Chris, Joan, Michael, David and Janet. She was grandma to Elizabeth, R.J., Emily, Kevin, Rachel, Matt and Jillian and great grandmother to Simone, Joseph and Devin. We are all better for it and will forever miss her loving nature and practical touch.
Her children – and a few of the grandchildren – will recall being put to bed as children while she touched our foreheads and said, “God bless you and keep you”. Today the tables have finally and permanently turned.