After the phone call, we flew to Phoenix, hoping to arrive with time to say goodbye. Mom was breathing gently, a cannula in both nostrils. I reached for her warm hand and spoke tender words as she slept in the hospital bed that had replaced the cushioned chair where she had spent so many hours watching MSNBC, Netflix movies and Anthony Bourdain. Beside the bed, gift-wrapped and unopened, was the Hanukkahpresent I had sent her: buttery blue and white frosted cookies and gold chocolate coins from Greenberg’s bakery in Manhattan.
When I ordered the cookies the week before, I had reflected upon the many effortless years of selecting gifts for our engaged and elegant mom and how, as the years passed, the choices had narrowed.
She was an avid reader who relished scandalizing the book club she joined in her late 70s with some of her review choices. We enjoyed our own mother-daughter book club with my gifts of books we adored by Alice Adams, Tova Mirvis, Zoe Heller and Wendy Wasserstein. Her keen interest in politics − she was an early Obama supporter after reading “Dreams from my Father” — made her an MSNBC mom before it was a meme. It was a joy to gift her with the Sunday New York Times, which was her deep dive every weekend. We chatted about the cover stories from the Vanity Fair subscription I renewed each year for her.
I loved buying her brightly colored clothes, hot-pink sweaters and sky-blue jackets; she welcomed the contrast to her signature black go-to ensembles. I searched stores to find her clip-on earrings for her unpierced ears. I once brought her amethyst chandelier earrings from Paris that received a mixed reception (“I am very flattered you thought I could wear these” Mom said.)
Of all the gifts, what she — and Dad — loved best were the parody songs my three sisters and I would create and sing to celebrate her. We often used tunes that we had learned from the community musicals she starred in. So instead of the chorus of “Fiddler on the Roof’s” “Sunrise, Sunset” we sang, “Grandma Selma, our Mom Selma, to us you are dear. One season following another, you have been loving us for years.”
The summer of her 90th birthday, Mom studied the Arizona driver’s book with high anxiety and had her driver’s license renewed, a triumph we celebrated at her birthday party in Seattle in early July. My gift was a 90th year amulet, a handcrafted necklace with a tracery of tiny gold chains attached to a charm of deep orange coral. It was the last time she would be in Seattle. She suffered a massive stroke the morning after Thanksgiving.
The unkind aftershocks of the stroke limited Mom’s speech and denied her the pleasure of reading and the freedom of driving. For a long time, her intelligence, her mama-bear support and capacity for celebration was undiminished. And each morning, she selected stylish clothing and jewelry to meet the day.
So I gave her gifts of pendant necklaces, midi dresses, shirts and sweaters — no buttons, no fasteners, no zippers — that would slip over her head. While I was living in New York or traveling, I got her a subscription to Netflix and curated DVDs that were mailed to her. I sent her packages of foods she savored: yeast hamentashen from Greenberg’s, egg kichel from Moshe’s in the East Village, Frazier’s chocolates from Finland, smoked salmon from Pike Place Market.
In her last years, those gifts of special foods would bring delight. We visited Mom in Phoenix often, clearing TSA scrutiny to arrive with salmon in our luggage. My husband, Jeremy, baked fresh challah on Friday, crispy latkes on Hanukkah, and I baked her favorite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. More important, I discovered the nourishment of gifts of good news.
On every phone call or visit, I would name check all of the recent kvell-worthy contributions, creations, accomplishments and adventures of her four daughters, sons in-law and eight grandchildren. I would regale her with tales of our pratfalls, mishaps and good lessons from bad experiences. Such news seemed to replenish her energy and occasion the unforgettable melody of her laughter.
Mom died that night we arrived. For several days, I could not open this last gift of Hanukkah cookies. Then on the evening after her funeral, the third night of Hanukkah, we gathered for a shiva minyan and set out food for family and friends.
Searching for consolation, I set the table the way she would have, with casual elegance and abundance. I reached for the package, untied the curled ribbons and looked in her cupboard to find a serving plate. I lovingly placed the cookies on a gift that my daughter Hannah had made for her. It was a festive hand-painted platter that read: Grandma’s Cookies.