Being Bea

Bea Slater dressed for her daughter Diane's 60th birthday

My eighty three year old mother Bea has not grown up. It’s actually very sweet.

One of her most endearing qualities is that she believes that candy is a form of vitamin and that no meal is complete without dessert. It isn’t as if she suddenly realizes the idea that eating dessert first is a good idea; it’s always been how she rolls…as in cinnamon or jelly rolls. In Mom’s world, she can enjoy a nice dinner, have a candy apple from Halloween for dessert and still have room for a big handful of M&M’s or malted milk balls later in the evening.

A coconut cupcake is like a portal to the past.

Bea and Annette Ginsberg circa 1940 on Catharine Street

Sweets are Mom’s time machine that takes her back to her childhood.  A sugar high is a place to relive days gone by when she and her older sister Annette would play outside on Catharine Street in West Philadelphia with cousins like Bobby and Morris and friends like Rita and Adele. They all seemed so overdressed for hopscotch in the beautiful sepia toned photographs my grandfather Poppa George took in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Even today in her ninth decade, she continues to live in her happy childhood memories where she was always a hop, step and a jump to Reisenbach’s the local candy store. Just ask her about Mr McCauley the janitor from her grammar school and you’ll learn about soft pretzels loaded onto a ruler for the children. It’s ironic to think that she only lived on Catharine Street in West Philly for less than 15 years since most of her remarkable 83 years she lived with my father in the same home in New Jersey since 1952 until Dad's passing in 2009. Mom still lives in this home surrounded by decades of memories.

Bea age eight

Mom’s childhood world always interested me because these happy memories of her youth are still at the core of her personality. I witness it often when I visit her in suburban Springfield. Like Johnny Appleseed, she is always trying to spread joy and happiness because she is so aware of the abundance of love that surrounded her growing up.

Mom or Bea as she is known by everyone goes out of her way to talk with and engage the hidden people. These people are the folks that most of us don’t see who are in the corners and intersections of our lives.

Whether its someone who is cleaning the floor or washing the dishes, there is something in my mother’s personality that make her want to make sure that no one is left out. She wants to know everyone’s story- not in a gossipy kind of way but to be present with them and to listen to them tell their tale. From Tommy her hairdresser of many years to Tomy the car repairman, my mother always knows what is going on in the lives of those around her. Did you know Tomy collects wine?

From Maureen who had a knitting store to Celia who has come to help keep her house clean for so many years, my mother is always listening and learning about the latest piece of their family news. It is as if these friends- and they are truly friends- feed her hunger to share. This extended family of people is not inconsequential to her. And she always finds a way to make them feel that someone cares, someone is listening and someone truly sees them.

Oddly, one of my most striking memories of this from my childhood is of an exterminator.

Of all people, the person who came to 20 Warwick every three months to spray the surroundings with pesticide and eliminate the bugs seems an odd person to befriend. But trapped in my own childhood memories, I remember my mother talking to this shy middle aged man when he would come to make sure the house was pest free. I can see her speaking quietly to him in the cold little hallway between the garage and the doorway to the living room.

“Mom, why do you always talk so much with this man” I’d ask.

“Well”, she would tell me, “he had a son named Jeffrey. Just like you. And unfortunately his son died at a young age. So, when he comes to the house I like to talk to him and ask him how he is doing and how he is feeling. I guess I know I am so lucky that my Jeffrey is alive that I feel an obligation to talk to him because it might bring him comfort to talk”.

This strange memory has stuck with me for so long that I often feel odd when my own Terminex man comes to my house and I just don’t know what to say.

But my mother always finds something to talk about with people whose lives have intersected hers. And when she learns about some important emotional nugget of information, she never forgets it as if she was empowered to be part of their support system.

Recently I went to a conference with about 20 people in a very fancy hotel in Cary, North Carolina. It was mostly business men and woman who were mingling about before the conference started. I noticed a somewhat awkward photographer standing in a corner and I walked over to him to talk. I shook his hand and introduced myself and we talked about digital single lens reflex cameras and the latest photo lenses. He wasn't the important businessperson I was there to network with but I felt as if he was somewhat invisible to the others. I felt uncomfortable that no one was talking to him. I guess I this habit has become part of my being too.

The photograph at the beginning of this blog is a picture of my mom…Bea.

She is dressed for my sister’s sixtieth birthday party that took place near Halloween last month. Its funny how this bee costume connected me to these dual sweet feelings of how much she loves to live within the memories of her childhood yet at the same time can be so compassionate and attentive to people that others take for granted each and every day. Mom lives each of her moments through the eyes of a happy child and the heart of a wise older woman. These are precious moments to me that will live within me for ever.

I am so lucky to have a ringside seat watching Bea being Bea.

Jeff, Bea and Diane 1956

To watch a video of Bea getting ready for Diane's 60th birthday, click here:

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