I decided to wear a single strand of graded pearls to my breast biopsy today. They were my mother's. My grandfather originally bought them for my grandmother and gave them to her in the hospital on the day my mother was born. He splurged — he was a traveling salesman and they were not well-to-do. They were barely on the cusp of the middle class in 1939.
In 1941, they moved their growing family from Washington Heights to a classic six on the Upper East Side, in a building at the intersection of 68th and 3rd, for a rent of $200 a month. There were not many Jews at that intersection in those days — or at any intersection in that neighborhood.
I asked my older sister about this recently. Why did Morton and Selma move with our mother to East 68th Street?
"They wanted to move up in the world," my sister replied.
My mother was a figure skater from an early age. I have an article about her framed on my wall. It's from a 1947 edition of Collier's magazine. It describes her skating at Rockefeller Plaza, as she did every day for two hours before school. The New York Skating Club wouldn't admit a Jewish girl, so Rockefeller had struck a deal: In exchange for the publicity her skating would bring the rink, she could have it for practice each day.
The article is called "Skating Baby" and it chronicles my mother's rise to Upper East Side legend, the little girl whom hundreds gathered weekly to watch skate. There are photos of her riding in a horse and carriage on Fifth Avenue, and of her in ballet class, photos of her playing in the park and, of course, spinning on the ice.
Shunned Jew and Upper East Side legend — that's how I like to think of my mother. I've collected a lot of anecdotes, facts and ephemera regarding her, but she's still a mystery to me.
I don't know if I'd consider my mother a modern woman; she was a feminist in her way but she also felt that fundamentally you could not plug in a television or find a fuse box without a man. She believed in the equal rights amendment but believed as deeply in boyfriends. She also believed in not wearing white before Memorial Day.
My biopsy was at Weill Cornell Radiology, on 61st Street between York and First Avenue. This is not that far from my mother's old East Side apartment, and even though I have been to the East Side many times for many reasons in the 20 years I have lived in New York City, it still belongs to my mother, and more specifically, to my mother's childhood. I always expect to see Chock Full O' Nuts still thriving on Fifth Avenue when I go there, even though it was practically closed by the time I was born. On the East Side, I expect to see people wearing hats and gloves. I expect it to look like my mother's old photos.
I decided to wear heels and pearls to my biopsy because I'm the mother of a 6-year-old and I spend half my day at the playground and the other half in front of a computer, typing things I hope to sell. I wear a uniform of modal joggers from the Gap.
I decided to wear pearls because when the doctor told me a mass appeared on my sonogram and could I please come back tomorrow for a biopsy. I started to think, would tomorrow be my last day to go to the East Side with no awareness of a fatal malignancy within my breast? I'd taken so many trips there in more casual attire — was it now too late to live life nicely, to be beautifully dressed and therefore more embracing of life and demonstrative of the sort of joie de vivre that people remember people for at their funerals? Spunky impracticality is on my list of things to be remembered for.
I decided to wear pearls because I realized that you can do a biopsy on its terms or on yours. You can return from across town looking bedraggled or smashing. Once you realize this, the choice is clear.
I decided to wear pearls because I'm having a midlife crisis. Maybe some midlife crises are good, if they get you out of your modal joggers.
But really I decided to wear pearls because my mother is not well.
My mother lives in a nursing home in Riverdale. She had a catastrophic brain bleed at the age of 70 and in a day went from vibrant to helpless. The truth is, she forgot my name the other day. The worse truth is that she forgot who I was entirely.
When I look in the mirror, I don't see my mother, but I do see the little girl in me that wondered who my mother was at the age I am now. I wondered who was inside the 42-year-old New Yorker who transplanted herself to Los Angeles, to live with a book collector who became my dad.
Mothers are mysteries, and the longer my 6-year-old daughter has lived, the more I have come to see that we like them that way. A mystery holds a promise that keeps you vital.
We all need mysteries and mythologies, and our mothers are often both those things to us. My 6-year-old holds my face and says, "Mommy, I want to know what it's like to be you." She really says that. Then, she asks me if I want to know what it's like to be her. Sure, I want to know what she thinks about stuff, but I don't need to get deep inside her head.
I decided to wear pearls to internalize my mother. We feel safe when our mothers are near. And when I have a needle biopsy, I'd like my mother to be as near as possible.
On the East Side the other day, no one was wearing heels. No one was wearing pearls either, at least not that I saw. But I did see a profusion of white blouses: long-sleeved, short sleeved, boatneck and tunic. Even Peter Pan collars. I realized it was just after Memorial Day. My mother would be so pleased.