by Nicole Crews
Me: Mother, so what do you want for Mother’s Day?
Me: I know! We can get mother-daughter tattoos. I’ll get “All She Wrote” as a tramp stamp. What would yours say?
Mother: “Do not resuscitate.”
My mother, in her infinite wisdom, knew that mothers — like death and disaster — come best in threes. While she was off jet-setting she had two recruits lined up to in loco maternis me in her absence. Miss Ruby May Wilson was my nanny by day and Maggie Caldwell — my godmother and night nurse — were the slightly dubious duo who, along with the Mother Lode, would inform my life.
I still equate the mommy smell with the cloud of compressed airplane oxygen, cigarette smoke, scotch and Chanel No. 5 that would blow towards me like an air kiss as mother strode across the tarmac upon her prodigal return flights. But I also knew the maternal love scent of Miss Ruby’s embroidered pocketbook where she kept a couple of loosie Camel no-filters, Luden’s Cough Drops, a change purse and a fried drumstick. (By my eighth birthday, if I helped hang the sheets on the line, Ruby would reward me with a chicken-stained loosie.)
Maggie, who was a tightly bunned nurse by day, lived with us for several years and let her Crystal Gayle hair down come cocktail hour. She wore a leopard-spotted silk caftan, false eyelashes and red lipstick every evening of my memory. She called me “Lambchop,” drank grasshoppers and I still think of her every time a rack with mint jelly appears on a menu.
My parents had me considerably later in life and took a note from the Victorians when it came to parenting — so it’s probably a good thing that I had Ruby and Maggie around to counter their “kids as mini-adults” style. Mother and father took me to dinner parties, fed me grown up food (and novels) and taught me to make mai tais and martinis for their friends. Maggie bought me a skateboard, instructed me in first-aid and gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers every year that she was alive. When she died my sophomore year in college, she made me executrix of her estate and bequeathed to me never-used sets of china and silver along with a case of false eyelashes and Maybelline mascara. She also fast-tracked me into existence early on.
Scene: Five weeks into the second trimester of my Mother’s first, and last pregnancy.
Mother: Maggie, I’m putting on weight and I don’t know why.
Maggie: Joann, call Dr. Phillips and get him to prescribe you diet pills.
Mother: Aren’t those amphetamines bad for you?
Maggie: They can’t be any worse than saccharine or nicotine.
Ruby, who left us when I was in my early twenties, was a compass of humanity and saw the world in a clearer light than most of the overeducated proselytizers of morality in the world today. A little like the Steve Martin character in The Jerk, for a while there I was raised a poor black child. In fact, upon meeting my real mother in the second grade, my best friend Georgia whispered to me, “Um, I thought your mom was black?”
Scene: Early September, dinnertime at the Crews household and my hair is in pre-Bo Derek cornrows because it meant I didn’t have to wash it if Ruby braided it that way:
Mother: So what did you and Ruby do today Nicole?
Me: Ruby took me to my first day of school!
Father: She did what?!
Me, proudly: Yes, we walked to Kern Street School and I signed up for the free lunch!
Mother, dropping her cigarette: Hand me the phone, Joe.
Ruby may have kept the pantry and the school year in order, but Mother was the cultural attaché of my worldly education. She took me to Greece when I was 7 years old, the Picasso retrospective at MOMA when I was 9 and bought me a Chanel quilted handbag for my 12th birthday (because it was every 7th grader’s dream to carry an old-lady purse).
The Chanel purse has seen better days, but I still carry it with me like the three women who raised me. I didn’t get it at the time, but they were, and still are, classics. Happy Mother’s Day to them all.