His mother? Son ponders her daunting claim

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 28, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Selma Olesker is the woman who has claimed to be my mother for the past 47 years except in those moments when she is loudly disowning me for alleged crimes against a) journalism; b) the family; or, c) humanity.

I say she "claims" to be my mother because there is considerable psychological evidence to the contrary. I am a creature of habit who cannot be moved from point A to point B without a subpoena. This Olesker woman claiming to be my mother seems to invent herself as she goes along, refusing to conform to any Geritol-generation stereotyping about energy levels or intellectual inertia or old-age angst.

"I'm 68 years old," she said over the weekend, as her birthday suddenly arrived. She said this in a tone somewhere between annoyance and disbelief: How did the calendar perpetrate this fraud on her when inside her head it still feels like maybe 1940? Wasn't there someone important with whom she could file a complaint?

A couple of weeks ago, staring down the barrel of this latest birthday, she hopped on an airplane with a friend and went to a place called the Animas River, in Durango, Colo., where she naturally went white-water rafting.

"In rapids?" I asked in a voice that cracked like a saltine when she returned and quite matter-of-factly broke the news.

"For two hours," she said. "I had to hold on for dear life. You want to see where I almost broke a nail?"

"Never mind the nail," I said. "You weren't afraid?"

"Why should I be afraid?" she answered, sounding genuinely baffled. "The only thing I don't like is bugs."

Once, she also didn't like water. She couldn't swim a stroke, and was terrified of venturing into a pool or an ocean, never mind white-water rapids in some foreign land called Durango, Colo. And then one day when she had reached her mid-40s, she suddenly declared, "Enough of this foolishness," and took lessons and learned how to swim.

"I decided it wasn't safe," she explained one recent night, wistfully looking back over the years to the distant time when my brother, Mitchell, and I were little. "I said to myself, 'What happens if my children are drowning, and I can't get them?' "

"That's a wonderful story of motherly dedication," I said, "except for one thing. By the time you actually took the lessons, I was a fully grown man and Mitchell was a teen-ager who could swim like a tuna."

"Oh, yeah," my mother laughed. "Well, there goes the Mother of the Year Award."

My mother is maybe the most passionate person I know: passionate about family, about politics, about art and music and the world's religions and the best place to get Chinese food on a Sunday night.

The other night, she called to read to me from a passage in a book, "Deborah, Golda and Me," by Lettie Cottin Pogrebin.

"I want to visit memory lane, but I don't want to live there," Pogrebin writes. "My sentimentality is selective."

"But that's you," I told my mother.

"It is?" she said. "I just thought it was nicely written."

It is, but I think my mother relates to it because it's about the need to live in the present tense, and not dwell too much in the past. It's too comfortable back there, and we already know how all the stories turned out. The active life offers fresh material and thus rejuvenates us.

At an age when she might be knitting doilies reading, "God Bless Our Home," she keeps stretching herself: doing volunteer work at an old-age home; learning to play bridge; reading voraciously and then meeting every month at a book club where the discussions translate the stories from the books into real-life lessons; and, when things get slow, going white-water rafting.

I find it thrilling, and maybe a little intimidating, for a 68-year old person to have so much emotional energy about so many important things. She lives as if she still has a large stake in this planet, which she does.

The world has a way of wearing some of us down. We coast through the days on automatic pilot, sticking to safe ground, protecting our flanks. This woman who claims to be my mother, having completed 68 years, still has a restlessness about her.

What I keep finding remarkable is this: She is not alone. The ancient stereotypes about people in their older years don't hold true. My mother is surrounded by people with similar drive. They don't loaf about, waiting for their arteries to harden. They make the most of time, and have a tendency to face their tomorrows with much humor.

A while back, maybe a year after my father died, my mother and a friend, also widowed, went to Spain for a week. I drove them to the airport.

"I'm carrying a photograph of your father," my mother said. "He always wanted to see Spain."

From the back seat came her friend's voice.

"I'm not taking a picture of my husband," she said. "He never liked to fly."

These "senior citizens" today: They've got a lot of nerve calling themselves old.

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