Saying goodbye to a friend and a mother

September 15, 1996|By Susan Reimer

JEAN KRAFT Peterson Reimer took an uncommonly long time, for a woman of her generation, to get around to becoming my mother.

Born 80 years ago to a well-to-do and prominent family, she was the last of her siblings to marry, living at home with her widowed mother, working and playing the role of a sophisticated single girl until well into her 30s.

There are pictures of her in the family albums from the society columns of the newspapers and snapshots of her on the beaches of Conneaut Lake in Pennsylvania, a scandal in her two-piece bathing suit, a cigarette between long fingers with long red fingernails, bangle bracelets cascading almost to her elbow.

She was the fourth of six children and a twin, but it was her younger sister, Elizabeth, with whom she was closest. The two were such a tumble of laughter and good times that the family nicknamed them Brenda and Cobina, after a pair of '40s "celebutantes" who dominated the gossip columns of the day. The nicknames stuck so well that I grew up thinking that "Jean" was short for "Cobina" and Aunt Betty's full name was "Brenda."

When my mother was not traveling with her friends to the beaches of Conneaut or New Jersey or attending dances at the country clubs that dot Western Pennsylvania, she worked as a legal secretary to one of the most powerful lawyers in Pittsburgh, playing the role of Della Street before there was a "Perry Mason Show."

She dressed in the most sophisticated clothes and always wore white gloves to work. Her handbag matched her shoes, and she never would have dreamed of trotting to work with socks and tennis shoes pulled over her hose or of carrying a giant canvas tote. Years later, when she worked in downtown Pittsburgh with three of her daughters, she would continue to set that standard for us.

In Jean's day, legal secretaries were the confidantes and trusted assistants of the lawyers for whom they worked. Jean followed her boss into court and took notes, handled his personal checkbook, bought gifts for him to give to friends and family, and kept his social calendar. She was indispensable.

It was during this time that Jean met a handsome and wealthy bachelor who, unfortunately for my sisters and me, was not to be our father.

A jet-setter in the infancy of airplanes, he was stuck in Hawaii, where he owned land and businesses, during a strike against TWA. During the prolonged absence of the man who had given her a cocktail ring studded with 20 diamonds, my mother met my father, an athletic and dashing farm boy from New Kensington, Pa., who charmed his way into her country clubs even though he didn't have the change in his pocket to tip the locker-room attendant.

They met at a country club dance in August, and my mother bought him four new tires so he could court her. In March, they married in a candlelight evening church service. My mother wore a tea-length dress that was the height of fashion.

My father's mother, the imperious Jenny Reimer, known to the family as Aunt Jane, so disapproved of the sophisticated city girl who had snared her oldest son and her support in widowhood that she refused to come down from her bedroom for the wedding until after my father went in, closed the door, and spoke to her.

Mother said she never asked what passed between them, but Aunt Jane made it to the church on time. It was not until June a year later, when the first child was born, that Aunt Jane's heart melted toward my mother.

Jean spent the first year of my life trapped and unhappy in a tiny set of rooms in New Kensington, Pa. The role of wife and mother was a far cry from the life she had known in the courthouses of Pittsburgh and the country clubs of Western Pennsylvania.

But 14 months later, there was Cynthia, affectionately referred to as "Junior" in my father's letters to my mother -- he would never get a son. Ellen and Elizabeth Jean, whose name combined those of the inseparable sisters, followed quickly. My mother had three toddlers and an infant as she entered her 40s.

She also had a husband who traveled for Alcoa and returned home only every other weekend, no car, a paycheck just once a month, a wringer-washer, no dryer and a mountain of cloth diapers. There were no malls, no McDonald's, no baby-sitters, no preschool. No kindergarten, even, for she did not have the $5 monthly bus fare.

What she did have was a wonderful set of friends in a suburban cul de sac. Like so many neighborhoods of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it sprang up to support the emerging junior executive population of corporate America. The years my family spent in that cocoon of sameness, with a hundred children our age and their mothers my mother's friends, were the happiest of our lives.

My sisters and I drove away our mother in the regrettable but inevitable rebelliousness of adolescence and the conceit of young adulthood. It is only now, I think, that we, each of us, regret that wasted time. She was always funny and interesting and good company, but we were too aloof then to include her in our lives.

When we had husbands and children of our own, that gap was bridged with a sharp understanding of what her life had been like and a deep appreciation for the woman she had become. We never let our mother be our mother again -- we had grown too far away for that, and our chaotic family lives were a mystery to her -- but we allowed her to be a companion, an adviser, a confidante, a friend.

It is that friend, and that friendship, we mourn now.

My mother, the gay and elegant Cobina, the last of a lively brood of six, died Aug. 20. It had been Brenda's birthday.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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