“Rich, you got to get up, I just got off the phone with your father, your mom died last night.” It was 6:14 am on an early January morning. A day that was as cold as one I had ever felt or would experience again. My mom was 76 years old, and for the prior ten years her health had been erratic, still, hearing Donna’s words sent me to a numbing trance of which I remain. I immediately sprung out of bed and switched my mind to auto pilot. I had very little experience with losing people close to me. My initial persona was one of being completely paralyzed. There is no one who is prepared to compartmentalize the death of their mother. At 47 years old, I was in the prime of my narcissistic conquering of the universe. This morning’s news provided me with a reality trip as what was to lie ahead. In silence I stumbled to the shower, dressed, and prepared to make the drive to the family homestead. Back to the place where for 25 years I lived under the roof of a woman who was my whole world. Not for one second had I imagined a world without her. In those years of growing up in New Paltz not a morning went by that my mom didn’t enter my room at some point to announce, “It’s time.” The two words proved to be an effective way of dealing with a son who didn’t have much use for schedules or alarm clocks. It was a simple motivational
tool my mom implemented to combat my tendencies for tardiness and procrastination. “Nobody ever made anything of their lives by staying in bed.” My mom’s magical words, “It’s time” was my daily reminder that those in this life that do not keep moving fall behind. My mom understood my
competitive nature and she instigated it regularly.
Nina Vail was born in Peekskill New York in 1935, at the time she seemed destined to live a charmed life. Her father’s side of the family (Charles Vail) were wealthy real estate developers who owned several commercial retail properties. Growing up, education was not much of a priority for a privileged little cherub who would become my mom. Nonetheless her parents sent her to New Paltz Teacher’s College, not so much to get educated, but more to find a husband (that was always her side of the story). My mom’s co-ed years turned out to be the time her father was feeding horses at racetracks across the nation. By the time my mom turned 23 she didn’t have a diploma, she was married, she had a son, and her parents had gone from being rich aristocrats to bankruptcy. Her destiny had been sharply rearranged from being a pampered entitled daddy’s girl to the real-life grind. Regarding motherhood, there was zero pretense, she loved her calling and was determined that being a mother was going to be the best thing she would ever do with her life. In her mind her life’s calling was to be the mother of Gary and Richard Siegel.
She was more content living vicariously through her boys than pursuing any of her personal ambitions. The happiest I remember my mom being was at my brother’s graduation from Brown University. In my mom’s eyes my brother being an ivy leaguer vindicated her lackluster years in the halls of academia. Despite Gary’s best efforts to plead that I was mom’s favorite I never saw a beam on her face like I did that day of the Brown commencement back in 1979. Until grandchildren arrived my mother’s greatest claim to fame was “my good son went to Brown.”
My mother’s infatuation with elitist institutions only made me a little bit jealous. I didn’t doubt for one second that my mom did have a favorite and it was me. Lol. All the joking aside I know my brother is convinced our mom loved us both equally. Her priority in life was singular; protect her boys and present them with every opportunity to stand as critical thinking independent adults. There were many times when my mom’s protective paranoia made it more challenging for myself to gain the independence that I
struggled to find in my youth. Looking back three main themes were the foundations of our Mother/son relationship 1. Unconditional Love: I, and Gary were 100% unconditionally loved. We were always our mom’s number one priority. 2. Unlimited Support: In my mom’s eye I was an angel, a knight in
shining amour. In her eyes I was the best player on all teams, besides being the smartest and best looking. There was certainly no objectivity when it came to my mom evaluating my life performances. One time after a high school basketball game, I kicked a referee in the butt. I was suspended for two
games and placed on double secret probation. When I came home that night, “He deserved it,” was all my mom offered. 3. Belief in her children: There has never been a person, and I am sure I will not be in contact with a person who believed in me more than my mom. “The cream will rise Richard,
and you are pure cream.”
My mom loved holidays and special occasions, especially Christmas. It was of utmost importance to my mom that Christmas be special for myself and Gary every year. My Dad would bemoan the money my mom would pour into gifts and the accouchements that went along with the Christmas holiday. Every night from December first to the middle of January my mom would sit in front of our Christmas tree, put on some Christmas melodies, and stare into the lights and ornaments. “Nothing makes me happier than my family being together for the holidays,” she was fond of saying. Every year mom made sure to have
one big gift that was usually shared with my brother. I recall a snowmobile, tickets to Mets opening day. One year it was a family trip to Disneyland in California. My mom made sure myself and Gary had sweet memories of our childhood. She took it upon herself that her two boys would emerge from adolescence with every chance to make the best possible lives for themselves. My mother’s doting and unconditional support could have its drawbacks. She anointed me to such high pedestals, at times without merit, which gave me a distorted reality of where I stood in the pecking order of the universe. She, without question provided me with a good self-esteem, maybe too good. It was left for me to learn how to temper my mother’s high ideals of me within my own reality.
In many ways my mother was a very liberal in the manner she brought up her two boys. There were few specific requirements that needed to be met to stay out of her doghouse. She insisted that we were well mannered respectful boys who were expected to mind the authorities and get good grades in school. She expected us to develop passions outside of academics and in general have a well-rounded childhood. She expected to not hear from school administration or police regarding any nefarious behavior. In my brother she had a son who was naturally independent and anxious to depart his hometown. Although her method was identical with each of us the results were the opposite. In her youngest son she had a classic ‘momma’s boy’ who was far too comfortably attached to the nipple, and unlike my brother I was in no hurry to be weened off. At 16, I had my own car and no curfew, who could
have more independence than me? My mother was in a trap, and she knew it. If she imposed restrictions on me, I was going to rebel more than she was ready to deal with. By letting me run loose she knew she was giving me enough leeway to get much closer to the edge of the cliffs. Either way, it was years later that my mom told me: “The hardest thing about being your mother was understanding you and feeling every ounce of your joy and of your pain.”
It was January 12, 2012, I had made my way over the mountain to my childhood home. I pulled down the steep driveway just beyond the hairpin turn. My father was standing in front of the opened garage door in his pajamas. It was approximately 7:00 am, the outside temperature on my pilot’s consul said
4 degrees, and snow was on the way. My psyche picked that moment to let the faucet open. All those nights of my youth when I came pouring in that driveway knowing my mom was waiting there for me under every kind of life circumstance. Most nights, or early mornings not a word was spoken. She may
not have known all the naughty details of my misadventures but in the broader sense of understanding me she knew everything. In her private moments I knew she bled for me, she cried for me. She also celebrated my accomplishments with seemingly more joy than I could ever muster myself. There is not a person who has lived in this world who has loved me harder or longer than my mom. She had my back in the ways only a mother can.
I got out of the car and headed towards my dad. My father looked worn down, and tired of living. Half of him was gone. I believe that cold morning was the only time the two of us ever embraced in a full hug. The empty numbness I felt that January morning has not left. Grief is a very personal process that for me has been an elusive one. Alone by her casket, I made my piece with the woman who gave me life, and consistently gave me far more credit than I earned. ‘Mom it was not your fault that I was a very slow learner. Thank you for having the courage to let me find my way to me at my pace.’ I told her to ‘rest easy, thanks to your patient hand, you knew your second son better than he did himself.’