Mom loved to talk about the warmth of their tiny family kitchen “in the old country” where her father would cook the world’s best chicken paprika. “You must use Hungarian paprika in order to have it taste just right. And, make sure to store it in the freezer to keep it’s flavor,” she’d instruct me in her characteristic Slavic accent.
When she was in her late teens and early twenties Mom auditioned and was
selected for a few on-camera extra parts in European feature films. No wonder….she was a knockout, with an hourglass figure to die for, blue eyes that sparkled iridescently, and full lips that parted to reveal an endearing smile. As a visual definition of the quintessential “sweater girl”, she could have had her pick of the young men. But, she was selective. And, although petite and feminine, Mom was also a power-house that packed a punch. She loved to elaborate on the details of how, at 15, she slugged a boy because he tried to get fresh with her on the dance floor…and broke his nose!
As beautiful, sweet and spunky as she was, Dad considered himself a lucky man when they first met at a carnival in Munich while he was stationed there as serviceman during the Korean War. Mom said that because he was so skinny and had an extra short military haircut, Dad reminded her of a drowned rat with big ears. Well, she must have had a proclivity for rodents in uniform because she married Dad, and he brought her across the Atlantic to America.
I arrived second of three children, in the middle between Richard and Marc. As the only girl, I was probably spoiled by Mom; but all I remember was her unfailing love and nurturing spirit. She called me “pumpkin” when I was little, made me Cream of Wheat with brown sugar for breakfast, sat up with me all night with cool washcloths for my face when I had the mumps, and always reminded me that I was beautiful both inside and out. At night for years she would tuck me in and sing to me until I fell asleep. Our favorite song was “Que Sera, Sera.”
“What does that mean, Mommy?” I finally asked one night when I was about seven.
“It means everything happens for a reason, Pumpkin…whatever will be, will be.” I have held on to that piece of wisdom, and to the many others she placed in my heart since then.
In the eleventh grade I was asked to the homecoming dance by our high school’s handsome ASB President; but, I panicked when I realized I had nothing to wear. On my dad’s teacher’s salary, our budget was tight. Appropriate attire for the event was listed as semi formal, but my closet held mostly “casual” or “has seen better days” ensembles. Dad would not budge on his $20 allowance for the frock, which I was grateful for, but knew wouldn’t be enough to cover a dress, let alone shoes. Mom could see my disappointment after my talk with him, and followed me into my room. As I sat sulking on the bed, she gently placed her arm around my shoulders and said reassuringly,
“You know, honey, your dad loves you and wants you to be happy and the prettiest girl at the dance; but, he’s a man and just doesn’t understand what dresses cost these days.” Mom took my hand, placed something there and curled my fingers over it to form a fist before she kissed me on the cheek and left the room. In my palm was a $20 bill, one Dad would never know about. She had taken it out of her “mad money” fund, the private stash she kept hidden in her top drawer. Mom did freelance seamstress work for Santa Barbara interior decorators to make a little extra money for emergencies or to spend on herself from time to time. The following week I noticed she had canceled the monthly lunch date with friends that she always looked forward to. Self sacrifice was her middle name.
The youthful spunk of Mom’s “15-year old featherweight days” and command for respect remained throughout her life. I never once heard her use the word “karma”, but she was definitely a believer in justice being served when justice was due, especially for the underdog. There is one particular example of her fortitude that my family loves to reminisce about.
Dad and Mom were out for a drive one day, doing some shopping and enjoying the Santa Barbara coastal springtime. Suddenly, appearing out of nowhere, four obnoxious teenage boys on bikes darted and weaved dangerously close to the front of their car. Startled, Dad honked the horn to signal them to get out of the way; but they ignored the warning and appeared instead to be laughing it off. Planted at a stop sign now and obstructing traffic, one of the incorrigibles turned around, looked mom straight in the eye, and flipped her off. Not good.
“Pull over, Don,” Mom said with calm resolve. The adolescent perpetrator was engaged in some profane mockery with his cohorts at this time and didn’t even see her coming. She marched right up behind him and grabbed him by the ear. His bike fell over as he whined in pain and stood to face his fear: a fiery, short, 64 year old woman…. one you were a fool to contend with….Ramona, the “Respect-Enforcer”.
“Young man, don’t you ever disrespect anyone like that again. You owe my husband and I an apology and we need to hear it right now!” The boy was slinking toward the ground in agony.
A police officer, who just happened to drive by on his route, had seen the drama play out from start to finish, and pulled over to moderate.
“Maam, can I speak to you privately for a moment?” the officer asked as he climbed out of the patrol car. He ordered the delinquents to stay put, and called Mom aside. She reluctantly let got of the boy’s ear.
“I saw what happened just now at the stop sign, and you have every right to discipline this boy. Let me tell you, he is known as the bully of this neighborhood and it couldn’t make me happier to see him get what he deserves. But, I’m afraid that if you use any more physical restraint with him, you could be looking at an assault charge from his parents. Why don’t you wait here a minute and let me handle this?” Mom agreed.
After a stern warning and a finger-in-the-chest jab for emphasis, the officer brought the boy over to where mom was standing. Still rubbing his ear and wincing, he apologized to Mom using complete sentences. He had learned the lesson that many who have gone before him have learned: you don’t mess with Ramona.
Ramona had an exterior of strength: she hugged hard, she smiled big, she worked industriously; but she was also beautiful, confident, generous and gentle, with heart of mush underneath. The favorite compliment I got often from people who knew her was, “You are just like your mother.”
If only I could be.
She taught me self respect and, for lack of a better word, gumption. At times in my life as a business owner of a local dance studio and as a woman, I have met some devastating hurdles. And although my heart would break every time I’ve had to face the realization that people I’ve believed in, trusted or loved could take advantage of me, dismiss or malign me without remorse, I have held on to Mom’s words of strength and courage: “Don’t ever let someone else’s words or actions toward you define or diminish who you really are.” She was the one that taught me with her life that it is the weak who are cruel….because only the strong can show kindness and gentleness.
One of my life’s heroes