Today is “Flag Day,” but here, it is much more. It’s my Mom’s birthday.
Esther Letticia Holder Armstrong left us 14 years ago. But for me and my family, she’s very much alive in spirit and 104 years young. They were singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” when Mom was born on that June 14th in 1917. Mom’s father, my grandfather, was over there. He was a sailor in the Danish Navy during World War 1. Gramps, a Barbados native, saw plenty of action as he would tell us many times in the years to come.
Esther Holder, as Aunts and Uncles would gleefully tell me, was a feisty child and teenager.
“Smart as a whip,” friends said about Mom. She graduated near the top of her Julia Richmond High School class of 1935. My Mother once described herself to me as a “Jazz baby,” showing off pictures of herself as a young woman who liked to dance. I’m not sure how that resonated with some of the older folks in the family but none of them lived in a glass house.
I guess Mom left a trail of broken hearts when she and my dad, William Benfield Armstrong, married in 1941. It was one of the biggest social events of the year. However, modesty aside, the glittering affair was just the warm up to my début on the world stage in April of 1942. A star was born — at least that’s how I’d see it in my private fantasies which Mom frequently punctured.
Mom was a single parent during my early years because Dad was away — in the Army – seeing some of the heaviest action of World War 2 in France and Germany as a Sergeant in the still-segregated armed forces.
We looked like a Hollywood family when Dad finally came home from the war. At least that’s what I thought. Mom was beautiful and Dad was such a handsome guy.
Over the years, my Mother was “the voice” of our family. She clearly set the parameters for right and wrong, good and bad for my two younger brothers and me. I tested her many times, especially as I got older and became a “man” in my immature mind. I always lost those confrontations.
Mom was tough! She was also tender, in her own way. She encouraged me to read and write. She actually read my first attempts at fiction and assured me I had talent. She told me I should pursue my dreams.
We weren’t big on outward displays of affection, something that I would have to deal with in later years. However, Mom always found quality time for me. She knew I had a huge passion for movies. We’d go to the movies, 3 times a week. I was “Mom’s date.” She would explain who the people on the big screen were.
They were Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Cooper, Grant and all the others who reigned over my fantasies through my many years of loving Hollywood. Mom said she named me after her favorite star, Gary Cooper. There was a mixup in recording the birth certificate and Gary became Garry.
There would be frequent mix-ups later when I became a news guy on television. Actually, there are still frequent mix-ups. Some things never change.
I’m not sure my Mother was excited about my career choice. She always said I should become a doctor, lawyer, or minister. She agreed I talked well. What she really said was, “Garry, you have a big mouth!” I’d smirk when she said that. The smirk usually quickly disappeared she gave me “the look.” Mom also thought I was too good for the women I dated. I think she left that impression with many of those women in my life. I got lots of feedback about it.
I remember Mom and Dad celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I saw a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen too often. The look of love.
Dementia took hold of Mom in her last few years. Dad had passed away. Mom was alone with my middle brother Billy in the old family home on Long Island. Anton, my youngest Brother, was busy with his blooming career as director of the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota. I was the married, busy TV news guy up in Boston. Family get-togethers were difficult.
Time is marching on for Mom’s 3 “boys” who now range in age from 65 to 79. But, in our collective memory, Mom remains forever young.
In what would be her last coherent afternoon with me, My Mom floored me when she admonished me to be a good husband, to find quality time with Marilyn, to show affection and not stonewall Marilyn with internalized emotions. Mom held my face close with her hands like I was that stupid teenager. She smiled with patience and compassion, counseling me to “… be good to your Wife … you are lucky to have her. Show her you appreciate her, that you love her.”
I’m still trying Mom. I’m not there yet.
I’m remembering the lyrics of an old song that used to make Mom smile. “My Mother’s Eyes” by old timer John Bubbles: “God’s gift from up above, with his unselfish love, I found in my mother’s eyes”. Mom’s eyes would glisten at those lyrics. I hope they are right now. Those eyes that still inspire us.
In the meantime, Happy, Happy Birthday. Mom. You’re the best!