The Iowa Review
Meet Miss Subways, Part 1
My mother, who was born on July 14, 1922, who died on May 3, 2013, and who is now the girl—or rather the grown woman—of my dreams alone, along with some pretty offbeat memories, told me that she once sang as part of a high school group for Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. The song, she said, was "The Lost Chord." (This had been composed by Arthur Seymour Sullivan in 1877 at the bedside of his older brother Fred during Fred's last illness. The manuscript is dated January 13, 1877; Fred Sullivan died less than a week later. The lyrics were written as a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter called "A Lost Chord" and published in 1858 in the English Woman's Journal.) And then she sang the song for me.
Mom once told me that she had once been a Miss Subways runner-up. (The Miss Turnstiles character in On the Town—played by Sono Osato in the original 1944 stage version of this musical and then by Vera-Ellen in the 1949 film—was based on Miss Subways.) Upon retelling this story, I often claimed that Mom won this contest.
Mom told me that she did once win a dance contest—at age sixteen in some Starlight Park in the Bronx. (She also claimed to have been given the trophy by Mitzi Gaynor, aka Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film version of South Pacific. If so, Gaynor would have been about six at the time. The presenter, then, must have been Mary Martin, or Nellie, from the original stage version.) Mom then performed that routine for me—a jitterbug.
I, shortly thereafter, asked Mom to teach me to dance. Our first lesson began not with the box step or something equally basic, but with the jitterbug. That was also our last lesson.
Mom told me that she'd had boyfriends other than Dad. Did any, I asked, ever propose to her? "About ten did," she said. One of them, I now presume, must have been a guy named Seymour Pine.
Mom claimed to have gotten good grades in high school, saying the only reason she didn't get into Vassar—the college of her dreams—was that she was Jewish. Those grades, in fact, were bad.
Dad first saw Mom, the girl of his dreams, she told me, as a cheerleader for Brooklyn College at some basketball game. She then, of course, performed that routine for me. I then, of course, felt the call to become, well, some kind of star myself.
Mom, said Dad, used to look like Lena Horne. Mom herself told me that some Southern bus driver once asked her to move to the back of the bus. (Mom and Dad had just married; Dad then went south—to Florida—for basic training; Mom visited him there.) But the driver then saw that she was white and laughed. In my retelling of the story, he does not see this, so she just moves to the back.
Mom never wore makeup—and nor, with such good skin, did she need to. This was because, she told me, she had once seen a very elegant old woman on the subway. This woman wore no makeup. Mom decided then and there to become just like her.
During World War II, Dad was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. My oldest siblings—the twins Ricky and Micky (Eric and Maureen) —were born while he was out there. Upon returning home to the Bronx, he suggested they all move to Alaska. Mom said no. Who can blame her? But a pattern began, it seems to me, of Dad not getting what he needed. She would later say no to a proposed move from Queens to Scarsdale because there are no subways up there, to a move to Manhattan where of course there are subways, to a vacation home near Lake George because she'd rather camp up there and at any rate doesn't want to take care of a second house, and to a boat to use there because, well, it might sink.
Mom liked to joke that, when pregnant with the twins, she was wider than she was tall. Even at five foot two, this is hard to picture. She must have meant wider around than she was tall.
Brother Bob, born three years later, soon developed meningitis. Upon recovery, some doctor advised Mom to never say no to Bob. Otherwise, the kid might get mad at her and have a relapse. This doctor probably meant for Mom to never say no to Bob for a period of weeks or maybe even months. She, though, understood him to mean never say no to Bob for the rest of his life.
Mom, at five foot two, claimed to have been a very good basketball player. She claimed, moreover, to have, on various playgrounds, hustled men playing the game. Dad said it's true.
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Kevin Kopelson is a professor of English at the University of Iowa.
This essay originally appeared in Volume 45, Issue 1 of The Iowa Review (Spring 2015).
Meet Miss Subways will be published on The Daily Palette in three parts. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2.
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on October 11, 2016