GHITA REUBEN OLIT
George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937. He was a handsome, brilliant, charismatic composer who wrote everything from “Embraceable You,” to “Porgy and Bess” to “Rhapsody in Blue” to “S’ Wonderful.” Gershwin himself was wonderful. He was an embodiment of the 1930s and the American dream. He lived. He soared like a bird of paradise. And then, at age 39, he died.
At least, that’s what the newspapers said. John O’Hara, writer, playwright, and friend of Gershwin, responded upon hearing the news, “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
With that statement, John O’Hara became my hero.
One afternoon, after a particularly hard day of juggling work, school, family, and a host of other variables, my former secretary, Lucia, strode into my office, stopped in front of my desk, and announced defiantly, “Denial is underrated.”
In that instant, Lucia became my hero, too.
Now. Let me tell you about my mother. She was born Ghita Hurwitz in Lachine, Canada. She grew up one of twelve children to a father who was self-employed and a mother who was overworked. With the help of a beloved aunt, Ghita taught herself how to walk, talk, dress, and become a lady. She loved to ski, ice skate, play tennis, and read. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a poem I fumblingly started to recite that she couldn’t finish for me from memory. There wasn’t a bit of advice she gave (regardless of my resistance), that wasn’t good.
When she was in her early twenties, she came to Chicago to visit a friend. Once there, she met and fell in love with my father, Sam. He proposed to her while they were dancing to music being played on his car radio in front of Buckingham Fountain. Mom and Dad got married and produced five children. None of us grew up to be bank robbers, serial killers, or cattle thieves.
Having Ghita as a mother was like having Winston Churchill as a mentor. England’s prime minister admonished the British during World War II to, “Never give in. Never. Never. Never. Never.” My mother did the same, but with a teacup in her hand, perfectly manicured nails, and hair styled at the beauty parlor.
After my sister graduated from college and was looking for work (in a job market that didn’t exist), Mom told her go to every company in every office building in the city, floor-by-floor if necessary, and not to stop until one of them had given her a job. She did, and they did.
When my brother, Michael, died in a boating accident, Ghita faced what had to be faced, did what had to be done, and emerged with tears in her eyes, but her soul and her love for the rest of us intact. Mom loved all of her children. After years of trying to decide which of us was her favorite, I finally figured it out: Whoever, at the time, needed her most.
When my father died, Ghita taught herself how to do everything, drive everywhere, and persevere with a smile on her face and hope in her heart.
Mom read newspapers, front to back, and always knew more about what was happening in the world than the people who made the news. She taught me how to write thank you notes, sit up straight, be kind to harmless strangers, never spend more money than I had earned, and finish what I had started. She taught me to keep my legs crossed when I was sitting on a bus, and not to put on makeup in public
In an annoyingly motherly way, she suggested that it might be just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one, but when I fell in love with a fire marshal who would have considered a zero balance in his checkbook a major step up, Mom fell in love with him, too, and thought he was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Ghita got me hooked on ballet, classical music, tennis, and men with strong jaws and an uncompromising sense of justice. She was inflexible about her favorites on TV. She had loved Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in the old FBI series. Then she fell in love with all the lawyers in JAG, and ultimately switched her loyalties to the oddball investigators on NCIS Mom loved thrillers. She loved dramatizations of good triumphing over evil.
Her second husband, Harry, introduced her to cruises, and she fell in love with that, too. After Harry died, she continued to go on cruises with my brother, Chuck.
When Ghita was young, she looked like Ingrid Bergman. When she got old, Ingrid would have loved to look like her, with huge green eyes, as bright as headlights, soulful, perceptive, and luminous. I was once on a subway with my mother when a total stranger came up to her and said, apropos of nothing, “You have beautiful eyes.”
Ghita loved riding the subway, because she loved to people-watch, and got a big kick out of the different languages in the different newspapers that everyone read.
Mom’s taste in clothing was classic, her makeup was perfect, and her manners were queenly. She did not tolerate fools gladly, but she would never have dreamed of hurting the feelings of a fool. She saved empty soda bottles for the people who worked in her building to redeem for the .05-cent deposit; she remembered the birthdays of maintenance workers, nurses, and their children; and she always got them the gifts that would please them most.
Ghita had a smile that could melt an iceberg. She adored men, she did crossword puzzles to keep her mind active, she caught typos in my manuscripts that my editors missed, and she balanced her own checkbook until …
Okay. That’s the rub. Until when?
George Gershwin died in 1937.
Based upon a whole host of factors including obituaries, funerals, and eyewitness statements, Ghita Reuben Olit, my mother, presumably died last week after a long and well-lived life.
But I am at one with John O’Hara and my former secretary Lucia on this one: Denial is under rated.
I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2011, Shelly Reuben