Mourning My Mother, Lillian Vernon
I knew the day would come, I just kept hoping unrealistically it would not.
But this week, I lost my mother.
It has been a time to reflect on the life she lived, the ground she broke, and the ways she left her mark on the world of business, on millions of American households and…on me.
My mother came to America with her brother for whom I was named in 1937, escaping Nazi Germany.
Her father, Herman was a tall, handsome astute, businessman and idolized by my mother.
He was generous to the point of spoiling me, something not approved of in our family.
Her mother, Erna, was beautiful, smart, trim, thrifty (that’s the nice word for it), and competitive. Fiercely competitive.
In many ways they embodied the characteristics of many German-Jewish refugees coming to America. Both were hard working and unshakable in their dedication to family.
My mother was the product of that wonderful and, as with all parents, imperfect union.
And family was immensely important to my mother.
Perhaps that is why she decided to leave us shortly after a wonderful family dinner on the 8th night of Hanukkah.
She loved a family dinner … as well as a few other things that might surprise you.
She loved a party.
She loved white wine and prosecco.
Finding none in the house as I prepared for dinner, I discovered a bottle of Dom Perignon 2004. I was saving it, for what I am not sure. But something said, serve it tonight, I don’t and won’t ever know why.
She loved it. But my latkes: declined, “too fattening.”
She loved good food like caviar, but also hot dogs (hold the bun). True to her German roots, she also loved herring.
A few weeks before her passing, I took her to Neue Gallerie (She loved beautiful surroundings).
Thinking we would conclude our visit with coffee and cake, she demurred. Herring and white wine she ordered. We shared a glass of white wine. She was 88 after all and it was the afternoon. She remarked to the waitress: “My son is so cheap, only half a glass!”
She loved to make me laugh.
She loved to see the world.
A decade ago my brother and I took her to Amsterdam and Leipzig, the last two places she lived in before emigrating to America. Combine a healthy dose of herring with too many weiswurts, her two favorites, and I gained five pounds on that trip.
She, not an ounce.
She loved people … but not everyone mind you…
She loved smart people, down-to-earth people, unpretentious people, people with a good sense of humor, and people with a sense of mischief.
She could spot a phony a mile away.
She also really loved men.
Tall men and short men, handsome men, accomplished men and well-dressed men!
She loved pilots–particularly young, handsome and dashing ones. I remember a time in Dubai in 2008…
It’s fair to say she loved to flirt, to her last day.
She loved politicians. She had a special relationship with Vice President Biden. She loved Hillary.
She loved Rahm Emanuel, she liked that he was tough, smart, strong and Jewish.
When she first met President Obama in July of 2008, shortly after he clinched the democratic nomination, he kissed her on the cheek….
She said … “Kiss me on the other cheek too!”
Come to think of it, she was a total and unrepentant flirt.
She loved the people whom, along with her, built Lillian Vernon into the company it became.
She loved our country … boy was she was proud to be an American. She was proud to be an immigrant and she took nothing for granted.
She said over and over again: “Only in America, could I have achieve this success.”
She not only said it, she fully believed it, she lived it.
She also loved women…
But they had to be accomplished, smart and hard working. And NEAT.
And if you weren’t, she didn’t hesitate to tell you so.
The catalog was riddled with products to make you and your home neat and orderly.
I have a favorite picture of my mother at the Canton Fair in 1981. She is standing fashionably dressed at the entrance to the cafeteria at the fair. And the sign reads, “The sloppily attired will not be admitted.”
That completely sums up my mother.
She loved innovation.
In the mid-1970’s Lillian began sourcing products from Germany, Italy, and other countries overseas to bring goods not readily available in America. That coupled with monogramming, free gifts, two for pricing, to name just a few catapulted the company to higher and higher levels.
She loved to tell it like it is. She knew no other way.
When we installed computers at Lillian Vernon she reminded us, she wasn’t “USER FRIENDLY.” The metaphor was not lost on any of us.
She loved and valued work. Hard work. It always came first.
In the early days, she referred to herself as a “closet worker” … in those days women only worked if their husbands weren’t good providers. When she began her business, she simply wanted to have an extra $50 a week for spending money. No fame no glory … just $50 earned through hard work.
Now I know something about the closet … it is something I struggled with in the early years….
Coming out to my mother, who was also my boss at the time, on the same day was something I imagine few have experienced.
And in retrospect, I am not sure I can recommend it. Many years later … at one of our annual Holiday lunches after a busy Christmas season … a week like the one that just passed. We were having lunch at 11 Madison in midtown Manhattan, reflecting on how the past season had gone.
I looked up and two tables away was my therapist, waiting for his lunch companion. I tentatively walked over and said, “happy holidays, there is someone I’d like you to meet, someone you have heard about for 20 years.”
I introduced them at which point my mother quickly remarked, “I am sure he only told you the good things.”
The response, “Absolutely.”
It felt like a scene out of a Woody Allen movie.
My mother loved me totally. And she loved my partner, Tom. Through banter and shared passions they formed an unshakable bond.
She loved all three of her husbands.
She especially loved David, my younger brother. She had a very warm place in her heart for my younger brother David. I believe it is, in part, because my mother knew what it was like to be the second born … and I believe that gave them a special bond and an special unspoken closeness…
She loved to love.
Her trainer wrote to me. I didn’t know Lillian as the legendary business woman. I just knew her as the woman who made me feel cherished and loved, and I in turn cherished and loved her.
She spread her love…If she loved you, she loved you DEEPLY, FULLY AND COMPLETELY. WITH ALL HER HEART.
“Lillian was the perfect balance of femininity and strength! ”
But while you might not believe it, my mother was also vulnerable and shy.
She wanted approval from her parents and from the male-dominated business world.
She didn’t want to be a recognized businesswoman, but recognized as a business person.
She did nothing half-hearted … or casually … she was never a bystander
If she was in … she was ALL-IN.
In all the emails, calls and notes I have received in the last 48 hours, one word was repeated over and over.
She was a FORCE.
On that, there is no debate.
She was a FORCE to be reckoned with.
And she was a FORCE you wanted on your side.
When she was in the room, you definitely felt her presence.
LOVING… VULNERABLE… FORCEFUL.
She inspired me to do what I have accomplished in my life and she will continue to inspire countless Americans for years to come.
She’s a tough act to follow.
So let the force be with you. Her force.
This article was originally published by The Huffington Post.