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The art of mothering a daughter

Op-Ed writer Bob Brody's wife and daughter, Elvira

Op-Ed writer Bob Brody's wife and daughter, Elvira and Caroline, respectively. Photo Credit: Bob Brody

In the 1950s and ’60s, Antoinette Chirichella raised her daughter, Elvira, as a single mother with an only child. Nettie, as she was known, supported her family of two as a seamstress in a factory in Brooklyn for 47 years. She would do whatever was needed to take care of her girl.

They always remained close.

Elvira went on to bring up her own daughter, Caroline. Elvira spent 20 years in the garment industry as an executive in an office. She, too, does whatever needs to be done to take care of her girl. And they, too, are close.

I know all this because Nettie was my mother-in-law. And Elvira is my wife. And Caroline is my daughter.

Nettie demonstrated from the first that Elvira would be her first priority. Despite living on a pittance, she made sure her daughter never lacked for anything essential. Nettie sent her to a Catholic school she could barely afford. Later, after she retired, she baby-sat for her grandchildren, doting all day long.

Elvira, in turn, never flagged in her commitment to her mother. They shopped together. They saw Frank Sinatra perform at Carnegie Hall together. They talked to each other, about anything and everything, almost every day. They remained best friends for life.

Elvira also pulled out all the stops for her daughter. She slept at her bedside for six nights when she was hospitalized at age 3. She confronted her teachers when other, larger students bullied her in school. She taught her how to cook. She took her on subways and buses to singing lessons to train as an opera singer. They went together to see Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga in concert.

Caroline is now in her 20s, and they still talk to each other almost every day. And yes, they, too, are the best of friends.

How close mothers and daughters typically get to be with each other through life is hard to say with any authority, much less quantify. The art and craft of mothering a daughter defies any glib formula. But as far as I can tell, mothers and daughters who stay so close for so long, and on such good terms, are a rarity indeed.

My own mother, for example, was extremely close with her mother, but so much so that they both suffered as much as benefited. Because my mother was profoundly deaf, my Nana dedicated herself to her care, obsessively, until the day she died at age 97. For 77 years, then, my mother chafed at lacking a sense of independence. They proved that a mother and a daughter can be too close.

My sister, Linda, was hardly close to my mother, either as a girl or as a young woman, and after high school moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles. But a few years ago, as my mother grew elderly and eventually ill, my sister stepped in to care for her, even moving her out to California to be near her. That’s much to her credit.

So what I’ve seen happen, first between Nettie and Elvira, and now between Elvira and Caroline, is truly special. And maybe none of that should surprise me. A mother simply inspired a daughter by setting an example with the highest possible standards, establishing a tradition.

With Nettie gone 18 years, Elvira daily re-enacts this winning mother-daughter dynamic with Caroline. Three generations are forever brought together. Elvira became the mother her mother taught her to be. Someday Caroline may well do the same.

Bob Brody is an executive and essayist in Forest Hills. He is the author of the upcoming memoir, “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age.”