When my son was 4, my dad started telling him and the other grandchildren that my mom had once been a mermaid. We spent summers on Fire Island, where mermaid kitsch abounds, so the tale was not altogether implausible, at least to a 4-year-old. Moreover, the kids were old enough to perceive that my dad loved my mom with a love worthy of a maritime goddess.
Lillian Barbash, my mom, died July 4, when funerals were restricted because of the pandemic. The thought crossed my mind that we should take her back to the sea, where my dad, Murray Barbash, claimed he had found her. That absurd idea gave way to another — to engrave the words "Murray’s Mermaid" on her headstone. We would, of course, include the other things she was: "First Lady of the Arts" — for her renown promoting classical music on Long Island. Loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — she loved all those roles. But since she would be interred next to Murray, in Elmont, and since he had loved her so much and had sustained his mermaid tale for so long, I thought, why not carve that facet of her identity into her epitaph?
Alas, I was outvoted. Family members raised objections. His epitaph didn't mention her by name, so why should hers mention him? Furthermore, she would not want to be remembered that way. Finally, she thought he took the mermaid gag too far. This last point was fair. Even my son, who loved catching inconsistencies in my dad’s story, at one point patted him gently on the arm and said, "Give it up, Grandpa."
No one made the obvious point that to call your beloved a mermaid is akin to calling her your trophy bride. Perhaps no one did because my dad, though maybe not as woke about gender as we might have wished, treated his mermaid with the respect due an equal and gave her free rein to pursue her career. Indeed, her triumphs leading the Islip Arts Council made him proud.
If it’s true that the best thing your father can do for you is to love and honor your mother, I could not have had a better dad. But what made him so, more than anything, was my mom. Beginning at 15, when she turned down his first proposal of marriage, the woman whom Murray’s aunts and uncles called "The Snow Queen" for her poise kindled a good man’s love for 70 years and returned it in equal measure. Did she really esteem that romantic feat — and all the goodness it inspired — any less than leading the council, or helping found the Long Island Philharmonic, or supporting the arts in our hometown Bay Shore schools?
A few years into the Mermaid game, my dad retouched a 50-year-old photograph of my mom and turned her into a mermaid. "Proof!" he exclaimed. The grandkids howled with delight. He also made a yellow road sign of a mermaid between the words "Mermaid Crossing" and hung it outside their beach house. My mom was no party pooper and let it stay. It’s still there. Before she was Long Island’s "First Lady of the Arts," before she was "The Snow Queen," before she was my mom, she was "Murray’s Mermaid." Happy Mother’s Day.
Reader Shepard Barbash lives in West Islip.