Recently I have been re-watching Friends on Netflix. It was one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, ranking right up there with Cheers and Seinfeld.
While I watched it when it originally aired in 1994, I hadn't watched every single episode in succession. Without commercial interruptions.
So I watched it all again.
When the original series ended in 2004, I cried. I guess I identified with the characters on the show since I was only slightly older than they were. Of course, I didn’t have friends who lived across the hall who would burst into my apartment to exchange witty banter to a laugh track. But I recognized the closeness these fictitious characters shared – because I shared that same closeness with my own friends, many of whom I met in college at Ohio State.
I was sad when the series ended because it depicted how life moves on and how we change. Many of those changes are good – we grow up, we move for our careers or to start somewhere anew, we marry, we have children. But sometimes those changes cause us to lose some of that closeness with those friends who, when we were younger, seemed to be “just across the hall” figuratively, if not literally. It was easier back then when we could drop everything to get together just to hang out for no reason at all or for special occasions like Halloween parties or ski weekends.
Nowadays, we get together less for “no reason at all” and more for things like weddings and funerals. The former is a happy reason, but the latter? Well, it may be the circle of life, but it’s still sad and difficult. And for some of us, it’s definitely a test of the strength of our waterproof mascara.
So yesterday I watched the Friends finale. And I still cried, even though I knew how it ended. After I turned off Netflix and dried my tears – all the while laughing at myself for being such a crybaby – I got to work on the everyday real life stuff: making dinner for my husband, throwing a load of whites in the washing machine and watering the ficus tree.
Then, a couple of hours later, I received a call from my friend Joe telling me that his mom had passed.
And the waterworks began again.
I have so many memories of the lady I always called “Mrs. B.” Not “Mrs. Bressler.” NEVER “Lilly.” To Alex, Nick and Joe, she was “Mom.” And to all her grandchildren, she was “Nonna.”
And to her I was always, “Janie.”
My husband Vince and I traveled to North Carolina a couple years ago to attend Joe and Leah’s wedding. Mrs. B was so happy to see us and, as usual, welcomed us like family. We took the requisite photos, of course, and at one point, I aimed the camera at her. She had been sitting on a stool in the kitchen, but when she saw me with the camera, she stood up, walked over to the stove, picked up a pot, leaned against the counter in a pose, and proudly said in her Italian accent, “You take my picture now, Janie. I’m da cook!”
Oh, but she was so much more than that.
Yes, she was a cook. And a seamstress. And a disciplinarian. And a quick wit. She loved Viareggio and her homeland and Italian heritage, but she loved being an American, too.
But mostly? Well, mostly, she was a wonderful friend. And whatever you called her, she was not someone you could ever forget.
For years, she worked at Fabians in Steubenville altering bridal gowns. I visited her there numerous times to see her tiny form covered in a big cloud of white as her nimble fingers added sequins by hand to a bridal gown. I’m guessing you could ask any bride whose wedding gown she altered – even if it was decades ago – and she’d remember Mrs. B. And she’d likely have some stories to share.
Anyone who ever met Mrs. B knows about the “boys from Youngstown.” She’d tell us to be good or she’d get the boys from Youngstown after us. And then she’d lift her finger and make a “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” sound like a tommy gun. Later, when she walked with a cane, she would lift the cane as a prop and make that sound. And then we’d all laugh, but no one harder or louder than Mrs. B.
Like any self-respecting Italian, food was a priority in the Bressler household.
I remember the first time I visited Nick and Joe in Steubenville and sat down for a meal at Mrs. B’s table. No one had warned me that the chicken she served was only the first course – and not the entire meal.
I know, I know. Rookie mistake.
I spent the rest of the meal trying to eat a respectable portion of all the courses without insulting her – or exploding. It was delicious. But it wasn’t easy.
When I moved to Steubenville in 1998 to work with Nick and Joe, I realized that Mrs. B was just as much a part of their company as they were. She was at every birthday gathering, office Christmas party and event. She sent food over weekly. She would have sent it daily if Nick and Joe had let her. I can still picture Nick or Joe with her big black purse slung over their shoulder, carefully guiding her up the steps to the office so she could regale us with her stories.
Once she learned my cell phone number, that was it. She’d call me several times a week. I’d answer the phone and hear, “Janie!” and I knew Mrs. B was on the other end of the line. “Come pick me up tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock,” she’d say. “I take you to breakfast.”
I soon learned the reasons behind these breakfasts were two-fold: 1) she needed a ride to work, and 2) she was on a fact-finding mission to get the scoop on her boys’ companies. She figured I was a soft touch and would spill the beans.
Usually I was able to divert her attention by asking to see some of her old photographs. Her eyes would light up and her hands would dig into that big black purse – and out would come a baggie filled with black and white photographs of days gone by. Photos of her as a young war bride. Photos of her in a bathing suit on the beach with her legs playfully crossed in a movie star pose. Pictures of her boys when they were little.
And always she had another story to share.
After I moved back to Columbus, Mrs. B frequently called me from her cell phone. It didn’t matter if I were in a meeting or in the middle of an eye exam. If I answered the phone, Mrs. B had license to talk.
So she’d talk. And talk. Annnnd…talk. But once she was finished, she’d suddenly say, “Janie – I love you. You family.” And – boom! – she’d disconnect the call.
Sometimes she’d jokingly add, “You pick me up tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock? I take you to breakfast.” And then she’d laugh because she knew I wasn’t going to be able to drive from Columbus to Steubenville the next morning by 9 o’clock just to go to breakfast.
It was only in the last year or two that her calls became more infrequent. And then she stopped calling me altogether. And, oh, how I miss those telephone calls.
Seven years ago I first introduced Vince to my OSU friends for a milestone birthday party in Cleveland. He had to go through a rigorous screening process. And the toughest person on the jury was Mrs. B.
But before the weekend was over, she was calling him “Vincey” (a name even I don’t get to call him, by the way!), and he was given the Mrs. B Stamp of Approval.
It was an honor, then, a year later when she attended our wedding. I have many wonderful memories of that day, of course, but one of the best was when – at the urging of Mrs. B – our DJ played, Let Me Call You Sweetheart as the last song of the evening and we all gathered together to sing. The blurry phone camera photos we have of that moment are – to me – priceless. And Mrs. B, of course, was front and center in them all.
The last time I visited Mrs. B was in August with Nick, Beth and their girls. Nick played the piano and sang. Mrs. B looked at me, nodded at Nick and murmured, “beautiful.”
And whenever she spoke of – or looked at – her grandchildren, she’d smile and again mouth the word, “beautiful.”
Beyond the obvious, I think I knew what she meant. She meant that she’d raised three wonderful boys. They grew up, married and raised (and are still raising) beautiful families of their own. She was so very proud of them all.
The fact that they are the kindest, funniest, best friends I’ve ever known is testament to the fact that I think she did a beautiful job, too.
Mrs. B’s dressy occasion outfit was a pair of blue slacks, blue vest or jacket and a white ruffled blouse. Sometimes the blue would be replaced by black, but the white ruffled blouse was a constant.
Now, whenever I see a white ruffled blouse – whether it’s on a model or on a grandmother – I think of Mrs. B. And whenever I see someone walking with a cane, irreverent as it is, I picture the user holding it up like a tommy gun and saying, “Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!”
And it makes me smile.
None of us lives forever. We all know that. But it’s still hard to say goodbye.
Mrs. B used to say, “I’m 90-and change” – so she lived a full, long, beautiful life. But she is going to miss her oldest granddaughter’s upcoming wedding. And she’s going to miss the birth of her newest grandchild. Life will go on without her. But she will always, always remain close in our hearts.
I love you, Mrs. B. You family. And I wish I could pick you up tomorrow at 9 o’clock. I would take you to breakfast.