Walking with my husband to the parking lot, after seeing an energetic and highly entertaining production of Million Dollar Quartet, and noticing a coat that was fashionably worn by the woman ahead of me caused a nearly 60-year flash back. The short car coat tufted in an earth-tone color was something Mildred would have worn.
My mother’s closest lifelong friend and the mother of my best friend in childhood, Mildred always dressed in form-fitting clothes, which were clean and un-tattered; her husband owned a cleaning business and they were in a better financial position than many in the town where she and I both grew up and she lived her whole life. She obviously felt comfortable in Roselle, since her only move was years later to a house on the slightly more affluent side of town.
The show we had seen the night I spotted the coat was at the Paper Mill Playhouse in the upper-class town of Millburn, in Essex County New Jersey. The theatre was the recipient of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Maybe the reason the coat glared at me was because it was at the same venue (the structure rebuilt after a devastating fire) where Mildred hosted a party for her daughter’s fall birthday when we were in first grade. Since my mother and Mildred both claimed that they were too nervous to learn how to drive a car, I am quite sure it was Mildred’s husband who drove us to the theatre so many years ago. He also drove their two daughters, my brother Stuey, and me to grammar school just blocks from our apartment in neighboring Union County’s blue-collar Borough of Roselle, a virtual shtetl, before heading over the bridge to his Brooklyn shop.
When we didn’t get a ride, we all walked to school together in the morning, then home at lunchtime. Our bellies full, we headed back to school for more reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, before giddily meandering the few blocks home at the end of the school day. My mother always prepared extra food for my accompanying friends to join us for lunch on snowy or heavily rainy days, since we lived in an apartment of a four-family house halfway between our friends’ single-family houses and the grammar school. Their mothers, always including Mildred, would converge at our second floor, neat and spotlessly clean linoleum-floored abode.
Back then, I didn’t know the history that linked Mildred’s family with mine. I knew, rather incredulously, that the elder of Mildred’s two girls not only had the same given and middle name, but also the same birth month and day as I do. Mildred determined the fact that her daughter and I have the same middle name while trailing us one snowy day as we walked back to school after lunch break.
My notebook, protected from the elements and secured in a plastic bag, told the story. Mildred noticed through the clear wrapping that my full name was on its cover. In my mind’s eye, I can still picture her reaction and remember the ensuing conversation. “Sharon Mark,” she called out, using my last name to distinguish me from her own daughter by the same name, “your middle name is Phyllis?” As I turned I saw her curious smile at the thought of the response. My reply confirmed that we are both Sharon Phyllis born on July 8th.
While I can’t seem to remember a book after reading it or a movie after being entertained by it, I get an instant flash back to Mildred at the Paper Mill during my early years, standing turned and facing the gathering crowd, watching for more friends to join the group. As others from our class met at the theatre that day in 1959, we settled in the seats Mildred had reserved in the first few rows left of center. If memory serves me correctly, the show was The Emperor’s New Clothes (or was it a take-off of that story?). The excitement building while waiting for the performance to start still clutches me; I even maintain visions of the emperor on stage.
After the show, back at Mildred’s house in Roselle, her mother, a slightly bent-over elderly woman, was setting the party plates around the dining room table for the birthday cake. What I didn’t know then was that the sweet little old woman had been good friends with my maternal grandmother, who died in 1935.
On the way home from the Paper Mill, after spotting the woman who reminded me of Mildred, we drove past the Tudor house in Millburn, which Mildred’s younger sister Ethel owned with her husband, a lawyer. Only one lone time when I was young, do I recall going to her sister’s house with Mildred and her family. Seeing it again reminded me of the stories Ethel told at my house in 1997, during the mourning period for my father, a retired letter carrier. Luckily for me, we recorded the discussion when she went on about the friendship her mother enjoyed with my grandmother, as well as her own friendship with my young aunt, who died when she was merely 11.
It’s a wonder why Mildred and my mother, stay-at-home moms, never spoke about their mothers’ friendship in front of the children, but then again, they had lots of daily events to discuss from Mildred’s family with two daughters and my mother’s family with three boys and me, such as how the children were getting to school, or what we were eating. I can remember those daily telephone conversations distinctly. My mother referred to me as “my Sharon,” while Mildred’s daughter was coined, “your Sharon.” They would go on, for example, “my Sharon ate all her peas,” or in disbelief, “your Sharon ate everything on her plate?” I just can’t recall them speaking about their mothers in any of the conversations.
After the countless shows my husband and I have seen at the Paper Mill, it was a stranger’s coat, which took me back to the first show I saw there nearly 60 years earlier as a young girl with humble beginnings from a working-class neighborhood in Roselle. Even though the woman wasn’t shaped like Mildred, and she didn’t have the same color or style hair, simply seeing that coat in front of me reminded me of Mildred, who was really like a second mother to me. In turn, that got me to thinking about the time she introduced me to the Paper Mill.
The smallest things such as that quilted coat bring out the biggest memories and the best of times. I always felt well-cared for in our insular, yet diverse, neighborhood. Our families may have had simple lives but they were filled with family love and devotion.
I want my children to know all there is to know about their ancestry and the wonderful people who helped to mold me with their wholesome lifestyle and altruistic family values. In the case of Mildred, I especially want my daughter Rina Malia, whose middle name Malia is in memory of dear Mildred, to know all about this even-tempered June Cleaver-type homemaker, who always treated me like family and carries a special place in my heart.