My mom didn’t tell me how to live: she showed me

Why I’m an optimist

I totally did not, nor would I ever, stick a Pop Tart in a radiator, so I didn’t have to eat it. I happen to love a good Pop Tart. That was my sister’s trick. She was a finicky eater and didn’t like eating breakfast. Somehow, however, the circumstances pointed at me as the culprit… and hiding a Pop Tart in the heater to avoid breakfast was a serious offense in my household. My dad was a minute away from blaming me for it. Despite my protests, I was about to get in trouble. Big trouble. And then mom got involved.

Here’s the thing about my mom. She always knew what was going on whether you told her or not. There was no pulling any BS whatsoever on her. She knew the pop tart incident had my sister’s MO written all over it, despite my sister’s opening her big blue eyes, claiming it wasn’t her. Dad might fall for that — weighing logic in that situation. But mom? Mom knew everything, whether she called you on it or not. Mom has always a keen intuition and understanding of people, whether they were her kids or otherwise. She taught me that what you knew to be true wasn’t always what others thought, what appeared to be the truth or what was in a book.

One of the most remarkable things that I realize today, but didn’t realize when I was a kid, is that even when things were difficult for her, my mom didn’t complain; she didn’t play victim; she didn’t make excuses. She would figure things out, talking with people, or by simple trial and error and didn’t waste time whining. I don’t recall a day — not one day — when my mom had to scream. She had that face. Those hand gestures. And she used them. Stop talking. Go to your room. Calm down NOW. Whatever it was, you knew. All mom did was call your name, raise one eyebrow and subtly indicate what you should or shouldn’t be doing. And you just did it. No questions asked because you knew that Mrs. Tekeli didn’t put up with any kind of nonsense. If you decided to throw a hysterical crying fit in the middle of the street, thinking it would draw attention and you’d get your way — think again. My mom would take your hand and casually walk you home. You could be screaming at the top of your lungs about that cookie all you wanted and my mother wasn’t even slightly unnerved by the attention and raucous you were causing. She’d smile at onlookers and keep walking. When you got home, it was “Are you done? If not, you can go scream in your room.” That presence was powerful. Before this big mindfulness revolution, mom understand the power of letting things just be, not reacting, and the power of subtlety.

The essence of my mom is like the physical embodiment of joie de vivre. Which is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I’ve always put a high value on having fun. She laughs at herself, which I realize now is a rare asset, and even better, she laughed at us. She made me realize taking myself too seriously would make me hesitant. That was a huge confidence booster as I never worried about not knowing something or being utterly passionate. She’d do things like watch Bugs Bunny cartoons with me and my brother. And like us kids, she would be in hysterics laughing. I love that my mom never held back her exhilaration for things. It taught me the power of enthusiasm and allowing my positive emotions to be out there.

When I was a kid, my mother did something I am sure many moms could consider bad behavior. Mom would let me play hooky from school, take me to Manhattan and we’d have a day of fun, together time. See a Broadway show, do some shopping at Bloomingdales, and then go to Zum Zum for hot dogs. She would tell me about when she was a little girl, lived in Germany and loved to eat wursts and krauts. It was always a special, secret day and an annual tradition she would spring on me. Mom was full of those kinds of surprises.

I learned very early in life from my mom that it’s important to treat all people nicely. Mom was always so polite yet so open and friendly. She gave everyone her 100-watt smile, asked about their day, and I would watch as all these people would stop whatever they were doing just to engage with her. Just to be able to share a moment with my mom in her sphere of pure optimism and undivided attention was not to be missed. Random storeowners would give me a candy or lollipop just because my mom made them smile. That’s a lesson that leaves an impression when you’re a kid.

She was also a total goddess. To everyone. Not just my family. My friends, my siblings friends, the building managers, the people at the dry cleaners, grocery stores, teachers… my mom was ‘da bomb.’ It didn’t hurt that she looked like the baby that could have resulted from a combination of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. It was a little awkward for us kids, at times. Having everyone at school say “That’s your mother?” Yet she was so approachable. My friends often sought her advice. She was tough and beloved. Everyone knew if they asked her a question, she’d give a brutally honest opinion. She didn’t hold back, but simultaneously she’d talk with you about how to fix whatever was bothering you. Being candid and open are some of her unique attributes I was able to absorb as one of my own trademarks. Mom was a counselor, a coach, and a force with whom to be reckoned all-in-one.

Oya was always the glue in the house. She set the rules (make your bed, clean your room, don’t eat in between meals), assigned our chores and agendas (set the table, do your homework, ballet school) and prepared our meals. She even woke us on weekends by blasting the stereo, singing “Good Morning Sunshine” from HAIR. The lady was a beacon of song, inside and out. Besides being hot, she was actually cool. She enjoyed all our music because she is interminably curious and has incredible range. She played music in the house 24/7. Classical in the AM, rock in the afternoon after school, jazz at night during dinnertime.

Along with the music, mom danced. A lot. All over the house. She would blast the stereo to cook and dance or samba in place while she was at the stove. It’s no wonder I can’t even blow my hair without my iPod blaring with me dancing around while I’m styling. Roommates in college laughed at me, but it was a built-in ritual to have music surround every aspect of my life. Mom played music loud too. She’d rather have you yell than lower the music.

She taught me to love my body as it was. She brought me to ‘open’ dressing rooms and taught me that I should never be ashamed of my body or turn around and hide. I noticed in gym class a lot of girls did exactly that. It was my mom who verbally and physically showed me to be at ease with myself physically. I understand now that it’s about being comfortable in your own skin, and I could never have imagined how impactful that would be in life forever. How did a woman who got married at age 19 know to pass on all this brilliant knowledge?

My guess is my mom didn’t always know what she was doing. But her talents run the gamut, her mind is nimble and she’s an original. Mom didn’t boil water before she got married. Being the resourceful, blessed, creative being she is, she taught herself to cook. Not just cook. She could blow Ruth Reichl’s doors off with her cooking. I’ll forever compare what I’ve had at my mom’s table with what I eat in the best of restaurants. We never ate fast food, ordered pizza or had Chinese food for dinner. Everything was homemade. Food was not just fuel in my home. It was an experience. I didn’t eat the same dish twice for months at a time. Mom’s food repertoire was extraordinary. Each meal was made lovingly, placed in its proper serving plate, and its presentation was always artistic. We had family dinner at the dining room table every night at 7:30PM every single night. No exceptions. So I grew up loving great food, cooking, and sharing meals and food with my loved ones. It’s a lost art that I was fortunate to learn at the hands of a master. My mom.

Being so beautiful, she could have relied on her looks. Mom was just not that person. She’s a voracious reader. She regularly visits museums and art shows. She’s the original culture vulture. She is without question, the most influential woman in my life. She didn’t take her strengths for granted and she didn’t rest on her laurels. Mom was always interested in people and by nature was a fun, optimistic person. When I think of the all women whom I have ever known, worked with, been inspired by, the one woman who has truly shaped my life is my mom.

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