I wrote this speech for my mother’s early 80th birthday party a few weeks ago, and want to share it.
(on the Cape this Summer, acting like Kennedies)
When I was a boy in Grade school, my mother asked me to write a letter of sympathy to a young fellow I didn’t know, who had lost his leg to cancer. The boy’s name was Ted Kennedy Junior, son of Senator Ted Kennedy and nephew of John F, Robert etc… My mother earned her BA in Russian at Manhattanville College in Westchester with Ted’s future wife Joan Kennedy, and she thought this would be a kind thing to do. So I wrote the letter, with an accompanying drawing.
A little later, in 1978, my mother, like most Poles, was thrilled when John Paul II became Pope – the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Naturally, she asked me to write him a letter offering my best wishes and congratulations. Being a normal 14 year old boy, I wrote something that I thought was funny. My mother found it disrespectful, and told me to revise it. No drawing this time.
While she was at Manhattanville, a family friend of the Ruszkowskis called Jacques Falquet, who was a photographer, arrived in New York to shoot photos of a gala ball for a French magazine. Clearly a mensch, he asked my mother to go along and assist him. She remembers seeing Marilyn Monroe there, and described her as extremely beautiful. She also had her breath taken away by the sight of French actor Gérard Philippe.
The message from these stories is a great one for a child – if your Mom feels comfortable moving in high circles, so should you. My mother is a tremendous social mixer: I have marveled at her ability to work a room many times.
The important thing to understand is that my mother had to work hard to create a tight social circle. My mother and father were both “displaced children” during World War 2. We would more properly call them war refugees today. During the war, at a very young age, she was placed, alone, in the care of a French farm family while her parents helped in the war effort. And that family put her to work. So she has always been admirably strong, independent, and capable. She likes to talk about how her mother (my singular grandmother),allowed her to wander around alone around Paris at the age of eight, after the war, in the company of a boy her age.
My mother made her first group of long-lasting friends in France, where she spent most of her childhood. She still identifies as French today, in so many ways, because of it. She then spent a few years in Lima, Peru, when her family moved there, and where, admirably again, she learned Spanish well enough to eventually make a career of teaching it.
At the tender age of 16, she was sent to New York to study at Manhattanville College, and, again, she forged friendships that endure today.
She works hard at friendship, and that reflects her generally hard-working character. I like to think it’s a trait I also inherited, but, as she likes to point out, it’s not one I seemed to have at all when I was in school. I did not like school and liked applying myself to my studies even less. I always showed my report card to my father first, because he was easy-going and let me off the hook. But my mother was always disappointed, and one day she took action.
I was, I think, in Grade 9 at Loyola when the principal, Father Eric MacLean, called me to his office (acting, I learned later, at my mother’s request.) He told that, when I had taken the entrance exams, I placed right in the middle of the group. Given that, he told me, “you should be doing at least average.”
There are lots of other things I’ve learned from my mother on the way. She’s an intellectual, the kind of person who would say I should read Octavio Paz’s One Earth, Four or Five Worlds, or Frizjov Capra’s The Tao of Physics, or tell me how a thrill went down her spine the first time she heard Beethoven’s Kroetzer Sonata . And she’s an intellectual with a tremendous Catholic faith, which she also works at, mustering her intellect and with whole self, which I also admire greatly.
There’s frankly too much to cite here and now. But I will say that her teaching influence has spread to the lives of my own children. Sophie chose the more difficult and challenging Liberal Arts program at Dawson at my mother’s insistence, without me knowing anything about it. It helped make Sophie the very educated and cultured young woman that she is. More recently, despite her recent back problems, my mother has taken an active hand with a family of Syrian refugees sponsored by Saint Monica’s church in NDG. She is helping them learn our languages, and to adapt to life here. And to my delight as a father, she enlisted Max and Lily to help her, and, in so doing, appeal to their better natures and broaden their perspective on the world.
Which, come to think of it, was what she was doing when she asked me to write that letter to Ted Kennedy junior so many years ago.