In first person… Generous, kind woman urged me to be somebody

When I come into the kitchen for breakfast, Mama has fruit, Kaiser rolls and coffee almost ready. Her tall, shapely figure is already corseted, and she wears a crisp, cotton housedress with a small, flowered print. She's combed and pinned her jet-black hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, but she wears no makeup on her face. There's little conversation, the click-clack of her black oxford-tied shoes as she scurries about is almost the only sound.

This is the same mother whose eyes misted as we rode the subway in Manhattan and heard a street violinist playing Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," Gypsy Airs. She dug into her purse and poured a handful of change into his outstretched cap as he strolled by.

And the same woman who stroked the fur of a baby red fox that my older sister brought home from a picnic on Long Island. Then she put it into a carton along with leftovers from a dinner and set it out onto the fire escape for the night. Or the mother who allowed us to keep a sailor's gift of a tiny monkey as a pet in the largest birdcage she could buy.

Most of all, if I close my eyes and listen hard, I hear Mama's rich alto voice as she tells me: "Go to school, get an education, learn to do something well so you can always take care of yourself. Be somebody."