"Bosom Buddies" by Jan Schmidt
"We’ll always be bosom buddies
Friends, neighbors, and pals."
As my husband plays “Bosom Buddies” from Mame on YouTube on his IPAD, as Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur do a soft shoe across the Tony stage, my mind flashes back to visions of my mother and her best friend, Mildred: scenes of the two women arguing on the phone, hugging at Chanukah, dousing each other with vituperative remarks, and then making up. Seventy years of the ups and downs of a friendship that started when my mother sat behind Mildred in a French class at Brooklyn College—the "W" girls—my mother's maiden name Weintraub, Mildred's, Wolfe. Two women remained friends and enemies until my mother's death in 2009. Like the two warring and loving buddies in Mame, my mother and Mildred were glib, forceful, biting when they wanted to be, and loving when they needed to be.
Mildred would brag about her fancy fur maker who made her mink coat, and my mother would retort that her lambswool jacket was just as nice, as she privately told her family: “She always has to have the best, even with peaches or apples.” “She has to go to Blue Ribbon, the fancy fruit market or The Lox Box for bagels and smoked salmon.” And after my mother’s death, I finally had to agree with her when we took Mildred to buy grapes at the market, and she fingered and grazed each green grape, looking for the perfect bunch without any brown tinge.
Theirs was a friendship based on competition and unswerving dedication to each other. My mother would complain that Mildred always had to have the fanciest clothes and shoes. Her husband, Jerry, would take her to the Lower East Side where she’d buy designer suits at Forman’s, and my mother would go bargain shopping at May’s or Loehmann’s. My mother was jealous that Jerry, a lawyer, could shower Mildred with gifts of diamond rings and ruby necklaces—jewelry my father couldn’t afford to get her.
It was obvious why my mother was envious of Mildred, but I never knew why Mildred had to "one-up" my mother. I thought maybe it went back to their Brooklyn College days, so I searched for clues in the broeklundian, their 1935 senior yearbook. I found out that my mother, a natural leader, was chancellor of her sorority, President of the History Club, a varsity hockey player, and a member of various college committees while Mildred only had a sorority and Le Cercle Francais next to her name. Did Mildred feel then as if she couldn’t measure up to my mother, couldn’t match my mother’s successes? Was this the source of her initial jealousy and rivalry with her? I, of course, will never know for sure.
I do know that they both bore responsibility for the tumult in their relationship. They accused each other of being stubborn and needing to win every argument. Mildred would complain that my mother always had to be right. One time they argued about balloons:
“Mildred, you love balloons. Every luncheon has thousands of balloons.” You said, “You have to love a balloon.”
“Mae, I never would say that. I would never say ‘I loved a balloon.’”
This bickering marked the many phases of their friendship. In my mother’s last years, when her dementia escalated, they’d argue about every date they got together, every trip they took as couples. “It was the Panama Canal, when you fell, Mill,” OR “It was in China that you got so sick.” And Mildred would counter ”No, NO, it was on our trip to the Bahamas.” The arguments could go on for days, in person, and on the phone. In my mother’s last months, irritated, Mildred confided in me: “Your mother is so stubborn. She’s always wrong you know.” Her sons and I would say, “Please don’t argue. It’s Mae’s dementia.” But Mildred could not stop herself from a pattern of behavior, programmed into her over the course of seventy years.
They also knew exactly what to say to hurt each other; they knew each other's tender spot and how to rub it raw. Mildred, always envious that my mother had daughters, while she had two sometimes solicitous sons who were close to their father—the three men all loved classical music and played violin and piano in an orchestra---mourned that loss. Not close to her daughters-in-law, she always stoked my mother's pride in her children by saying, "You're lucky. Your girls take care of you." But then her viperous tongue came out. Once during the free love era of the late 60s, when I was in college, I met Mildred in a doctor's office where she was seeing her psychiatrist, and I was going to the gynecologist to get birth control pills. At a family dinner soon after, at the Homestead, as we were chomping on rib eyes, she turned to me and said, "Getting a little chubby. Your upper arms look thick. You are fleshy around the middle. Hmmmmm any change in your diet?" At the time I didn't want to tell my mother I was sexually active since I had no steady boyfriend. Boyfriend the term used then. Later my mother, figuring out my secret, confronted me: "What were you doing there? Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?" Mildred got me in trouble and caused my mother undue anguish.
My mother also could be a bit vicious. When Mildred’s son, Steve, lost his job at the hospital where he was an internist, my mother often questioned her at bridge parties, in front of their mutual friends, ”So how is Steve doing? It must be so hard for him. Losing his job at his time in life.” And Mildred would cringe because she was both worried about his job prospects and ashamed her Jewish doctor son whom she often bragged about had lost his position.
The longest period that my mother and Mildred were angry at each other involved Hillary Clinton. As President of the Brooklyn Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (quite a progressive organization as opposed to the more traditional Hadassah), Mildred invited Hillary to speak at East Midwood Jewish Center when the latter was running for Senator while Bill was President. Mildred presided over the event: doing publicity and orchestrating the session. As she stood in the back of the meeting room, she watched my mother sidle up to Hillary, lean into her, and give her advice as my mother later reported: "Hillary you should run for President." The next day my cousins in Washington, D.C. called me, chuckling: "Guess who is on the front page of the Washington Post: Your mother.”—There she was in her blue silk blouse in a seemingly intimate conversation with the First Lady. “Senior citizen greets Hillary” was the caption. Mildred was furious. My mother, gloating over her triumphant moment, made multiple copies of the photo, framed them, and gave them to all her friends including Mildred.
They had the capacity to twist the knife in, to cause small wounds that wouldn’t heal.
Theirs were seventy years of cycles of competing and causing trouble, then being loyal and supportive. There were New Year's gatherings, bridge evenings, Chanukah parties with delicious latkes, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and naming ceremonies. The daily life of shared meals shared gossip and shared help. After Jerry died, Mildred called my mother in the middle of the night, complaining that she couldn't sleep. My mother and father went over to her apartment in Brooklyn, not far from their home, and sat with her until the morning. But then, before they left, she argued with Mildred, "Why didn't you take Tylenol PM? What's wrong with you?" This was not the way to comfort someone who's grieving. I later told her when she reported what she had said.
Why were women of that generation so competitive with each other, and at the same time, so devoted and loving? I’ve often thought that in an era in which psychotherapy was a sign of weakness, these two strong women who couldn’t engage in introspection, redirected their feelings of disappointment and loss into jealousy and competition. I know my mother often felt that my father wasn’t successful enough, that they weren’t wealthy enough, although my parents led a comfortable, financially secure existence throughout their lives, even though they struggled in the 1950s when I was little and teachers’ salaries were low. Mildred certainly had a wonderful marriage and a giving and loving husband as well as financial security. So what caused the sniping? Perhaps both of them, strong women, felt less independent, more dependent on their husbands, and, in some way silenced, although they led productive lives as professional women. My mother was an Assistant Principal and Chair of a Social Studies Department of thirty men and two women; Mildred was a Math teacher and then Math specialist training other elementary school teachers. They were not “stay at home” moms. Perhaps the silencing came from their immigrant backgrounds or their sense that their husbands “ruled the roost.” Or perhaps this was just their atavistic way of asserting themselves and exercising power. I will never know. Despite their acid tongues, their friendship endured for over seventy years.
I remember that last time Mildred saw my mother. Her son, Eliot, drove her from her retirement home in Westchester, the assisted living complex she despised, to our family home where my mother was in hospice just a month before she died. The two women sat together, holding hands—their pink manicured fingers entwined. They sat quietly, smiling at each other, their bodies close, shoulder to shoulder. Girls again. Women again. Old women together for the last time. They talked of all their times together, like pages in a movie flipbook. An evening of bridge. A dinner at Mario's in Brooklyn. Their times at Palisades State Park when they were young, took the ferry, and hiked the trails—the four of them not yet married (I couldn't imagine any of them hiking), the days at the bungalow colony playing mahjong, the cruises. Shoulder to shoulder. Then they stopped talking. They sat in silence for a while, Mildred stroking my mother's forearm. My mother looked at her with an unflinching gaze as if she knew that this was the end. Finally, Mildred had to leave and with tears in her eyes turned to me, "I know this will be the last time."
My mother died a month later. Mildred lived another two years. My husband and I often visited her in the retirement home and took her out for cheeseburgers or cheesecake—foods that she thought were awful at the complex. She would always say, “You were a good girl. You were a good daughter.” The woman who had a venomous streak had softened and gave me the nurturing and affirmation I longed for.
Now they are both gone. I feel unmoored as if some essential foundation of my life has crumbled. What is left is the sense that I am on unsteady ground, not knowing where my next step will take me or where I will fall.
In the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, I think how lucky these two women were to have a friendship that lasted a lifetime. They knew despite their trivial arguments that they still were those girls, the two W’s sitting in that French class, determined to be “bosom buddies and pals.”
Jan Schmidt's writing has appeared in a variety of journals. A SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, Schmidt earned her BA from the University of Rochester in 1969, her MA from the University of Wisconsin in 1970, and her PhD from Syracuse University in 1977.