Daughter, mom built new lives in St. Louis

Gail Appleson is pictured with her mom, Thelma Appleson, who passed away in 2008. 

By Gail Appleson, Special to the Jewish Light

 I am a very blessed woman. At age 63, I’m healthy, have many wonderful friends, live in a nice house and work at a good job. So I’m ashamed to admit that on most mornings when my alarm goes off, I switch it to snooze and pretend I’m not here.

Closing my eyes, I fantasize that I’m back in New York City, where I spent most of my adult life as a news reporter for Reuters. I picture myself leaving my midtown high rise, walking to the N subway stop near Carnegie Hall and catching the train down to Foley Square, where I worked in the federal courthouse pressroom.

If I try really hard, I can still hear my heels clicking on the marble floor. It was a sound I promised myself that I would never forget. This was my dream job. In fact, I convinced Reuters to create it for me, making me the agency’s first reporter to hold the title of Law Correspondent. It was a very privileged position in which I covered some of the nation’s highest profile cases, including the prosecutions of Michael Milken, Imelda Marcos and Martha Stewart, the litigation that led to the landmark Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and numerous terrorism trials.

 I never wanted to do anything else or live anyplace else. But as we all know, life doesn’t always work out the way we planned.  Although my career and life in New York continued unscathed through several traumas, including my divorce, the thing I could not escape was the aging of my parents.

When my father died in 1990, my mother was left alone in their home in Memphis. I tried to see her as often as I could. Several years later, while I was visiting for Rosh Hashanah, she had a massive heart attack while we were getting ready for services.

Although she continued to live independently for a number of years after, her health steadily declined. Her friends began to die and people rarely visited. She wasn’t eating and we both knew she shouldn’t be driving. I realized Mom’s time was limited and I wanted to be with her. As much as I loved my career and New York City, I loved my mother more. There was only one option. I had to move.

So I tried to find a job in Memphis but had no luck. Some friends in St. Louis suggested I try the Post-Dispatch, since I had former colleagues at the newspaper and the city is only a five-hour drive to Memphis.

When I got the offer, Mom said she didn’t want me making that drive every weekend. If I could sacrifice New York City, she could give up Memphis. So we agreed to make the journey to St. Louis together. I was in my 50s and Mom was in her 80s.

Living at the Brentmoor, Mom flourished with her new friends and activities. She began wearing makeup again and wanted new clothes. I particularly looked forward to our Friday night Shabbat dinners. She and her friends saved me a spot at their special table and I will never forget how her eyes would light up when I walked into the room.

“Gaily,” she said. “I’m in love with life again.”

But her health began to fail at the same time the financial situation at the Post-Dispatch worsened and the layoffs began. I received several invitations to interview for positions in New York, but Mom was in and out of the hospital so I didn’t want to leave.

She passed away on Nov. 23, 2008, two days after my 57th birthday.

I had really always thought I’d go back to New York after losing her, but I never considered the impact of her death. Returning to St. Louis after sitting shiva in Memphis, I was exhausted and depressed. It was then that I got another call asking me to fly to New York for a job interview. Although I was worried about losing my position at the Post-Dispatch, I wasn’t so sure I was up to job and apartment hunting in Manhattan. I said I needed a few days to think about it.

That decision was made for me when I fell down a flight of stairs in an ice storm breaking my right arm and hand. Encased in a hard cast from my armpit to my fingertips, I wasn’t going anywhere soon.

This actually turned out to be a blessing because the experience made me realize just how precious my St. Louis friends had become. They were now my family and support network. They fed me, washed my hair, got me back and forth to the doctor and even took me to minyan twice a day so I could say Kaddish for Mom.

And then, totally out of the blue, I received an offer to be the communications editor at the Clayton law firm, Armstrong Teasdale.

So here I am about to turn 64 living a totally reinvented life. It’s not what I had in mind for myself, and I worry about getting older, being single and not having any of my own kids to care for me. And no matter how many years pass, I will always long for New York City and my career as a journalist.  

But there’s a lot to be said for my current life. It’s provided priceless relationships, including the companionship of a significant other, and given me the opportunity to explore my voice in the Jewish community. Most importantly, though, it allowed me to travel with my mother on an unforgettable journey that can only be shared by two very special friends.

Do I regret my decision to move to St. Louis?

Not for a second.

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis. She is a member of Kol Rinah. Above, she is pictured with her mom, Thelma Appleson, who passed away in 2008.