JIM THIELMAN: Mom’s Lesson Went Up In Smoke

It was an example of how to treat people. It didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t just chitchat as I dried the dishes weeks before we were to fly to Washington, D.C., to visit relatives during the last summer of the Kennedy administration.

I was down to the silverware — the low ROI portion of dish drying — as the tinny sound of Nat King Cole’s “Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” played on the kitchen radio. I enjoyed both summer and Nat, and damned if Mom didn’t start telling a story.

It seems that this black woman had been driving alone through the Deep South when her car broke down. I imagined a dust-plumed, sun-bleached gravel road. Some local guy — I imagined Burl Ives under a straw hat, pulling bib overall straps into place on his shoulders as he sauntered to the road — got that car humming.

A van pulled up to Burl’s house a few weeks later. A couple of guys got out and hauled a color TV set onto his porch. A note read: “From Mrs. Nat King Cole.”

To a kid with a black-and-white TV in his living room, this seemed like a good way to get a color TV.


We landed in D.C. It was hot. It was July. We visited “the district” so Mom could shop at Woodie’s. Woodward and Lothrop was an iconic D.C. department store.

Mom (left) with her in-laws in Washington, D.C., after World War II.
Mom (left) with her in-laws in Washington, D.C., after World War II.

I’m sure the memories flooded for Mom. She had worked for the federal government after World War II. If she’d come along later, not hemmed in by the times, she would have been a diplomatic, fair-minded VP somewhere.

My sister recalls “Whites Only” signs. I suppose Mom had been trying to prepare me to be among black people with the Burl Ives’ story, not that it occurred to me. I don’t remember any signs.

I was intrigued with the menu at Woodward and Lothrop’s Tea Room. We didn’t eat out much back home.

It was probably the pie, I thought, as we stepped into the heat while it was being decided we needed a cab after that air-conditioned lunch. I was ready to jump in next to the black cabbie when the smoke from his stogie rolled a cloud over me. Pie sneaks up on a guy.

I knew that Mom wasn’t going to tell the cabbie to smoke that thing on the curb, like she told her cigar-smoking dad to smoke outside our house. Worse, the cabbie’s cigars were for a man with an even lower standard of living than Grandpa.

At least someone in the family showed a little personality in front of the White House in the summer of ’63.
At least someone in the family showed a little personality in front of the White House in the summer of ’63.

I made my older cousin get in next to the cabbie. I tried to roll down the window. The cabbie barked that the car was air-conditioned. I rolled up the window. I plastered my face to the cold glass and kept intact a four-year streak of not vomiting.

My 15-year-old cousin had only an older brother, so he picked on younger me for days about my not wanting to sit next to the cabbie — a cabbie with a yachting cap like Count Basie’s, now that I think about it.

Not even the allure of a color TV could have made me sit next to that cigar after all that lemon meringue pie. I stood my ground on why I wouldn’t sit by the cabbie, a choice that likely kept pie froth from reappearing in my cousin’s lap.

Straighten up and fly right

When Freddie Cole died recently, I got to thinking about Nat’s wife, that stalled car, my Burl Ives character and the colored TV.

Fred was Nat King Cole’s brother. Freddie outlived Nat by more than five decades, which was nice. It was almost as if Nat were still around.

I “did a Goog” on that stranded Mrs. Cole story. It didn’t take long. Wow. A version of the story Mom told me in the 1960s is on the internet.

Turns out, it never happened. Mom had unknowingly repeated an urban legend.

Mom’s birthday rolls around each July 20, the date when Neil Armstrong waltzed on the moon. Mom would be 100 this year.

Everyone should have a mom with stories to tell.

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