My mother Haydee Seiger
I woke up on the Monday morning after Easter, and my heart physically ached. My mom had died on Easter Sunday, and I could hardly imagine the world without her love, her intelligence and her fierceness. It has been hard for me to write about her, not only because she’s my mom, but because she was such an extraordinary person. I hardly know where to begin or end.
Haydee Seiger was a self-made woman. Despite standing all of 4’11″, she was a major presence. She dressed impeccably. She wore almost exclusively silk shirts. All her sweaters were cashmere. For her, it was about the texture of these fibers and the way they felt on her skin. She strove to have beautiful things in her life, like the art collection she created with Dad. She was an amazing cook.
Mom visiting her alma mater, the University of Chile, in 2006
She was a great intellect. Her mind was her greatest asset, although she was also gorgeous. Abandoned by her father, she and her siblings were raised by a single mother in Chile. Her prospects would not have been particularly promising were it not for the fact that her mother, my Abuelita Lucila, was a teacher. Lucila worked hard to make sure all her children went to school. Mom realized early on that education was her ticket to success in the world. She became the first in her family to go to the University of Chile. She had one dress to wear, but it didn’t matter because she and her friends were learning! For her own daughters, it was simply a given that we would all get a higher education. And we did.
Mom survived anthrax while she was in college in the late 1940’s. She’d say she got it from visiting a farm with her mother. She had a deadly fever and lesions all over, and all she wanted to do was get back to school. Luckily, she was one of the first people in South America to be treated with penicillin, and she survived. I attribute my immune system of steel to my mom’s incredible constitution.
Mom had a remarkable career by any standards, and for a woman in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, it was even more extraordinary. She always had a talent for languages, starting with French in high school. She was the top French student in all the high schools in Santiago, and she was regularly invited to have tea at the Alliance Française.
Haydee Seiger at age 16
She also learned English, which she eventually parlayed into a position as Cultural Liaison with the US Embassy in Santiago in the early 1950’s. She had a marvelous time working at the US Embassy, escorting many dignitaries and celebrity visitors to Chile, including Helen Keller and the Harlem Globetrotters. Mom was transferred to the US Embassy in Panama and continued to enjoy her career.
Then someone broke her heart. Badly. She decided it was time for a change. And so she took off to visit retired State Department friends in Tucson, Arizona, who helped her heal. Eventually, she moved to San Francisco, where she had gay roommates. She taught them how to walk in man-sized high heels properly and without breaking an ankle.
Family Christmas 1963 (I’m the twinkle in their eye)
But the damp and cold got to her, and she flew down to sunny Los Angeles. Sitting next to her on that flight was Tyrone Power, who showed her the city sights from the air. She wrote for the LA times and enrolled in a Masters program in Humanities at UCLA. And there she met my dad, Marvin Seiger.
Mom and Dad moved to Toronto for his PhD program, and Mom gave birth to their first baby girl, a green-eyed, redheaded beauty named Leslie Anne. Much to Mom’s annoyance, the other mothers strolling through Yorkville thought Mom was Leslie’s nanny. So Dad got the fanciest baby carriage available, and Mom never walked into the park without her white gloves. Dad chronicled that experience in a short story decades later.
Mom and baby Leslie in Toronto (This is one of my very favorite family photos.)
Dad’s first post-doc assignment was in Indiana in 1962, where Andrea Michelle came along, with her soft brown doe eyes. Mom took a position teaching Spanish to newly minted Peace Corps volunteers at Notre Dame. She always bragged about being the only woman who wasn’t a nun to teach there at the time. One of her favorite stories was about the day President Kennedy came to her Latin American Culture class to check on his Peace Corps trainees. They were learning to dance the salsa in class that day, and Mom danced with the president. She said he was handsome and charming, and a very stiff dancer.
Mom and Andrea in Xenia, Ohio
Mom had tried to get a professional job in the 1960’s. I’ve seen her resume, and it was impressive. She got many requests for interviews with it too. But when the hiring managers found out that Haydee Seiger was not actually a man, they retracted their interest.
By then, though, I had arrived, and so Mom and devoted herself to being a full-time mother. Almost. She also began her life as a political activist. We had moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Dad was one of the first faculty members at the newly founded Wright State University. Mom joined the League of Women Voters and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She went on to be a delegate at the United Nations Decade for Woman at the kick-off event in Mexico City in 1975. Mom would became vocal against the military dictatorship in Chile, a cause much closer to home and much more personally painful. She never met a political argument she didn’t like. And god speed to anyone who tried to debate with her.
And then came Karen
By the same token, Mom was also incredibly talented with her hands. She was a master knitter. She made all our clothes when we were kids, and not just rompers. We’re talking pirate shirts, sundresses and even trousers. She tailored her own clothes. She loved a good tweed suit, and she tailored men’s suits down to her size and figure. She could repair anything.
She was also a wonderful cook and hostess. She and Dad threw lively dinner parties that lasted well into the night with way too much singing and tuba playing (or maybe not enough). She introduced chimichurri sauce and islas nevadas (floating islands) to their faculty friends. She won the blue ribbon for her mango pie at the Green County Fair.
She was a grillmaster and cooked meat in our fireplace when it was too cold to grill outside. Her very favorite meal was a tender little steak sandwich on crunchy bread, a fresh tomato salad, and her signature French fries. It’s mine too. She’d drive the back country roads to buy sun warmed tomatoes and peaches directly from the farms. She kept clippers in the car to cut wild black-eyed Susans, which she’d give me to hold, including the zillion bugs that came with them.
Mom and my sisters at a market in the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador
She was a fearless traveler. She’d pick the place and plan the trip. In 1973, she took her three daughters on the Rossini, an Italian ship, half cargo and half passenger, and sailed us from Panama to Chile. We spent three months traveling and visiting with her family. It would be the one and only time we would meet our Abuelita Lucila. Due to her political activism, Mom became persona non grata in Chile, and her mother died before she was able to go back and see her again.
At that time, our family was living in Brazil. Dad was a visiting professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and my sisters and I were attending the American School of Rio. Mom decided this was the time to try and get a job again. In short order, she landed a position as a translator and interpreter with the United Nations Development Program in Rio. She was finally professionally fulfilled again for the first time in almost 20 years.
My sister Andrea and I with Mom in Santiago, Chile
We lived in Rio for almost three years until Mom was in an accident. She was on a bus that hit a taxi, and her head struck the bar in front of her. She suffered a detached retina. Today, the treatment is fairly straightforward. In Rio in 1979, it was not. She struggled through attempts at treatment until we finally got her to Miami. Because we lived under the Brazilian military dictatorship, we had to beg for an exit visa for Mom so she could leave the country. Finally, the Immigration Office agreed to expel her so she could go. Actually, the we all got expelled. (There’s a big EXPULSÃO stamp in our old passports.) Mom finally landed at the Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute, where they had to remove her eye.
Dancing with Mom on Piazza San Marco, Venice in 2006
And so we packed up our lives in Brazil and moved back to Dayton, Ohio. Mom was getting used to having impaired vision and dealing with the trauma of her lengthy injury. One day I took her by the hand and said, “Let’s go explore our new neighborhood.” We wandered the streets, found the local library and figured out the best way to walk to my sister’s and my new high school. It was just such a nice day for both of us. I think it’s also the day she stopped feeling like a sick person and decided to get back to work.
And work she did. She founded International Language Consultants, a translation and interpreting business. It was wildly successful because there was such a demand and because she was so good. She helped facilitate international trade, mostly in agricultural equipment. She would later join the board of the newly formed Dayton Area Free Trade Zone, for which she would be recognized as one of Dayton’s Top Women of the Year.
Mom at my first book signing for “Markets of New York City”
She retired involuntarily when Dad got sick. However, she never stopped translating and interpreting. For many years, She volunteered for medical groups providing aid to people in Tijuana. Just about a year ago, the 9/11 Families Association’s Tribute Center asked me to help review the translation they had done for the new Spanish audio guide for the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza. I sent the document to Mom, who was already in the early-stages of Alzheimer’s. She was incredibly helpful, giving me the nuances of certain words and phrases, which were particularly sensitive, as you can imagine. She was as sharp as a tack when it came to her work.
She would continue to travel the world. We traveled throughout Italy together when I was in graduate school in Bologna. She visited me and James in El Salvador not long after Dad died. When she was 73, she called me from the southernmost phone booth in the world – in Patagonia. She traveled to China and taught her tour guide to dance the salsa (it was a theme). She loved Tall Ships and set sail on the Europa when she was 80. She took each of her daughters on trips – Andrea went to Norway and Greece, Leslie to Paris, and she and I went to Mexico.
Mom and Andrea at Poet Pablo Neruda’s home, Isla Negra, Chile
In 2006, my sister Andrea and I took Mom to Chile. It was something I knew I had to do, or I would regret it forever. We loved spending time with long-lost cousins.
The one thing I wanted to do was to visit Poet Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. Mom loved Neruda. We walked through his magical house and found ourselves on a bench next to his grave overlooking the Pacific Ocean. She and I sat there for a while and just cried, partly for all she had lost because of the dictatorship that killed Neruda, and partly because it was simply so amazing to find ourselves together on that particular spot in the universe.
One of the greatest trips of my life was April 2009 when James and I took Mom to Paris and Venice for her birthday. Both are cities she visited with Dad. She was amazing. At age 81, she walked tirelessly through the streets and climbed up and down subway stairs. We took Mom to Giverny to see Monet’s gardens in full bloom. It was nothing short of breathtaking and spectacular, and seeing it with Mom was a dream.
Mom looking out over Paris
She held James’ hand all through Paris, partly because of her eyesight, and partly because she loved him too. We took an overnight train to Venice, and the two of them stayed up all night, suffering, uncomfortable and no doubt conspiring my demise, as the train had been my idea. (I slept great!)
Mom had moved to San Diego after Dad died to be closer to Leslie and to live in a place with perfect weather. When she started becoming a little forgetful, she took the initiative, with the power of suggestion from my sister Leslie, to find a continuing care place to live. Downsizing was agony for her. Leslie became Mom’s protector, caregiver, support and overall hero, even more so as Mom became more forgetful.
Mom in her Pucci sunglasses, vamping with her adorable dance instructor Matt
Mom developed Alzheimer’s Disease, and over time, she needed more and more care. We were incredibly fortunate to have found caregivers to help Leslie keep Mom safe but not sequestered in her apartment. Christine, Trina, Brooke, Maria and Carmel called themselves “Team Haydee.” They took Mom to the beach, or out for ice cream, or to her dance classes at Arthur Murray. Her dance instructors loved seeing her every week, and she adored them, especially a charming and handsome former Marine named Matt, who swept her off her feet.
And so the disease took its course. She deteriorated quickly, in retrospect. It was very hard to watch this amazing woman diminish. While we miss her, we were glad to see her relieved from the grip of this illness. She was herself to the end, though, and she recognized her family. The last time I saw her, just a few weeks ago, I felt like I needed to give her the biggest, longest hug ever, just in case. She said to me, “Karencita, linda preciosa.” It’s a memory of her I will happily keep forever.
I have been so appreciative of all the love and support we’ve received from people who knew and loved Mom. She was a formidable intellect, a loyal friend, and a fierce mother. She was happiest traveling the world, debating the issues, or hosting lively dinner parties. I miss her, and I am so glad and grateful for all she gave to me.
“To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life.” ~ Pablo Neruda, Poet and Nobel Laureate
Mom on the stage at Hair on Broadway – Let the Sunshine In!
Mom and Santa Con Friends
Mom at Lucky Street Flea Market in Carlsbad, California
Mom and her cousin Edith chatting as the sunsets over the Pacific in Viña del Mar, Chile
Mom after a very long train ride from Paris to Venice
Mom and me in Monet’s garden at Giverny
Mom and me in a teapot in Paris
Beautiful Mom loved color and style
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