By Ben Levine (guest writer)
Many of you knew her as Carol. Those in the family or who met her before 1969 knew her — inexplicably — as Candy (a childhood nickname she had an enduring love/hate relationship with). But I’m the only person on earth lucky enough to know her as mom.
This post has nothing to do with the fact she died a few days ago on November 8. This post is about the fact that for 69 incredible years, she lived.
Mom grew up the oldest of five kids in a household that must have seemed frustratingly idyllic. In the 1950s and 60s, the world around her home was in massive upheaval, and the world inside of it was often just as complex. As the oldest, mom carried a huge emotional burden and significant responsibility from a very young age. This backdrop generated a resilience and courage that became cornerstones of who she was. Mom usually talked openly about the challenges in her life, but only in the context of the great things that came from them. She was a firm believer that “everything happens for a reason” and her own unique conception of karma.
And so, mom’s need to sometimes escape the challenges of her childhood home led to a young life filled with stories that seem plucked from what the coolest version of a 60s childhood might look like. Taking the train from Norman Rockwell’s western Massachusetts to Penn Station in New York with her dad on trips to buy for his New England men’s clothing stores. Sometimes they would take a TWA prop into Idlewild Airport (now JFK) from Bradley field. White tablecloths. China and silver. Dressing up in her best clothes. Sardi’s for dinner. The Copacabana to watch Sammy Davis and others perform late into the night.
In the summer of 1966, at 16 years old, she lived with her Uncle Brother (don’t ask) while he and his family were living in Wiesbaden, Germany. Weekends in Paris, tours through Austria and Italy, jaunts to London, visiting East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie in a bus on her own.
In 1969, as a freshman at Wheaton College (before she transferred to Mount Holyoke), she visited her Uncle Billy in San Francisco. Billy was a lifelong “bachelor” (wink wink) and even my mother couldn’t disclose all of the trouble they got into during that trip. What I do know is that, at some point, mom and a few of Billy’s friends staggered out of a party late at night and thought it would be a good idea to take a joyride in a bulldozer sitting at a construction site across the street. In one of the odd twists of fate that seemed to crop up around mom throughout her life (she often said she was a witch), that construction site became the hospital where she would give birth to me 20 years later.
The mom I know was resilient and courageous. She believed any challenge or tragedy could lead to something good down the road if you lifted your head to look.
Speaking of which, mom’s 20s were a bit of a blur. She graduated from Mount Holyoke, made some…impulsive…romantic decisions and had a short stint as a high school Spanish and French teacher (her dual degrees in college), which she ended up liking and being quite good at. It was always interesting to hear my mom talk about this time. She seemed to look at it as a long bridge between her childhood and the adult she was destined to become. Not as a waste of time or a mistake, but a necessary or even inevitable part of her journey.
And so, just before she turned 30, mom decided she needed a major life and career change and moved to New York City to live with her younger sister Cindy. This is when and where two more cornerstones of mom’s life were placed in rapid succession: her career, and the obnoxiously perfect love story of my mom and dad.
Mom’s career was quintessentially her. She was horrible at math, never studied finance or economics, and yet managed to work her way from a secretary (not politically correct, but her actual title) at a bank to being one of the first female global managing directors at a top international corporate banking and investment firm. She drove real results in terms of major revenue and profit growth in every office and region she ran. She earned the trust of countless captains of industry, government leaders and billionaire investors with her hustle, chutzpah, humor and wit. “I had people for that,” she would often say when I asked how she did it all with relatively little understanding of the actual mechanics of finance. She didn’t need to understand the details, she needed to build relationships, understand motivations and earn trust. It was a lesson she always tried to teach me, usually with at least a few stories to hammer the point home. Like a time the CEO of a major petrochemical company, who happened to also be a very powerful Mormon, secretly slipped her a bottle of her favorite Bombay gin (scandalous contraband) while she was staying at his ski chalet in Utah.
I remember taking out mom’s rolodex when I was about 12 years old and quizzing her on the random names I came across. She could tell me — almost without fail — each person’s role, details about their family, and one or two stories about time they spent together. Not just CEOs and CFOs, but back office team members, executive assistants, drivers. “Everyone matters, everyone has a story,” she always said.
The mom I know was brilliant and scrappy. She had an uncanny ability to accept and quickly put aside her weaknesses and play to her strengths flawlessly.
Which brings us to my dad, Dr. Gary Levine. I would say the love between him and mom is the stuff of romantic comedies or idyllic love stories. But mom hated romantic comedies and idyllic love stories. So, instead, I’ll say how lucky they were to find one another, how deep their love and respect were (and continue to be), and how the relationship they had is now a White Whale I have the pleasure of chasing for the rest of my life. Therapy bills coming soon, dad!
During the summer of 1981, mom and her sister Cindy went to see Tosca at Shakespeare in the Park while they were still living together on the Upper West Side. They randomly ran into mom’s old college roommate who insisted on setting mom up with her friend, Gary. After a few initial phone calls that went long into the night, mom and dad decided to meet for what was ultimately a blind date. Mom went downtown to meet my dad at his Greenwich Avenue apartment. As my dad tells it, he had already started to fall in love with her brilliance and irreverence during their phone conversations. But when he opened the door and saw how beautiful she was — how she beamed energy into every corner of a room — he knew immediately. Within six months, mom moved out of the apartment she shared with Cindy and moved in with dad. They got married a few months later in 1982, and they fell further in love every day since then. I’m not kidding. Mom would’ve denied it only because it sounds sappy, not because it’s untrue.
The mom I know was loved. The people in her life loved her immensely and unconditionally because she earned it by being exactly who she was.
Which brings us to me. A scandalous encounter between my parents allegedly on a beach in St. Barths led to a bit of a “surprise” nine months later. Whenever mom or dad would reference “that beach in St. Barths” I’d immediately leave the room. But I digress.
Despite the surprise, mom turned out to be the best mother a kid could ask for. Mom and I had a beautifully simple relationship. It was pure, boundless, unconditional love. We understood one another implicitly. That’s not to say she held back (at all) when she thought I was making a bad decision or being lazy or doing anything that wasn’t adding up to the person she knew I could be. And her expectations were high. Very high. But her devotion to me was unending. Mom was a fair and direct critic, a constant coach and mentor, and boisterously my biggest fan in the world (although she probably shares that title with my dad).
The mom I know was perfect. I owe her more than I’ll ever realize, and she would constantly tell me I owed her nothing. Her focus was never on herself, but squarely on my happiness and success. And I will love her forever because of it.
So. I will miss mom every day for the rest of my life and so will everyone who had the privilege of knowing her. But as I start to lift my head up, what I begin to see and feel more and more is not what I miss, but everything she still is. She is in the way I think, my turns of phrase, my mannerisms, my humor, my accomplishments. She is in my dad’s boundless love for me and the love I continue to feel from her. She is in my large, loud family’s laughter. She is in the stories that will continue to be told about her. She is indelible. She will always be here. And I am so lucky for that.
Carol Aurore Ann Colitti Levine was an extraordinary person, and will forever be my perfect mom.