Feinstein: Moms Are Best – And So Was Mine

John Feinstein reflects on his mother, who passed away 25 years ago

John Feinstein
May 09, 2018 - 8:49 am

USA Today Images


During my junior year of college, I took a political science course taught by the renowned—at least at Duke—David Paletz. I was walking out of class one day when Professor Paletz said to me, “Are you by any chance related to Martin Feinstein?”
“He’s my dad,” I said.
Paletz shook his head. “He must be so ashamed of you.”
I honestly don’t think he was being mean, but he wasn’t being funny either. Paletz knew that a lot of my energy was devoted to writing sports for the student newspaper, The Chronicle, and he also knew that my dad was executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.
There was, clearly, a dichotomy there. My parents, Martin and Bernice, loved opera, ballet, theater and most classical music. I loved the Mets, Jets, Islanders and Knicks. And Columbia basketball and Army football.
Talk about a dichotomy.
All of this is on my mind this morning because May 9th is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. My hands shake just writing those words. We were in Bermuda—my parents, my brother, sister and our spouses—celebrating my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary when my mom woke up on Mother’s Day feeling too ill to get out of bed. We took her to the hospital and found she was having a heart attack. She died that evening.
My mom had a Ph.D. in music education. She taught at Columbia and George Washington. What she knew about sports she knew because her oldest child was sports-obsessed from a very young age. My dad knew a little more—he’d grown up a couple of blocks from Ebbets Field and had been at CCNY during the glory days of Nat Holman. But when he rode the subway as a kid, it was into Manhattan to go to the Metropolitan Opera House. I rode the subway to get to Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.
It was my mom who took me to games before I was old enough to ride the subway alone. I vividly remember a game at Shea Stadium when I was about 10. The Mets trailed the Pirates 2-0 going into the bottom of the eighth, which, in those days, was a pretty good performance.
Suddenly—shockingly—the Mets rallied, piecing together a string of hits that resulted in four runs. I had seen very few Mets victories in my young life and I was jumping up and down and screaming my head off. So was my mother—vaguely aware that the Mets were doing something good for a change.
She often worried about my devotion to the Mets. A year earlier, my class had gone to a Mets-Cardinals game. Most of my classmates were either Yankee fans or Cardinals fans—the Cardinals had won the World Series in 1964 and so many of them ONLY knew the Cardinals and Yankees.
The Mets led into the ninth inning before the Cardinals rallied and won. My classmates taunted me for most of the trip home on the No. 7 train. I arrived home in tears.
“Do you HAVE to be a Mets fan?” my mom asked. “What about the Red Sox—your cousins live in Boston—you could root for them.”
“Mom, you don’t understand.”
She didn’t, but if I was a Mets fan, she was a Mets fan. So, there she was jumping up and down as the go-ahead run scored.
There was an usher standing near where we were seated. He walked over and said to my mom, “Which one’s your husband?”
“Excuse me?” my mom said.
“Aren’t you married to one of the players?” he said. “Isn’t that why you’re so involved in the game?”
“Please don’t tell anyone,” my mom said. “I don’t want to be recognized.”
It’s a story we still re-tell (obviously) and laugh about to this day. My mom, the baseball player’s wife.
I’m honestly not sure what drew me to sports, but I loved playing and watching for as long as I can remember. When the Mets made it to the 1969 World Series, Games 3, 4, and 5 were all at Shea on school afternoons. The upper deck seats that cost $1.30 during the season cost $2.50. I waited in line to buy tickets in advance for all three games.
My dad said, “Absolutely not,” when I said I planned to skip school to go to the games. My mom put her finger on her lips to tell me not to argue. “Just go,” she told me later, “but if your dad catches you, I know nothing about it.”
I’m pretty confident she wouldn’t have thrown me under the bus if my dad had found out. I didn’t actually tell him the truth until after I was married—so it was a good deal later. He smiled and said, “I knew your mother would side with you.”
She never stopped caring about the things I cared about. In 1992, shortly after Christian Laettner hit the historic shot to beat Kentucky, she called me.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “I won the game for you.”
“How’d you do that?”
“Your father had the game on (a shock, actually) and when it went into overtime, I couldn’t watch. I left the room. THAT’S why Duke won.”
She honestly believed that. I think maybe so did I.
My parents shared their love of the performing arts, but were very different people. My dad—like me—was driven to succeed at work. He had started as a “glorified office boy,”—his words, working for the impresario Sol Hurok—and risen to run the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra and The Washington Opera. My mom’s life was built around her three children, although she found time to get her Ph.D. at Columbia while raising us and then taught the last 20 years of her life.
I have always said that my dad was there when I needed him. My mom was just always there.
I still have the scrapbook she kept of all the newspaper stories I wrote in college and my early stories at The Post.
My mom was 5-foot-3 and weighed about 115 pounds—at most. But you didn’t want to mess with her. The chairman of the board of the Kennedy Center when my dad worked there was a man named Roger Stevens—the single rudest person I’ve ever met. He would often call the house and just say, “Martin Feinstein,” to indicate that was who he wanted to talk to without any sort of greeting.
One afternoon when he called and said, “Martin Feinstein,” to my mother, she said, “No, this is Bernice, can I help you?” knowing full well it was Stevens.
Most of all, though, you didn’t mess with her kids. Her saying was, “I can criticize them, YOU can’t.”
My senior year in high school, I was a hormone-crazed idiot. My swimming coach, Ed Brennan, got sick and tired of me constantly questioning him, defying him and, in general acting like a jerk. He finally got so mad one day that he kicked me off the team.
This wasn’t a good thing. I wasn’t getting into any college I was applying to without swimming. By then, my parents were living in Washington. My mom flew to New York to meet with Ed. (He and I are close friends to this day).
“She’s wasting her time,” Ed told me. “Seriously, John. I gave you a million chances. I can’t take you back now.”
He was right. He’d given me a million and one chances.
Mom came anyway. They met for about 45 minutes. I was sitting on a bench, trying to look cool for a couple of girls, when she came out of his office.
“You step out of line one more time and it won’t be Mr. Brennan you have to answer to,” she said. “It’ll be me.”
Ed came out a minute later. “Be at practice this afternoon,” he said. “Your mom is the most intimidating person I’ve ever met. I just couldn’t say no to her.”
I loved my dad and he was always supportive of me and—despite what David Paletz said—very proud of what I became as a sportswriter, even though he never quite understood why I didn’t stay on the news side and continue to work for Bob Woodward when I was still in my mid-20s and young enough to be saved.
But it was my mom who understood my love for sports and stood up for me in every possible way, even when she knew I was wrong. Trust me, she lectured me at length after Ed let me back on the team. “If it was anyone else’s son, I’d have 100 percent seen his side of it,” she said. “All he’s ever done is try to help you and you behaved like THIS.”
She was, of course, right. To this day—25 years later—when something important happens in my life, I want to reach for the phone to tell her, to talk it through with her.
Moms, as we all know, are the best. My mom was the best of the best.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup—was on the New York Times bestseller list for five months. His last Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,”—was selected as one of the best books of 2017 by the Junior Literary Guild. His new Young Adult book, “The Prodigy,” will be published this August.