My Mother, This Magazine, A Trip to Vienna

By Jonathan Spira on 10 April 2013
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The author, right, and his mother

The author, right, and his mother

I’m writing this article while aboard an American Airlines flight from London to New York, continuing a journey that started in Vienna much earlier this morning.  Despite the unseasonal winter weather (the calendar does say it’s April) this trip was uneventful, quite smooth, and none of my flights were cancelled; indeed, all four flight segments were reasonably close to being on time.

Vienna was cold and wintry.  It snowed on and off throughout my stay and I even noticed flurries at Heathrow as the aircraft pushed back from the gate.

I stayed at two brand new hotels in Vienna, the Palais Hansen Kempinski and the Ritz Carlton Vienna, and saw the same familiar shops and Kaffeehäuser I knew as a boy.  Vienna is not a city of great changes.

Marilyn Spira

Marilyn Spira

The reason for my trip was a sad one.  I won’t beat around the bush: my mother, Marilyn Spira (née Hacker) passed away March 28, and the funeral was Friday.  Normally, Shiva, the period of mourning, starts immediately after the funeral, but Jewish law postpones Shiva during major holidays such as Passover.  That left me with four days more or less to stare at the ceiling, waiting for Shiva to begin.

My mother, I should add, was a magazine editor and taught me, as well as my late brother, Greg, almost everything we knew about the industry.  Without her influence, Greg and I would not have gone on to start this publication and I believe her influence is felt in every (virtual) page we publish.

Because I had believed my mother’s condition to be somewhat stable, I had planned this as a quick trip and everything had been arranged.  With four days of a kind of purgatory ahead, I really felt I had to get away, so off to Vienna I went.

Vienna is a city of great memories for me but a lot of them have to do with my family.  This is where my brother – at the age of five – snuck away and tried to hail a taxi.  This is where my father fell down on the steps when he was about the same age.  This is the Kaffeehaus where I would go as a child with my uncle Franzl.  This is where my grandfather ate his lunch, and this cottage is where my grandparents (and I to a lesser extent) spent summers and weekends. More recently, this is where I would go to buy the things my mother wanted from the city’s shops after she was no longer able to travel.

By going to Vienna, I was in many respects throwing myself into the lion’s den as far as childhood and family memories were concerned; I made a point of ignoring any of these places (which probably also ruled out 90% of the city’s First District or Erster Bezirk).  Luckily I was staying at two new hotels, the Kempinski Palais Hansen and the Ritz Carlton, Vienna.  Indeed, they  were so new that they would stir up no memories of past family visits.  I allowed myself one excursion to my Stammkaffee, Café Prückel, mostly because I was strolling nearby when hunger struck.  That went ok as well.

I saw friends but avoided relatives.

I was, admittedly, lost.  For the past 15 years, my father and then my mother were unable to travel due to ailments that eventually took their lives.

A few months ago, I asked my mother how she felt about what were supposed to be her golden years, since they were marked by somewhat somber milestones such as going on dialysis, having a kidney transplant, and in my father’s case, falling victim to Alzheimer’s.  This was all in parallel with my brother Greg’s health problems, including his double nephrectomy, subsequent kidney transplant, and ultimately his demise.

Tourists admire the statute of Strauß in the Stadtpark, where the author played as a child

Tourists admire the statute of Strauß in the Stadtpark, where the author played as a child

She told me that she had lived a wonderful life and had no regrets. She had been given so many opportunities to travel around the world and do things before polycystic kidney disease began to take its toll that she was content.  In an age where only 25% of women worked, and most of those jobs were either part-time or lower level, she had already broken through the glass ceiling and become a managing editor at not one, but two publications.  She embraced the jet age with my father (who traveled to the Orient and Europe several times a year) and they enjoyed their travels.  I spent considerable time in Austria before I was even born, having even been “present” on an infamous drive up a goat path in an Opel.

Then we discussed travel.  She told me that she was now more than content to travel vicariously through me.  She relished the experiences I encountered and the trinkets I brought back for her, both from new places and familiar ones such as Vienna.

More recently, I had heard from others that my mother was very pleased that I too was now an editor.  That change in position apparently had made her day and she was far happier with this career choice than my previous one as chief analyst at a research firm.

And that was good enough for me.

(Photo: Accura Media Group; Portraits: S. F. Spira)

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