In 2007, CBS debuted a new sitcom called the Big Bang Theory. For those unfamiliar with the show, it centers on the roommate duo of Sheldon and Leonard, two socially awkward but brilliant physicists at a nearby university. Their across the hall neighbor is Penny, an attractive young Nebraskan who has come to California in order launch her acting career. While the show has had strong ratings, with my parents it quickly gained cult status. Monday nights between 9:30 and 10:00 pm were off limits for anything beyond that week’s episode. Despite being rather flummoxed by the technology, Dad quickly discovered how to DVR all the episodes. When it came time to pick out a present for his most recent birthday, the complete series DVD set was my obvious choice. If I talked to my parents on Tuesday nights, I knew the first few minutes would involve a recap of funniest jokes from the previous night’s episode. Mom and Dad were such fans of the show that I felt I had no choice but to watch, for fear of no longer being to understand all of their references. When I finally got around to watching the show, I realized why they enjoyed it so much. They were not watching the Big Bang Theory, but rather, were watching CBS’s version of the Jon and Shirley story.
As those who knew them back then, or even just those who have seen the wedding pictures, can attest, the parallels are remarkable. Mom and Dad met while the two were living the same apartment complex here in Miami. Mom was the attractive and extroverted flight attendant from Savannah while Dad was the bespectacled professor of history whose social skills were no match for his intellectual ones.
With season three of the Big Bang Theory almost over, viewers do not know what the future holds for Penny and Leonard. So far they have dated and subsequently broken up, but the pair seem destined to get back together. However, for those of us here today, there is no uncertainty about how things turned out for Jon and Shirley. The two were wed in 1971 and travelled the world, stopping in nearly every interesting place this side of the Arctic.
Then, in 1980, I burst on the scene. Not surprisingly, the round the world trips stopped soon there after. While growing up, and completely lacking external responsibility, I remember trips to places like the mountains of North Carolina and colonial Williamsburg. Conversely, in the summer of 2007, when I was a summer associate at Sidley Austin and unable to get away, Mom and Dad headed out to Italy for several weeks. Tomorrow, while I was to be at my desk in DC, they were set to embark on a multi-week trip to China. I sense a pattern.
Despite their hoarding of the exotic vacations, I could neither imagined nor expected better parents than Mom and Dad. Both gave me every opportunity in life to succeed, and at times, I was able to capitalize. But while they gave me the opportunity, Mom was not going to stand back and risk fate running its course.
Like most youngsters who attend a weekly church service, I was enrolled in Sunday School at a young age. At Saint Andrew’s, as in most churches, Sunday School was taught by volunteer parents and the students were grouped by ages, with a particular teacher tasked to a particular set of ages. Despite not being raised in the Greek Orthodox faith, but having converted for the purpose of marriage, Mom volunteered to teach on Sundays. Her first assignment was my class. She did her job with aplomb. Later, it came time for me and my peers to move to up to the next grade level. Our new teacher? Mrs. Alexiou. Mom decided that rather than put my religious education in the hands of others, she would teach the Sunday school class I was in, regardless of grade. And so it was, that my mother was the only Sunday school teacher I ever knew. I was never told how my Mom was able to ensure that she would always be my teacher, but as those who knew her well can imagine, once motivated, not much on either the temporal or ethereal plane could stop her.
When it came time for me to choose a place to go to college, Mom urged me to leave Miami. While she wanted me as close as possible at all times (a desire that never ceased, despite my age), she recognized the benefits to moving away. As a result of such prompting, I have been fortunate to live in a host of interesting cities over the years, twice now in Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York City. For those of you with hyper-detailed knowledge of my resume and wondering if I left something out of this list, no Columbia, South Carolina does not qualify as “interesting.”
During my time in these places, Mom was interested not only in how I was doing in each city, but also, what I knew. When living in DC, she would often ask what the buzz on the street was regarding passage of a certain piece of legislation. I had to regretfully inform her that Congressional buzz did not penetrate my dorm room walls. Mom thought that my admission to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service meant I would be privy to all State Department gossip. No, I would tell her, Colin Powell was not actively seeking my advice.
Whether it was about foreign policy rumors or just life updates, Mom loved talking to me, and I quickly discovered why she was such a fantastic human resources director. Unlike Dad, who was happy to spend the entirety of a 10 minute conversation discussing the first half of a Kansas basketball game that was at the half (which Mom often described as evidence of Dad and mine’s mutual obsession with anything involving a ball), Mom would seemingly have a list of questions to ask about various aspects of my life. Certain responses were never acceptable. I could never describe something as “fine.” Mom thought it was a phrase with no meaning. She would rather things be miserable than fine. Together, we could fix miserable. But fine, did not convey anything. Mom also hated if I said nothing had happened that day. Surely, something must have happened, she thought. One of my great regrets is that Mom always thought I was hiding parts of my life from her. Not true. There were days that consisted of a Mad Men marathon interrupted only by periodic naps on the couch. I tried to explain to Mom that I was not obfuscating, rather, I was just boring.
One of Mom’s lasting impressions on all those that knew her was her impeccable fashion sense and constant desire to look her best. But this was not for reasons of vanity or superficiality, rather, it was a basic belief that people in a civilized society should take the time to look their best. And Mom did her best to impart this viewpoint on me. One day, the two of us were out for dinner. Dad was on business and Mom and I decided to get some sushi. In the midst of our conversation,Mom looked at me and said, “we are going to get your teeth whitened.” This was not said in an insulting matter, but rather, in the same matter of fact tone that others would note the need to pick up toilet paper. And as one would expect, several weeks later, I found myself in the dentist chair, being fitted for whitening trays.
The year after I graduated from law school, I clerked for a federal district court judge in the aforementioned Columbia, South Carolina. The first time Mom came to visit, I brought her to Chamber to show her my office and what it was I did each day. Upon meeting the judge for whom I was working Mom asked Judge Seymour (a woman who has the distinct privilege of having her job spelled out in the Constitution and makes daily decisions which impact the lives of many) if the Judge could have me do something about my long hair. Judge Seymour chuckled and said she did not mind my hair. However, I am convinced that had the two talked longer, I would have received an escort by the US Marshalls to the nearest hair salon.
But it was Mom’s second trip to Columbia that provides the best illustration of all that she was willing to do for me. In Spring 2009, I had a tonsillectomy and septoplasty. Despite being far from home, Mom flew up and was there with me as I was admitted for surgery. The first face I saw when I woke up after surgery wasMom’s. She kept remarkably detailed records of my medications and made sure I took everything I needed to in order to recover. And she did all this while sleeping on a twin-sized blow up bed in my concrete floored apartment. She never once uttered a note of fatigue or frustration.
Shirley Raiford Alexiou was one of the bravest women I have ever met. She stared down Stage IV malignant melanoma and fought the disease as hard as she possibly could, never feeling sorry for herself. I tried to tell her that I loved her every chance I got, though in retrospect it does not seem like it was enough. Had she not been my mother, I would have wanted her as a friend. But she was my mother and a better one I could not have imagined.
Things are not fine today Mom, they are actually rather miserable without you. But know that Dad and I have each other and we will do our best to continue to make you proud.