One year ago this week, my mom Eileen Rae Winkler Youtie passed away. I know everyone feels this way about their parents, but my mom was truly extraordinary. She was magnanimous, larger than life, an angel on earth, a Jewess among us. She taught me everything I know about navigating life as a woman and as a Jew and how the intersection of those two worlds would be more beautiful than I could ever imagine.
Ironically, being a Jewish woman ultimately contributed to my hero being taken away from us too soon, as my mom died of breast cancer derived from a BRCA 1 gene mutation, disproportionately common in Ashkenazi Jews. Women who test positive for this gene mutation have a 70% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer. So here goes my one request: Please please please get tested for BRCA gene mutations if you have any Ashkenazi Jewish blood!
But of course, my mom turned this awful news into something beautiful, dedicating the rest of her life to helping others with similar diagnoses. And what have I dedicated my life to you ask? Well, watching (and working in) television, of course!
This past year, I have desperately needed a place to escape, a place where I could feel connected to her. Diving head first into some of my favorite TV shows seemed like the only answer. As I barricaded myself in bed for hours on end, I found that I was constantly going back to badass characters who reminded me of my mom, in particular Fran Fine from “The Nanny” and Midge Maisel from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Their embodiments of Jewishness, flair for all things fashion, deep care for others, close connections to their families and drive for something greater than themselves makes me feel like I’m with my mom every time they are on the screen. My guide through life, womanhood and Judaism is gone, but Fran and Midge will always be here for me, as will their wacky families. Every time they dish out a Yiddish saying, strut out in a fabulous outfit or give sage advice, it brings me back to a beautiful memory of my beautiful mother.
Some of my fondest memories from childhood consist of watching “The Nanny” reruns with my mom and marveling at how much she looked like and dressed like Fran. But the similarities weren’t just on the surface — Fran and my mother would both currently be in their mid-60s, are Ashkenazi Jewish women from the east coast, and had ferociously intense bonds with their mothers. From a young age, I looked to these women to teach me about femininity and taking up space in the world. These quippy, fiercely smart, loud-mouthed, fashion forward, petite brunettes helped me navigate life and grow into who I am, although I would tower over both of them.
Much like Fran, my mother dominated every room she walked into. As my dad always joked, he married my mom so he would never have to talk again. Fran Fine was the first unapologetic depiction of Jewishness that I saw on TV and she helped teach me that my religion could be a mighty part of who I am without compromising any other parts of myself. This was something my mother always reinforced, whether that meant feeling comfortable in a shorter and tighter skirt, eating that last piece of shrimp or just generally prioritizing myself.
Fran allowed me to recognize who I could become and paved the way for Midge to help me navigate my early 20s and bond with my mom all over again. I vividly remember the two of us catching up on the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on a long flight and immediately shrieking with joy and remarking at how closely Midge’s journey resembled my mother’s. We would also spend days on end kvelling about the power of Midge and how accurately the show’s family dynamic was depicted as their Shabbat dinners eerily resembled our own.
As the show moves from the 1950s to the 1960s (my mom was born in ’54) and as they took a detour to Miami (where my mom and I grew up), I’ve felt even more connected to her with each new episode. Midge and my mom both had the chutzpah and drive to tackle male dominated industries during times when that was not only unlikely but strongly discouraged. For Midge, it’s stand-up comedy, and for my mom, it was the less glitzy world of accounting, but you get the idea, right? They both refused to compromise and prioritized their dreams, so much so that my mom didn’t get married until she had her own accounting firm at age 39. I was so inspired by my mom and Midge that I now work at Amazon Studios, the streamer that brings “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to our TV screens. So yes, continuing to watch our favorite show without my mom has been painful at times, but witnessing Midge’s relentlessness to get what she wants and striving to do something great all while wearing fabulous shoes, catapults me into reliving joyous moments with my mom.
My mom may physically no longer be with me, but the lessons she taught me will live on — and my endless re-watches of “The Nanny” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will keep them fresh in my mind. I feel so blessed to have been able to see representations of my mother and myself on screen through Fran and Midge throughout my life, and I am excited for the new differing perspectives on that representation to come. I am confident that whenever I am feeling alone and disconnected from my mom, one of Fran’s amazing outfits or Midge’s hilarious quips will remind me of her. And Mom, I know you will always be watching with me. I love you with all my heart.