It’s never wrong to do the right thing. Such a simple edict, yet impactful. In pondering my mother’s extraordinary life this may be her most important life lesson to us and it continues to resonate. Yet, like talmudic lessons it needs interpretation.
In her community, my mother didn’t follow the route of volunteering. While she admired those who did step forward, she helped in other ways. She was a strong believer in helping those less fortunate either through generous donations or by supporting those who led volunteer initiatives. “No” was not in her vocabulary. Approached many times to be an honouree, she always rejected the offer. She gave of herself quietly.
Doing the right thing also pertained to my mother’s beloved business. She loved her clients, her suppliers, and her staff. When she strode through showrooms around the world in her austere black outfit with hair pulled smartly back into a ponytail, Milli had an uncanny knack for picking the styles best suited for her clients. She kept her staff tight and ruled with a strong hand. And let’s not forget her famous, well-manicured finger pointing out a rebuke when her view of perfection was not achieved by those around her. Her pursuit was not about the perfect outfit — it was about building confidence in those around her by being the best they could be. To her, the right thing was thinking through every minor detail to ensure a perfect outcome. Get it right or fear her wrath. Despite her sometimes intimidating way she engendered fierce loyalty. One of Milli’s employees wrote us to say that although she was “terrified every day she came to work,” Milli taught her “countless lessons on what it takes to be a fierce, feminist leader.” The tributes we have received have been astounding. She quietly touched people deeply in ways we never knew.
Doing the right thing reached into her personal style. Milli’s home was immaculate, her environment always stylish, tasteful, classic — perfect. In her final weeks when she was unable to get out of bed, she still had to approve e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. After showing her a photo of the table we had prepared for the family Rosh Hashanah dinner, my mother raised her eyebrows and began pointing out the missteps — the placemats were wrong and didn’t match the serviettes; cutlery was missing; and, “why did you choose those salt and pepper shakers?” I could go on.
Doing the right thing also pertained to my mother’s friendships. She would lie next to a dying friend until the end, never thinking of her own comfort. When she became enamoured with chocolate-making some 40 years ago, she began making incredible cakes and chocolate creations for her friends. These were works of art that could easily be found in the likes of Fauchon. Milli would say that her cold hands were perfect for forming chocolate but it’s her warm heart that gave without any thought for her own time or effort.
Doing the right thing was, most importantly, for her family. My mother put family first, and while her stern perfectionism extended to all of us, she always did what needed to be done. Being in business together, our immediate family had its unique challenges, but when the Jewish holidays came around, she made sure we settled our differences while reminding us that family is irreplaceable, precious and the bond that mattered most. She observed the holidays in her unique way – the perfect meal, the perfect table, every detail considered.
Doing the right thing was always on demonstration through my mother’s force of will, determination, and tenacity. When she made up her mind, that was it. She had a sixth sense, a deep understanding of human strengths and human frailties. She could relate to both.
To many, Milli will be remembered for some of the highlights in her life about which we are all immensely proud. She received an honourary Doctor of Laws from McMaster University, despite the fact that she didn’t finish high school. She was inducted to the Gallery of Distinction by the City of Hamilton, and the YWCA recognized her as a Woman of Distinction. Shelly Faulkner and the Art Gallery of Hamilton saw something special in her history and created an exhibition highlighting the wonderful garments my mother helped create and the impact she had on the lives of her cherished clients and friends.
Others will remember the obstacles my mother overcame – principally losing her daughter and husband in a house fire early in her life while she was pregnant with me, and then losing her husband 20 years ago.
What is not revealed in these events are the gifts, the extra effort, the personal touch, the advice, the support. Her legacy has taught us to never stray from our moral or ethical principles; to enthusiastically put others’ interests before our own; to be compassionate, especially when it feels undeserving or unappreciated; to tirelessly give of ourselves for the benefit of others – particularly when no one is looking; and that reconciliation is more empowering than resentment. This is the sage advice she lived and shared. And this is how she showed us the meaning of doing the right thing.
Ben Gould is Milli Gould’s son.