Mother would be 79 today; instead she is gone for 14 years tomorrow.
We would eat a nice dinner, made by her, at which she would announce “these are the best chicken cutlets I’ve ever had”.
I’m unsure how serious she was or if it was her way of censuring us for not being effusive enough.
A child of the depression (and Dad never met a waitress with whom he couldn’t flirt)[i] who saved soap slivers and finger swiped every bit of egg from the shell she preferred to eat at home… I don’t know if Dad would be around.
My siblings and I would discuss, this week, her 80th and more importantly her 81st on 7/7/14. Not so secretly she read tea leaves & tarot, attempted to reach her mother and my 2 dead older brothers through mediums[ii], and looked to numerology for clues. 7/7/77[iii] her 44th was a big deal. I’m sure she went 45 miles away to play $46 in all sorts of Lotto combinations.
She went a bit ursine crazy when my nephew, her first grandchild, was born.[iv] She was convinced that he would die of malnutrition and invented “real breakfast”; Oatmeal with an egg in it and maple syrup- PC is still skinny as is his mother.
She never knew my youngest. I whispered in her ear that there was another one coming and she attempted to rise and talk for the first time in a week. She passed 7 or 8 hours later. [And no- I did not tell her "At 65 you are supposed to retire, not expire"]
The last thing I heard her say was unintelligible.
You can’t be serious? WTF?
She hadn’t the strength to fight cancer one more time.
She met Dad, against her better judgment, at a party. Various friends had suggested they would make a good match. He was a bit too vain & fulsome for her as he wore bow-ties[v] and red socks and had a rep as a lady’s man. Later in the evening some character got a bit familiar with Mother and Dad stepped in chivalrously. I don’t think it was a fist fight.[vi] She knew he was, what is now known as, a player and also knew he was going to put his back to the coal mines. She kept a wary eye on him in their early years. With barely more than 12 hours of prior driving she followed him to Texas for basic training. On this trip she was nearly decapitated, by an ironing board: well honestly nearly seems a bit melodramatic.
I can’t recall her ever talking about what the Micks thought of her taking up with a Spic and I think for them it was vaguely misogynistic in a Joltin Joe & Marilyn way. Mother early on explained when the Irish weren’t white. When especially peeved with Dad she had a little routine about the Moors in Spain and the proximity of Italy and Africa.
Mother was a student of Emily Post[vii], another daughter of Wilkes Barre, PA. There was no family King James Bible, but “Etiquette” was always handy.[viii] She studied it as only an orphan girl could whose motherless husband somehow landed a job in a law firm headed by white shoe partners; a West Point grad and a scion of the old slave trading & whaling Quakers. Famously, the wife of the Quaker, at the last moment, invited my parents to a dinner party as there was a cancellation and two place cards to fill. Mother had a note delivered, in that beautiful Catholic School handwriting, regretting that she was not in the habit of attending soirees as a replacement. Mrs. Pine, with the bosom and presence of the figurehead on one of her fore bearer’s ships consequently adored Mother for the rest of her life. As did Kitty, the other partner’s wife, for putting Ginny in her place… Mother dressed my brother and me in jackets and ties when she could, and far past what was appropriate to the rest of the country and my sister is the last of the girls who wore white gloves. Or maybe she wasn’t I don’t know what went on in Country Clubs. I’m unsure how she would have dealt with today’s morals; but I am certain the Ethicist in her beloved NYTimes magazine would have driven her crazy. The new Social Q’s would have made her insane.
Her Father was a bad man, or maybe a good man of whom the drink got the best.
A poet and a pugilist he made his living as a tin knocker and all around knock around guy. Either the drink or work (and maybe women) took him away often. Mother and Aunt Joan ended up in an orphanage after their mother “Our Mary” passed.
In Gerry’s defense he was a preemie given no chance to live whose mother, a woman born with the caul, cradled him in a dresser drawer and cotton wool soaked in mineral oil for his first month. Gerry nursed Mother back to health after she contacted Spinal Meningitis.[ix] Gerry went on to remarry and have 2 children with his second wife.[x]
She ended up in an orphanage for a while at the age of 5 or 6. I’m not a bad son for not remembering the details; she just didn’t talk about it with any depth. She had a love hate relationship with nuns for the rest of her life; I know there was some physical abuse and not a lot of love there. She had a hate relationship with the Church and this partially accounts for her not being buried in sanctified ground with her mother and sister. Actually, the place sounds more Calvinist than Catholic as the children seemed to have gotten the message that on some level they deserved their fate. She did attend Catholic Schools and Nursing Training. She never went to church except on Easter.
In all her life she played one organized sport’s game. Somehow she spent one day playing field hockey; it was a Zen moment for her and she awoke the next day with excruciating pains in her stomach muscles and 30 years later she thought it was worth it. She did try playing a little tennis, which had more to do with scaring off Dad’s chippies than any real interest.
Her world was fraught with dangers.
Francis Slocum, Wilkes Barre’s own Indian abductee is a trivia pursuit nugget I’ve played with people from there.
The “Children’s Blizzard”, the potato famine, every rodent carrying meningitis[xi] and every dog bite a rabies worry. The depression which lingered in Wilkes Barre long after the War boom had bootstrapped the rest of the country. War was a terror. Uncle Dyke returned from WWI with a wooden hand, bad lungs and a medal. Dad dodged the peace in Korea because of his German skills.[xii] Her half-brother lost a leg, (maybe a testicle(s)) and his sanity in SE Asia. I was wired into attending West Point in 1968 when she urged me to wear a black arm band to parade with the BSA on Memorial Day and in 1970 she sent me off to school with the Quakers.
Mother was a tracker who could find an insult or underlying meaning on desert stone. Her world was filled with slights and insults that the rest of us couldn’t see.[xiii] In many ways she was the worst misogynist I’ve ever known and men were suspect at best.
I was her 3rd or maybe 4th pregnancy. As I understand it she had at least one miscarriage and a still birth before me. Given her tender history she convinced the Army to fly them back to the States when Dad’s enlistment was up. In 1956 there were not that many people who had flown across the Atlantic. I still cringe for my sister thinking of them taking a walk in Ulm to “this is where your brother was conceived.” (Of course I cringe for myself recalling her complaint that K wouldn’t take the hint and give them a little alone time in the various hotels during that trip). I was born, I thought, in Tacoma Park, MD; last year I drove through TaKoma Park and googled it, that’s how it is spelled. The hospital was the Tacoma Park Sanitarium according to my birth certificate; Mother went to great lengths to explain many times, to me, that this had nothing to do with mental health. I’m not sure and really don’t care that much. Frankly a TB ward doesn’t sound much sexier.
She taught us to cook[xiv], clean, iron and sew at early ages; be ready to be an orphan was her motto.
She disliked cleaning women and hated housework, when we had someone in we had to clean the house the night before. The last straw was when one of them stole a pair of cuticle scissors. She believed it these massive Hoover vacuums; this was probably a contributing factor in my success as a HS grappler, as were the push lawn mowers she insisted on rather than eyes snatching gas machines.[xv]
She bought an electric chainsaw during the energy crisis and P and I learned to split wood and stoke a Vermont Stove. She read somewhere that unwrapping soap and letting it dry out made it last longer, I would return home in my 20s and might as well have washed with a smooth river rock.
She made curtains and quilts out of sheets on an old 1940s Singer. In her 50s she got herself a new machine and it gathered dust while the old machine hummed along.
I don’t know why she disliked plumbers maybe one got fresh but I think it was thrift that led her to learn to change faucet washers and valve seats.[xvi]
She tried to teach us to tap dance and sing- in her town one got no Halloween treats until she had performed a little song, dance or joke.[xvii] She did teach me to waltz and to understand a bit of German. Rather than take Spanish in high school she insisted I take French- the language of diplomacy.[xviii] She had us baptized “just in case” and that was it for religion. Is hell really better than limbo? She served us wine, like the little sophisticated European kids, to forestall alcoholism; but in my case genetics won. She was educated as a nurse and hated taking us to the doctor; her treatment for a sore throat was to swab your gorge with iodine. Being well was an advantage around her. “If you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to watch TV”.
I miss the hell out of Mother lately.
She would be nuts about what is going on in the world today.
She would love the internet and Google.
If she was still around my kids would be smarter and better mannered; hell so would I.
She would be going nuts about what is going on in my world today.
I don’t think that the dead care very much about the living; if they did Mother would have sent me the winning Lotto numbers. The dead may know we are alive for such a short time and dead for the rest of eternity. If this is the case and there is an afterlife my Dad has dodged a bullet- he didn’t come back into awareness to find Our Mary, Joan and Mother waiting to berate him for his second wife. Goodness there she is with all her female relatives and a bone to pick- well not all of them.
7/21 This arose, somehow, this morning…..
I never won an argument with Mother, I did once fight her to a standstill.
She was on a roll one afternoon about her husband and her children and how thankless and impossible it was to be a Wife & a Mother….
I observed “Well, Mommies mostly outlive Daddies & often outlive their sons; So How Tough Could it Really Be?”
[ii] Edgar Cayce and Bridie Murphy were secondary sources.
[iii] I’ll save you the math, she was born 7/7/33, 7/7/44- I have no idea where she was, 55 in Germany, 66 was nothing special, 88 in the hospital.
[iv] When PC was born there was an hour or so when he might have had a serious birth defect and my brother made his wife aware of this. Dad issued one of his most famous quotes “Get in there and tell your brother it is going to be a long hard fucking life if he doesn’t learn when to lie to his wife.” I’m running interference with my parents & my brother and paused to observe my Mother’s virga of understanding of so much as he uttered this.
[v] In his defense, at the time he was a chemist with dreams of being a
doctor; both careers safer in bow-ties: chemist’s ties catch fire or are eaten by corrosives; doctor’s get covered in gore.
[vi] At first glance Dad was a bit of a wimp- and then you find out his brothers and cousins took over newspaper distribution rights by fighting with Rail Road Ballast and whatever else they needed. Mother was proud of her ability to throw a punch- and I can attest that, until I was a 16 year old wrestler, it was a hell of a punch. After jamming her wrist punching me in the shoulder she switched to wailing on me with a broom. When the broom stick broke she offered to stab me with the sharp end. This was for telling a dirty joke to my brother while doing dishes.
[vii] To reinforce her dislike of elbows on the table during dinner, she would stab you with a meat fork.
[viii] Fanny Farmer was her other Bible. She was a plain cook. Steak, green salad & Italian bread. Spaghetti & meatballs, green salad & Italian bread. Breaded chicken cutlets, green peas & white bread. Cold oatmeal with cream & white sugar.
[ix] Thank God it wasn’t Polio.
[x] At Aunt Joan’s funeral a woman approached Mother and she introduced me to her “do you remember your aunt?” Later I asked who she was and Dad said “She’s their sister” “Well where has she been?” “They had a fight” “When?” “How old are you?” “42” “About 42 years ago”.
[xi] I came home one day with a nest of moles or voles I’d found in a window well cradled in the beret Dad got in France. Poor Mother absolutely lost it. She had me strip naked, in the garage, and toss all my clothes in a trash can. Hold your breath she told me as she doused me with two aerosol cans of Lysol. It is any wonder I’m a bank walker? She then ordered me to walk naked into the house and a scalding shower…
[xii] A serious student of Chemistry knew German- as 6 million Jews & 12 million Russians can attest to, the Germans were whizzes with explosives and gasses.
[xiii] One of my brother’s exes ended up getting married on his birthday; if you knew my brother you would be unsurprised about a woman getting married on any day- it’s the law of averages. But this was no coincidence; it was a cry for him to do a Benjamin to her Elaine. This weekend my daughter had young men, from school, come for a visit. Her mother fed him Pasta Puttanesca http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_puttanesca an entendre that Mother would resonate on forever as the sole reason S didn’t marry him.
[xiv] At 20 I cooked Thanksgiving turkey for 20 people. Hmm there’s another tale, I seasoned each bird with at least ½ oz of homegrown.
[xv] Dad’s mechanical ineptitude also contributed to our not having a two stroke machine. When I started working for a landscaper in HS and proved an ability to maintain and use a mower, we finally got one, which I retired 35 years later.
[xvi] I repaired recently a faucet in my house- there are no replaceable washers or valve seats anymore so I tossed 40-year-old packs of seat washers that Mother left me.
[xvii] Wilkes Barre was one of Vaudeville’s last outposts. It was also the place cable TV was test marketed.
[xviii] People who know me personally guffaw reading this.
- “Kind Hearts Are More Than Coronets”: Trayvon, RMS Titanic and Emily Post (mrmhadams.typepad.com)