August 1, 2019
When I was younger, my mother and I had what I would call a cordial relationship. I wouldn’t say we were close. It wasn’t adversarial, but there was unquestionably a polite chasm between us. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just “was.” I knew she loved me and had my back if I ever needed her. She was the proverbial tigress with her cubs. Don’t mess with her. I always admired my mom, but from a distance. I had an inordinate respect for her and all she endured and always wished she knew how strong she was. She constantly protested that she wasn’t. I recently saw a post on Facebook, and I paraphrase: “If I could be half the woman my mother was, I am doing well” or something to that effect. In fact, and I mean this, if I could be ten percent the human being my mom was, I would be an exemplary human being. Let me explain.
My mother was born and raised in New York City. She came from a privileged background, meaning she grew up wanting for nothing and enjoying all the comforts a young girl could, but that doesn’t mean hers was a life without drama. She had virtually no relationship with her own mother until she was an adult and that possibly explains much about her own issues. Her father was a wealthy attorney who married a woman from the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks.” I don’t know the details of their “courtship,” but I have my suspicions. Suffice it to say, “Grandma” was never accepted by the family. The marriage produced two children, my mom and her older brother, my ne’er-do-well uncle who not only looked like his father but also inherited his charming personality and addiction to alcohol. As could have been predicted, the marriage didn’t last and the unlikely couple divorced, which, back in the early 1920s, wasn’t a common step to take. Soon after, my grandfather’s battle with the bottle claimed his life and my mother and uncle were taken in by their two maiden aunts who were deemed more suitable to raise them than their rough-around-the-edges mother. Mom and her brother rarely saw her after that. I think my mom was barely four years old. With her aunts, she grew up pampered, but always kind, sweet, and lovely. That was her nature. But given the life she led, she never understood adversity, what with the finer things in life, private schools, beautiful clothes, exposure to New York City culture, museums and the landed gentry. Even with the advent of World War II, she never really experienced any hardships. This is just how her life was. And then on a rainy Christmas Eve towards the end of the war, while volunteering at a USO reception for lonely enlisted men, she met him, the man who would become her husband and the father of her children – ten children. It was at that moment that her life took a course that forever changed the future that she likely had envisioned from her protected and oh so insulated world of privilege.
A little background: My father grew up one of eight children in the hardscrabble coal and railroad region of western Pennsylvania. It was a far cry from Mom’s world. It was the quintessential Irish Catholic family where the father was in charge and the mother was deferential to his needs showing her support with the slightest hint of submissiveness, and, let’s be real here, his word was law. That’s just how it was in those days. And unfortunately, many fathers in those days were, shall we say, a bit wanting in the showing emotions department and communicated that attribute to their sons. There were no declarations of love and little expressions of empathy. You just suck it up and move on. My grandmother lost three children before they turned age two. How heart wrenching that must have been for her and I am sure she had to suffer in silence for many years. She did have a tremendous Catholic faith, which I do know gave her tremendous comfort. My father was her final child and due to some health issues and a serious injury, a baby nurse was hired to assist her with his care. Unfortunately, this nurse was not a good person and rather than do what was expected of her and provide excellent care and a nurturing environment, she spiked Dad’s formula with paregoric to “encourage” sleep. Later as a toddler, my dad, who was born left-handed, cruelly had his left hand tied to his highchair to force him to use his right. I realize that may have been the “fashion” of the times, but I will never understand the reasoning behind the need to “cure” someone of something that is just natural. I also truly believe that it contributed to some of Dad’s anger issues. I am not here to bash my dad, but I want to present a clear picture of what my mom experienced.
So, after a courtship and with stars in their eyes, they married in a fancy Manhattan wedding. Mom’s mother was not invited, which will give you an idea how much of a relationship they DIDN’T have. And the merging of two wildly divergent families came to be. Dad from a loud, often brash family (except for Grandma) who worked hard for everything they had and were very patriarchal; and then there was Mom, who had no strong male role models, from a family where she felt love every day, where she was constantly told how special she was and where she lived the life of those to the manor born. Not a care in the world, and honestly, at least on the surface, she was ill equipped to handle any real trials and adversities. Well, I am here to tell you, she did and then some. She put us all to shame and as I said at the beginning of this blog, I will always be in awe of this woman I called Mom.
I have often said jokingly that I inherited all my positive personal traits from my mom (empathy, being a people person, helpfulness, compassion) and my less than stellar traits from Dad (being judgmental, though I am definitely improving, sometimes I don’t think before I speak, and I speak too loudly, though I attribute that to a possible hearing loss, and being bossy—just ask my beleaguered siblings, though being the oldest of ten, perhaps I was forced into this situation). The bottom line is they were, first and foremost, just two people who loved each other and were taking a shot at this thing called marriage. Being a Catholic family in the fifties, babies kept coming and coming. As the oldest of this tribe, I was thrust into a caregiving role at a very young age. It was a necessity. Our family worked as a team. Despite so many humans under one roof, it was always organized. There was never a question, however, that Dad was in charge. He ruled the roost and his word was law. It wasn’t always easy or without conflict and I believe it shaped his children’s own childrearing principles. He was a good man, but honestly, I don’t think he was of the right temperament to raise ten children. The pressure was unforgiving. Imagine being the breadwinner for a crew this size.
My mother was at the heart and was the heart of this motley crew. And she never had a moment to herself. If she wasn’t expecting a baby, she was caring for a baby or a toddler—well into her late forties. It was no wonder that she battled her demons including depression and anxiety throughout her life. There was never enough money, but she made sure her kids, especially her daughters were well dressed. She was a great cook, though to this day, I refuse to eat Spam or anything with the word “helper” attached to it. But she soldiered on and I always marveled at her tenacity, her kindness, her willingness to always put herself last and despite her protestations, exhibit a strength that belied her belief to the contrary.
I could fill a book with the experiences that shaped Mom’s life and hastened her death. She had tragedies that would test a saint, but she somehow made them her own. She lost two sons both at relatively young ages. One died at age 27 of leukemia in very quick fashion. I can still hear her wails in the hospital. She was inconsolable. And she was never the same. The other son died several years later, at age 45, of a heart attack exacerbated by his addictions. My parents had done all they could to help him as they themselves were frail and in their eighties. It was very tough to watch. At that point, I believe, Mom gave up. Two years later, she was gone. Her funeral was a testament to her life and the people she touched, because the church was packed. She never met a stranger. She loved everyone. She loved to dance, especially at our crazy extended family weddings. She had a penchant for mispronouncing common words: Liza Minnelli became LISA Minnelli; Princess Diana was Princess DIANE; Tom Brokaw was Tom BRACKOW and on and on. And she was hilarious. Her New York accent came out at will. “Too bad about cha self.” “I’ll have a cuppa cawfee.” And while we all knew that Dad was in charge and we had better toe the line, once in a while Mom would get him with one of her zingers. They were in a crowd of friends somewhere and she was leaving him to go elsewhere and he shouted after her “Good-bye mother of ten.” And she turned, and ever so sweetly replied, “Good-bye father of eight.”
But, most of all she loved her children and did her best to make each of us feel special. And I think we all did. I mentioned at the beginning that we had what I referred to as a cordial relationship. It never really bothered me too much unless I saw friends with more intimate connections with their mothers. But to be fair, their mothers didn’t have the challenges my mom did. And while we were never “close” as I mentioned in the beginning, I remember one incident that still makes me smile. I was barely fourteen and had just been awarded a scholarship to a private, Catholic girls’ high school. My father was thrilled. My mother would have preferred that I had accepted the scholarship, and a full scholarship at that, to a private school nearby that was home to the best, most wealthy families, had no religious affiliation and was shall we say, “old money.” Even at fourteen, I knew I didn’t belong there and so, I accepted a less generous partial scholarship to the more familiar, yet still rather exclusive, Catholic school. As was the practice in those days, scholarship winners were honored, along with their mothers at a welcome tea prior to the start of the school year. Now, mind you, I was an outsider. I was entering this school in the ninth grade. Many of the girls had been there since preschool and were continuing a long family tradition of attending the same school as their great grandmothers. Not me. I was fresh meat. I didn’t realize that made me “less than.” As I stood there trying to look sophisticated as I nibbled on a cookie, I recall a woman approaching me and peppering me with questions, because she had no idea who I was. As I politely answered, she eventually said in an obviously even to this pretty naïve 14-year-old, patronizing tone something to the effect of that I was a “first generation and not a legacy.” OK, whatever. As we were getting into the car to drive home, I can still visualize Mom, with a Kent cigarette hanging out of her mouth as she shifts the car into reverse and backs out. I asked her, “Mommy, what did that lady mean when she said that to me?” And Mom, in her best New York accent and attitude, told me, “Honey, if her daughter is anything like her, you’d better be careful, because she thinks she’s better than you. So, watch yourself. Kill the little bitch with kindness.” She took a drag and shifted into drive and drove home. That was Mom. She was the best. And I don’t hold a candle to her.