I told the Curmudgeon I was writing this for my mother’s 85th birthday.
“It about time you wrote something positive and got off of my back,” he said. “Finally, you’re writing about something good.”
The Curmudgeon loves my mother, but so does everyone. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. She’s quiet and unassuming, but she makes a lasting impression by being so nice.
Mom’s big heart was one of the first things my cousins and oldest childhood friends mentioned when I contacted them and asked them to share memories of Mom. That, and her love of soap operas. I swear she introduced a whole generation of kids to the joys of Another World and The Young and the Restless, though my Dad dismissed her shows as garbage.
“I remember coming over to your house almost every day after school to watch Another World or (Guiding Light),” my friend Lizzie writes. “While we sat there and watched the programs, your mother was folding a mountain of laundry. I couldn’t get over the amount, but of course it made sense; there were so many of you! And even though there were so many kids running around, she was always so welcoming to your friends, like me and Robin. I LOVED going over to your house!”
Lizzie remembers coming over and seeing one of my little sisters standing on a chair washing dishes. I don’t remember that scene, but we all had chores. As one of the three oldest, I was on kitchen duty beginning at age 10. I was in charge of cleaning pots and pans, and still take pride in the fact that I can clean burnt-on grease with the best of them.
Robin, who lived across the street, said having just one younger brother was often boring, so she’d come over to our house looking for action. It wasn’t too hard to find in ’70s suburbia when a playdate involved opening your door and seeing who was around.
“My house was quite boring at times so I ran away to yours for some excitement,” Robin says. “I clearly remember decorating your Christmas tree. That I really loved.”
My cousin Denise still cherishes a small box my mother bought her as a souvenir as we wrapped up our annual trip to Cape Cod with her family.
“Aunt Gerry told me to pick something out,” Denise writes. “I picked out a pretty jewelry box and when I brought it back my mom thought I would never use it. Over 40 years later I still have that jewelry box Aunt Gerry bought me. I keep money in it like $2 bills and silver dollars.”
My cousin Bob reminded me that Mom and her sister Joan used to talk on the phone every Saturday morning. Yes, they did. If you were silly enough to try to interrupt the phone call, my mother would wave you off as if to say, “Talk to the hand.”
“I think that was the highlight of my mom’s week!” Bob recalls. “It was always better to ask my mom for something after one of the Saturday telephone calls because they put her in a great mood. My Dad knew this as well.”
Mom took center stage at a party in her honor on Saturday, where she puzzled everyone by ordering coffee and a large beet salad. She brushed off cake, but did indulge in a birthday cannoli that arrived with a lighted candle. I swear she looked like a little kid blowing it out.
At 85, Mom is proof that age is just a number. She’s something of a dynamo, showing no signs of slowing down and expressing shock that I nap more often than she does.
I worried about G after my father died in 2009, leaving her on her own for the first time since 1956. My parents were married for 53 years and were always a couple, dining out twice a week while we were growing up. My Dad insisted on it, saying it was the only time they could talk without being interrupted by seven kids.
As the mother of two, I get it. It’s often impossible to get a word in edgewise with children under foot. But I also marvel at their bravery: they often took us out to Sunday dinner after church, marching to our table as we followed like ducklings. I still remember other patrons looking up and asking, “Are all of those yours?”
Like many of her generation, it was important for G to raise well-behaved children and she believed that the only way was to expose us to certain situations. She doesn’t understand why today’s kids need picture books and snacks to make it through Sunday mass, noting, “We never did that. We just brought you to church and expected you to behave. Children have to learn how to sit still without all these distractions.”
With seven kids and 17 grandchildren, I guess you could say G is a bit of a parenting expert. One of her greatest feats was raising seven girls without ever having a lice scare. She put our hair in ponytails and braids every day to avoid the scourge, but I think she was lucky. Very lucky.
I’ve seen other people who fell apart and gave up after losing a spouse, too consumed with loneliness and grief to enjoy life. I worried about G because, well, I just did. But she’s carried on in fine fashion, relying on her family, close friends and yellow Lab Maggie for companionship.
G keeps herself busy, playing bridge at the Senior Citizen Center a few times a week. She’s in charge of hiring someone to landscape the entrance to her street and collecting money from neighbors, most of whom cooperate. She goes to movies and out to eat with her close friends. She has dinner every Sunday night at my sister Janet’s house. She’s engaged in her community, recently voicing her opposition to a zoning project in her hometown.
When she called me to discuss the proposed project, I said, “Don’t you think it’s a little late in the game to become a rabble rouser? Why are you getting yourself involved? Don’t you have better things to do?”
I thought I was being funny, but I offended her. She thought I was being critical – which I was – but I really hurt her feelings. She began to choke back tears, and I quickly apologized for questioning her involvement in civic affairs.
If she wants to be a community activist at this stage of the game, who am I to judge? I guess I was just a little surprised because I’m used to being the loudmouth of the bunch.
I think my mother’s greatest gift is her love of children, and doing her best to nurture each child. She didn’t compare us to each other – ever. She encouraged me to play golf and tennis, though she is not a sporty girl and doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body. When I was a little chunky in junior high school, she suggested I might try limiting myself to one dessert a night.
To my frequent consternation, she refused to get involved in kids’ stuff, dismissing me with a “Well what did you do?” when I’d come home and relate that I was mad at someone. She had no interest in our tiffs with friends, realizing only foolish adults meddle in such affairs.
Perhaps her hands-off approach stemmed from the clear delineation between adults and children in our family. Though I know parents who want to hang out with their children on weekends and vacations, it was an us and them mentality and we all knew where we stood.
One of the greatest shocks in life is that we all need our mothers, no matter how old we are. They’re our first bond to life, our source of love, nurturing and protection. We count on them to be around to tell us that everything will be OK, our spouse is acting like a jerk, or our kids will outgrow their obnoxious stage. And let’s face it: it’s nice to be able to call someone Mommy when you’re 60.
I’m not the type of person to call my mother every day, and I drive her nuts when I don’t return her phone calls. But this is our little dance. She knows that I love her and would do anything for her. Heck, I’ve been having Thanksgiving at my house for 30 years mostly as a favor to her.
I don’t know how much I rely on my mother until things go south. One of the toughest periods of my life was waiting for my son’s adoption to be finalized. We were all on tender hooks for about a year as the case dragged through the courts. The adoption could have fallen apart at any point. I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without my mother’s support and kind ear.
She’s the only one we brought to Probate Court with us when the adoption was finalized. Other than my wedding day, it was the happiest day of my life and I wanted to share it with her.
I’ve counted on her during other dark periods, even asked her to go to doctor’s appointments with me to shore up my courage. And though I often think of her as shy and retiring, she’s pretty brave when she needs to be.
She had one of her knees replaced a few years ago because, as she told her doctor, she wanted to dance at her grandsons’ weddings. She did, kicking up her heels on the dance floor with twenty-somethings and holding her own. I wasn’t really surprised. She could always dance way better than I can too.