MOMMY AND ME
She was before her time.
Everything about her attitude, her persona, her carriage suggested a “liberated” woman, yet she was born in the middle of The Great Depression and married during the height of the 1950s.
She told me once that she married my father because he had a good job and a new car. Plenty of marriages before and since have had lesser foundations. It worked for them for 52 years.
I always felt like she wanted more than she had, to achieve more in her life than she did. And yet she still wanted my father to take care of her, like the other new husbands of 1955 did.
Was she caught between two eras? I think so. Did she listen to the radio in the ‘40s or watch the World War II-era movies? Did she hear the message “We can do it!” and see those posters with the bandanna-headed woman?
Maybe she took that to heart and then – when society tried to push the girls back into being girls, with their pearls and frilly dresses and spotless homes – maybe she balked then.
She was tough. She was in a gang when she was in high school. And she smoked when she was a teenager – maybe 13? I think she said 15. Either way, it was still the ‘40s. She was a bad girl.
No, not bad. Tough. I guess that’s what attracted her to my father. She was tough and he was nice, sweet, gentle. Sometimes too much.
I remember listening to her yell at him when I was growing up, and thinking, “Why doesn’t he yell back?” That made me think less of him, until years later, when the white-knuckled panic of aging changed him. Not totally. But enough to make me realize what he had been, and to respect it more.
She told me once (paraphrasing), “He didn’t tell me that I couldn’t work. But I knew he didn’t want me to.” So she stopped working. She had been an administrator in an office. Her boss was named Bob.
For many years my parents stayed close with Bob and his wife Myrna. They used to come over every Christmas even when my sister and I were kids. I think it was my parents’ form of Christian outreach – sharing the birth of Christ (and some Harvey’s Bristol Cream) with a Jewish couple.
Bob and Myrna disappeared from the Christmas radar when they divorced. Divorce was a no-no for my parents who, in their later years, became Pre-Cana counselors at our church.
I remember visiting them once, at our house on Long Island, when they were concluding a counseling session with a young Catholic couple about to marry.
I tried not to crack up. My parents telling people how to be a married couple? Ha. Then the girl (I don’t remember her name) said to me, “Your parents are so great. Such an inspiration.”
Well, what do I know? You can never be objective when you’re in the middle of something.
I always felt like I was in the middle of them. I was so much closer with my mother than I was with my father. It makes sense, of course.
After she miscarried (more than once?) my parents decided to adopt. They filled out the paperwork, endured the home visits from social workers and then I was born.
The fact that my birth happened on their wedding anniversary was entirely coincidental. Maybe. But by March they had me. And my mother and I became, as she put it once, “buddies.”
She had filled in the space where a job and/or children should have been, all through the ‘60s. Volunteer work. Arts and crafts. And Girl Scouts.
My Mom was a Girl Scout leader. I haven’t spent a lot of time around Girl Scout leaders recently, but I don’t think they make them like her any more. She threw herself into that (non-paying) job in the same way that she threw herself into everything she did. 100% all the way.
By the time I came around she was in the process of planning a “Trek” to Wyoming and the Dakotas with her troop. I think it was summer of 1971, so I was two. We still have the Super 8 film (now on VHS) of me riding on my father’s back in a backpack.
And there is Mrs. McKinley, the leader of the pack (literally). She called the shots and everyone listened. Or else!
I went everywhere with her when I was little. I just had to be home in time for Bozo. That was the rule. Then she would make me lunch and we would watch TV. Together.
We watched a lot of TV together. It sounds odd, but my mother turned me on to soap operas when I was little. I wrote a joke about it, back when I was pursuing my dream of stand-up comedy:
When I started first grade, my Mom went back to work. So my job was to watch her soap operas and report on what happened.
That was back in the ‘70s, before VCRs. Or child abuse laws.
And if something really important was going to happen on one of her soaps, my Mom would make me stay home from school. Then she’d send me to class the next day with a note:
Please excuse Billy from school yesterday. Luke and Laura broke up.
She had started her own business, teaching quilting and handcrafts with her friend Leona. They called it Which?Craft. She was good with names.
That joke I wrote is not entirely true. General Hospital (starring Luke and Laura) was about the only soap we didn’t watch together. Another World, The Edge of Night, The Guiding Light, Texas, Search for Tomorrow. I loved to fake being sick so I could sit there all day with her and watch. We’d drink tea, with milk and sugar. Actually it was Sweet 'n Low. Remember, it was the '70s.
And when we got a VCR in 1980, we would “time shift” and watch them at night. My poor father knew everything that was going on in Bay City, Monticello, Springfield. But he never complained about it.
Everything that’s good – and bad – about me can be traced back to her. She had me convinced that I was something special. And I acted like it.
I think she had some sort of a book, for adoptive parents, that said, “Always remind the child that he is special. And loved, because you chose him.” And that’s how I felt.
It caused some friction beginning at about age 12, and there were years where my mother and I did not much else but fight. But even when we would battle, it was like two worthy adversaries jousting. And at the end we would declare a truce and retain our mutual respect.
Fighting, yelling, raised voices – that was love, for us. And we did a lot of loving from about 1982 until I finally moved out almost ten years later.
I would love to say that our relationship became magically transformed after that. But it didn’t. Until 1997. That year I became very sick and almost died. I spent months in various hospitals and my mother was always there, strong, fighting still. Because even though she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she was still that tough girl that married my father.
She did some research and dragged my father to a meeting with a specialist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He had a way to treat the aneurism in my brain without carving open my skull. She told me about it. I called him on the phone from my hospital bed. And I was sold. And saved.
I am a different person today because she advocated for me then. And I will be a different person for the rest of my life. I have her to thank for the thick scar that is not – thankfully -- around the perimeter of my bald head, calling attention to itself, condemning me to the role of “survivor” of something or other.
Thanks for that. And for all the other things that I can’t remember right now. I wish I could have done a better job being your advocate. But hopefully you know that I tried.
On Thursday night, the night before she died…it’s hard to type that word…the night before she left us for a better place (I hope such a place exists) my father called me on the phone and said, “Mommy will be okay. She’s a tough girl.”
And then, as if to convince himself, he repeated it: “Always been a tough girl.”
I will never forget that tough girl. And she will be with me – informing me, advising me, and inspiring me to achieve -- for as long as I live.