Mom turns eighty-seven years old on Friday, May 15th.
I can write volumes about her life which is a true record of life in the twentieth century, or about her ethnicity which rewrote itself, or her uncanny ability to make friends with a two by four; I could write about how she’d become friends with the ladies in the bakery or the fish market or the produce section of Farm Fresh. One day I stopped by and Dad was all dressed waiting for Mom. I asked where they were going. “To a wedding,” he said. “Oh? Who’s getting married?” “The daughter of the lady who sells fish at the food store.” Of course.
But before that, roughly fifty-five years ago:
I remember, or, better said, I can recall going to A&S’s with my mom, walking through skirts, pushing aside blouses a few racks away, my face near the metal pole waiting for her to call me out. I made her laugh, but, honestly, everyone could make her laugh; she is light, she is light as air and laughs like that too, aware of her deep breath when she’s calming down.
I remember her making Irish Soda Bread for Ethnic Food Day in second grade, and she said, “Wouldn’t you rather have German potato salad,” noting to my father how much easier it is to make. “Please Mom?” I pleaded. Of course. Yes, of course. She joked with me not long ago about that day and how if she knew then what she knows now I would have just brought a bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Everyone loved the bread.
Mom was always there. I remember in the East Islip Public Library asking the librarian a question and when she answered, I was looking down, and Mom said, “Always look in the eyes of someone talking to you.” I never didn’t again. I remember after that we went to Stanley’s Bakery for black and whites and hard rolls with butter. Non-New Yorker’s need to trust me on that one.
We went to the doctor when my lower back hurt shortly after joining the track team at Islip Terrace Junior High. Dr. Wagner said, “I’m afraid he has strained his sacroiliac,” and my mother sat quiet a second and then laughed and said, “Are you making that up? There’s something in him called a sacroiliac?” There is and I did so I dropped off the team and she bought me a tennis racket.
I remember Eddie Radtke and I hiked through Heckscher State Park and several times my foot slipped deep in the mud, and when I got home she was crouched on the floor talking to my aunt on the phone and she told her, “Irene I have to go” and hung up and asked what happened as if the mud were blood and my shoes the ousted teeth of some creature. Mom was never an outdoorsy person.
A trail ran through the woods across the street all the way along the Southern State Parkway down to a creek, and it was scary and deep when you’re eleven or twelve, but my friends and I would go there and hike and play out the roles of “Alias Smith and Jones.” The day Pete Duel died, one of the stars of the television show, I ran into the house to get my guns and Mom stopped me and said that would be in bad taste. That perhaps my friend’s and I should come there and have sandwiches and talk about our favorite episodes. We did. I remember that; I am still aware of that.
Can anyone truly grasp the lessons we learn from our mom’s who somehow manage to teach us things without doing anything more than practicing unconditional love? That’s it; that’s everything, the secret to parenting. Mom would yell oh my God, for the love of all things that are holy, she could yell if I did something stupid, which was not that unusual, and it took me years—years—to understand she was yelling at herself, not at me.
Then it got interesting.
My sister was at St Bonaventure, my brother at Notre Dame, Dad had moved to Virginia to buy the house we would eventually move to, but Mom and I stayed on the Island because it was a recession and it took more than a year to sell that house. It was just her and me, driving once a month to Virginia Beach, then back. Having fun dinners, family over a lot, and much more freedom for me as I’d explore the state park day after day, endlessly, at fourteen.
In the mornings I’d sit in the kitchen before school while she made breakfast, the radio playing a bank commercial I can still sing. “F. B. L. I. Leaves you more money for living…” and I’d walk to the bus stop with the rising sun. In the evening she’d make spaghetti, or we’d have eggs and fries, or we’d have subs from the deli out on River Road, and once a week I’d get to watch “All in the Family.”
That last day there in the house which I consider to be where I grew up, she had to be at a lawyer’s office to close on the house, so I walked home from school on the last day of ninth grade with a friend down the street, Steve Delicati. My aunt would meet me in the driveway, and we’d head back to her house where Mom would pick me up and we’d drive the eight hours to Virginia Beach, June 18th, 1975, and it poured the whole drive.
Summer 1983 I decided to move to Tucson, and I packed the small, light blue Monza which used to be hers and which my parents had given me for graduation, and she stood at the door early one morning as I backed out of the driveway to head west. She waved once then closed the door. At the time I didn’t know why.
I could add more, of course. Yes, of course. Like how no matter what a conversation is about she can without missing a beat turn one of the lines into a song she remembered from her youth, and she’d sing it. Like the time my siblings and I locked her out on the roof of the house on the Island when she was washing windows, and by the time she was back inside we were all laughing. Or how our German Shepard was so terrified of her that when the dog was in my sister’s room one morning, all my mother did was whisper “Is the dog up here?” and that poor dog didn’t touch a step flying down the stairs and into the safety of the kitchen. Or how when it was time to give my dog Sandy away, a dog which won Mom’s heart, when she dropped him off at the new owner’s house, Sandy jumped up on Mom and put his paws on her shoulders and whined for her not to go, and Mom cried all the way home. I can recall several years’ worth of five thirty am talks in her condo kitchen while Dad was still sleeping, and I’d complain about problems at the college and she’d listen so well, and then she’d talk about Dad’s health and small signs she’d notice or which I had noticed the night before, and we’d compare notes. She loved him, oh my God she loved that man like a person who should be used as an example of love, for sixty-three years. And no matter how frustrated she got, that always rose to the surface, that love. And before I left for the office we’d always make sure we were laughing. Always.
She loves light blue.
She loves music.
She has always worn a Miraculous Medal.
She had a life I can’t write about properly except to say she took on serious responsibility at a very young age, walked through some serious fires in her life, and always maintained a strength and intelligence and a sense of humor that set an example I can never match. She taught me how to be alive.
But, with apologies to my beautiful mother, Joan Catherine, she has one blemish, one which scarred me for, well, I’m going to be sixty and I still remember it:
In 1974 or 75 I stayed up to watch The Poseidon Adventure on television and with just fifteen minutes left she yelled down for me to go to bed. I said, “Ma! Gene Hackman’s hanging from a pipe!!” “I don’t care it is getting late and you have school!” she called back, and so I went to bed and wouldn’t see Hackman fall into the fiery water for another fifteen years.
Some people think their mom’s are just oh so perfect and easy to love and can tell stories about what amazing women they are and that’s fine, really, that’s fine, and I’ve tried, I really have, and she comes close, but, seriously, the Poseidon Adventure, Hackman, the freaking climax of the movie for God’s sake. Come on. There’s simply no forgiving that.