Homo homini rodentius est

Thinking of Mom

One of These Things is Not Like the Others My mom (3rd from the right) as a teenager. Maude was pretty as a picture, with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a sailor. A very bawdy sailor.

My co-workers frequently comment on the burdens of raising children and the consultations they regularly have with their kids’ teachers which, in these over-cautious times, often take on the gravity of papal audiences. As the resident childless drone in the office I have nothing to reference during these conversations except my own history of parent-teacher interactions. Such as the time my older sister was in fourth grade and came home crying because she had received a rap on the head from her teacher, who wore a heavy costume jewelry ring for just that purpose. The next morning my mother walked her to school, then continued into the building and into my sister’s classroom. “Listen, tramp,” she said to the hapless teacher, “if you ever touch my child again I will come up here and pull your blond hair out by its black roots!” In a class of 30 students picture 29 small mouths agape and a teacher in tears. I’m sure my sister wanted to crawl off the planet at that moment, but years later we would regale each other with re-tellings of a story that so perfectly summed up the exasperating extent of our mother’s loyalty.

There were a number of photos I could have used for this post about my mother, but I chose one of her as a young woman because it seemed most appropriate. I came along late, she was 43 when I was born (“I still want a boy,” she told her doctor the year before I showed up. “Well, you better step on it,” he replied), and by the time I was a teenager I realized that most of her life had already happened and I had missed the best of it. My sister and I would spend hours on Saturday mornings eating tea and toast and listening rapt as she told us stories about the adventures and, more often, misadventures she had gotten into as a girl and young woman. Born in Ireland after the first World War, she and her parents fled rural poverty to start a life in America. They settled in upstate New York and opened a boarding house that provided a good living. From the start, my mother was trouble — undisciplined, willful, unlearned but cagey. She said she hated America and wanted to go “home” to Ireland. At the age of 15 my grandmother removed her from school because it just didn’t seem worthwhile and she could use my mother to help with the boarding house. It was to be the first of many instances where lost opportunities would compound over the years until they became a crushing weight.

Gifted with a beautiful singing voice, she won a singing contest held at Radio City in the 1940s. It was a huge coup for her and the prize involved a recording contract that might have taken her life in a very different direction, but by then she was married to her first husband — a New York cop who was alcoholic and insanely jealous. When he heard that she had the chance to pursue a career he beat her so badly she ended up in the hospital. Another opportunity lost.

By the time I knew my mom she was in a second bad marriage to my father (another alcoholic, only this one didn’t work) and we were very poor. I remember her humiliation at using food stamps and at least one Christmas where the toys came from the church, not Santa Claus. She still spoke of going “home” to Ireland (only now it was as a collective — her and the kids. No husband.), as if, were that ever to happen, all would magically be put right. To make ends meet my mother would take jobs cleaning the houses of some of the wealthier families in town. Since she couldn’t afford a babysitter, she would bring me along. I was too young to be humiliated and reveled in the chance to make believe I was rich. While my mom cleaned the toilets and mopped the floors, I would open closet doors to look at rich clothes and rummage through cabinets looking for things that wouldn’t be missed. We made out pretty well, if you catch my drift.

But the real scourge of poverty is hopelessness and the futility of dreaming of something better while weighed down with the burden of daily existence. There is often only one escape from that and my mother eventually succumbed to alcoholism as well. There followed years of progressive decline occasionally interrupted by moments of grace. One of them occurred shortly after my uncle, her brother, passed away. My sister and she used the money he left her to plan a trip to Ireland. Finally, after more than 60 years, she was going “home”! They arrived in Ireland and were met by cousins who still owned the farm that my grandparents had fled. With great ceremony they installed my mother in her long-lost birthplace and stood back to see her reaction. She looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings and announced, “I don’t remember any of it, I want to go home.” That moment of clarity, the dispossession of an ancient fantasy, might have been the starting point of a new life — but it came too late for her. Perhaps not for my sister and me. The lessons we took from that incident and our mother’s life in general we will be mining for years.

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