Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Year in Mourning

On 8 January 2010, one year after my mother passed on at age 96, I sat outside in the sunshine musing over memories of her. Risking sentimentality, I transcribe here some of what I wrote which is in turn a mere glimpse of the remembrances that I didn't get down.

December nights my Mother and I would venture out in the cold night after supper to see the lights, to see how people had decorated their homes for Christmas. There was an abundance of trees, wreathes, and front porches outlined in the fat-bulb colored lights. Some homes had succumbed to modernist kitsch with silver trees and revolving color-wheel spotlights. We would walk a few residential blocks over to the vicinity of George B. Stone school and back home the same way. My Mother was well-read, intelligent and full of humor and we would carry on conversations as if we were both adults. She would inspire me with her sense of wonder at the adequacy and outright goodness of life, of the profound experience of viewing the starry sky. What ever inklings of wisdom I have today I owe to her nature and her example.

On my first day of pre-primary school at George B. Stone, my Mother stayed along with the other mothers through the morning. The idea was to gradually get the kids used to being apart from their mothers who generally were home with us during our first five years.
When we came in from a recess in the schoolyard, I looked around and quickly saw that she was now gone. I ran straight out of the classroom, out of the front door of the school, up Globe street, and around the corner to Garfield street, yelling "Ma"! I caught up with her mid-block. With her typical good-nature she dutifully walked me back to school. She stayed a while maybe until school was out, but by the next day I had accepted the fact of our separation and was dropped -off while many mothers were still required to stay and placate their jittery kids.

Once we were walking with my brother at an undeveloped area known as the circus grounds. It was a Summer night and dark there--we may have been there for the Fourth of July fireworks. Then without warning my mother stepped in a hole and fell down onto the long grass. It was a new experience for me, a frightening realization that even adults were subject to spills. She was the ship, the rudder and the mast that kept our family afloat. I think I came to a new maturity with the realization that I needed to help her and try to protect her from hazards.
She later told me that when she was a little girl a man had appeared in broad daylight at those circus grounds and attempted to entice her and a friend. She said he eventually exposed himself to them as they ran away.

I remember vignettes from that old disappeared way of life in the 1950s--such as the Christmas parties at the American legion Hall downtown. Refreshments and entertainment of the homiest sort prevailed. They gave us kids those old-fashioned red-mesh Christmas stockings, packages for candy and toys that were made-in-Japan. My Mother occasionally spoke, giving a report or something and she was later elected head officer, but I think we were able to skip going ourselves by then.

She would take us, three boys and herself, downtown in a taxi. We would ride as far as a certain beauty salon on Second street and then walk the rest of the way to save funds. We would shop for clothes at McWhirrs department store with it's great wall-plaques with taxidermy sailfish and swordfish. We always had finery for Sunday Mass and other best wear events, and generally were dressed nice enough to draw comments from others.
The downtown then was thriving, lively and a great deal of fun. Huge Christmas decorations were attached to the facades of buildings. The five-and-dimes were packed with everything from 45 RPM singles to pet shops. We always seemed to have parakeets or a canary or two at home and plenty of records which somehow we never got tired of playing.
On occasional Sunday nights, she and I would take a cab to the beauty shop and walk another block to St Mary's church for Mass. Afterward we would go to Adams' drugstore where I would get a reward of a candy bar and a comic book or a Mad magazine.
Some nights after church, I would escort her to the Eagle Annex restaurant. It was sort of a soigne affair. It was my introduction to "fine dining" and I would always get the fried clam plate. We would leave as the orchestra began to play and my Mother's impeccable sense of decorum dictated that it was the right moment. The eagle was transforming into a nightclub for couples, adults only.

On one night still vivid in my memory, we were walking on Stafford road, a high road that capped our street. Our destination was a firehouse where she was turning in the proceeds from some door-to-door appeal she had volunteered for--the March of Dimes or the heart fund or something similar. Men were gathered in a vacant lot across the street, silhouetted against a large bonfire of branches and leaves. She shared my sense of wonder and enjoyment of the nocturnal, autumnal scene slanting toward Hallowe'en.

At some point in my early childhood she began to cook for the nuns at the convent attached to the school I attended, St Patrick's. A half-day's work brought her a small stipend and some foodstuff from the school larder to take home, helping to sustain her three sons. It was strange on the odd occasions when I would see her there, outside of her familiar context, when we were both on best behavior. She enjoyed the increased circulation and became dear friends with a saintly nun named Sister Matthew who didn't join the other nuns as our teachers but stayed at the convent with Mom. Sister Matthew died while I was still at school there, as I was for eight long years. They marched us kids through the convent to see her in her coffin I believe. I know we had done so for Sister Vincent my first grade teacher who died the year afterward--I was in the second half of the baby boom and my class finished off many an out-moded teacher and teaching as we passed through the system. Sister Vincent had been rather mean to me after the unconditional love from my Mother and after the sweet old-maid Miss Taylor who had been my pre-primary teacher at George B. Stone and who lived in an immaculate house on nearby Garfield street. I cannot say I felt terribly sad when I saw Sister Vincent in her casket.
When my Mother started working there, the nuns eased up on punishments for my brothers and me, saying they would tell my Mother instead-- she who rarely punished at all. That was most agreeable to us.
And my Mother's presence at the convent was a great help in one singular incident from my youth. One day a week, we used to withhold the twenty-five cent payment for a cafeteria meal and, under the banner of going home for lunch, go out to local diners. The food was more fun and we would have freedom on the open streets until the bell rang. This sometimes led to a little trouble as it did one frigid winter noon.
Two daring pals and I had walked out on some recent ice over a pond connected to a factory complex. I was recklessly pounding my foot on the ice testing its strength, when it broke though plunging me into the drink. I pushed myself toward the surface only to find a ceiling of dim daylight through the opaque ice over my head. Somehow I struggled and found the hole I came through. I endeavored to push myself back into this day-lit world only to have the edge break again followed by another shallow plunge. One friend came back on the ice to try to help but the whole ice surface began to break up with my desperate activity. I had not even learned to swim by that age, yet somehow I persevered and made it to bank where the friend pulled me up. The other continued to laugh hysterically, because, in that sociopathic way boys can have, he thought it was unbelievably funny.
Dripping wet in the cold noon, I made it back straight to the convent where I knew Mom and the most certain rescue would be. we rode home in taxi and I was dried, rubbed with rubbing alcohol, and given a little brandy as I was put to bed. The brothers came in hear what happened and to laugh at my wet proto-beatle boots. I gained the name "Swampy" from their snarky friends. I didn't mind... everyone knew they admired me for saving my ass with valor.
The next day the nuns busted me for not coming to them first to ask permission to leave school. While I was soaked in ice water walking back in the twenty-degree day I had made a line of survival to my Mom and so questioned their authority. This was despite the fact the nuns knew, my Mother certainly called, and the two other rascals were back in class to tell the tale of my absence.

"Look at the sky tonight, Stephen! Look at that sunset!" My Mother would say.
And I still do. With the love she gave me.
In perpetuity.

(more to come)