“I blame my Mother”
It is the sixth year that I did not scramble during the week between Christmas and New Year’s to send a gift and address a card to my mother for her birthday. She did not enjoy the fact that her parents had the nerve to give birth to a child on January 2. My mother often stated that when she awoke on her birthday she was greeted with, “Thank God the holidays are over.”
Today, there are seven people on this planet, who have in one way or another in-lawed/outlawed, attached, produced or extended our members to include 30 + people we may have called family at one time or another, thanks to her giving birth to us.
She promised me as I was growing up and becoming an independent adult and defying some of the choices she had planned for me that someday I would miss her when she was no longer living. Honestly, when I heard those words from her in heated moments I thought, quite angrily to myself, Oh no I will not miss you.
But the truth is I do miss her. Actually, I have missed her for a very long time.
My mother always wanted many children as her young life was not ideal. She thought a full house would fill the emptiness she often felt. As the baby of the large brood my parents created, I frequently heard the stories of the life she endured before marriage and family.
Her parents, Vincent* and Carolyn* (V&C), owned a small general store in Fall River, Massachusetts.
My maternal grandparents, circa 1916.
These two enjoyed playing cards with friends every evening and they brought their two young daughters with them. This meant that she was out late every school night and was exhausted in school the next day. The good Sisters of Sacred Heart Academy were not keen on the young girl falling asleep in class each day. She was repeatedly punished for this behavior. In addition the Sisters were not fond of the fact that my mother used her left hand. She was retrained (slapped on the knuckles or hand tied to her side) to write with her right hand. This left her with less than perfect penmanship. My mother, of course, blamed her parents.
A letter to her soldier, my Dad, the Milkman.
V & C also enjoyed an adult beverage now and then, thus when prohibition was the norm her parents were distilling their own concoction. Countless characters were frequenting the back of their general store to “make transactions” as her father called it. She was also made to deliver small buckets of the beverage to neighboring businesses and individuals. They assumed a child would never be stopped by authorities, thankfully they were correct and her criminal record remained unscathed. She found this extra-curricular business and the company engaged in it rather unsettling.
At times, she recalled being made to clean out the “scratch” which was used in the distilling of the “formula.” Her parents never really told her what to do with this “scratch” so she being one not to waste things thought this by-product rather looked liked chicken feed. After feeding the family chickens on several occasions and discovering the birds in a rather foul (pun intended), inebriated state, determined that “scratch” was not chicken feed. She blamed her parents.
In addition to her duties at the store, she was also encouraged to help keep the home in tip-top condition. She didn’t enjoy this activity as like most children she would have rather been playing. She and her sister were forced to share one bike and one sled. She blamed her parents.
The Great Depression forced her parents out of business. They couldn’t pay for goods because their customers could no longer pay for items that they had already purchased on credit. As the plight of the depression lingered, her father desperately tried to find a job. The still was sold for scrap, the chickens were sold or eaten, and attendance at Sacred Heart Academy was stopped. Locally, there was no work so her father ventured off, first to Boston then to New York City. He did find work, but could not go back to Fall River as often as her mother had wanted. Rumors began to spread that her father was in the company of another woman. Heated letters were exchanged between her parents. Separation and divorce followed. She blamed her parents.
Living conditions for the now single mother and her two daughters were poor. Like many Americans, there was no money for basic needs. Hygiene and standards of cleanliness were somewhat cast aside in many communities. My mother contracted consumption. She was sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium where she lived from the age of 13 to 16. She did not attend high school as schooling was not provided in the hospital. She saw little of her sister and mother and none of her father. Eventually, her sister was stricken with the same disease and died. She blamed her parents.
She and her mother were distraught with grief and poverty. A divorce in the 1930’s brought shame to a woman so her mother sought a new life and fresh start. They moved to Boston. There, at least her mother had a sister, Eugenie* and her husband, François*. The two women continued to struggle and lived in a little tenement apartment. Her mother found work and my mother decided to enroll in beauty school while holding down a job as well.
World War II brought its own trials and tribulations, but my mother spoke warmly of life during that time. The country was at war, but there was a common bond on the home front. She had her choice of many suitors and attended the USO functions where she enjoyed dancing and singing. Her relationship with her own mother became strained. My mother found her mother very overbearing and opinionated. Circumstances forced them to remain together, but my mother couldn’t wait to be free and secure. She blamed her parents.
On New Year’s Eve 1942, Aunt Eugenie and Uncle François, hosted a party at their home. In addition to my mother and grandmother, Carolyn, Uncle François’ nephew, Martin* was in attendance. He was on leave from the Army Air Core, he and my mother began chatting. This was not the first time the couple had met for they both attended Auntie and Uncle’s wedding 17 years earlier. Martin was smitten and asked my mother if he could send her a letter when he returned to Fort Deming. She agreed. From January 1943 to early April 1945 my parents wrote faithfully to each other. We are fortunate to have their letters. They wrote of the hardships they faced in life, the war, the hobbies they enjoyed, faith in God, family, beauty school and dreams of the future. During this correspondence my mother also experienced some sadness as her mother developed tuberculosis. My father consoled her from afar when her mother passed away. She was alone. This was not the freedom she yearned and security was a long distance away. Blame had once seemed appropriate, now it was obsolete.
My parents married in April, 1945. The large family of my mother’s dreams came true. She and my father struggled to send all of us to Catholic schools so we were in our home every evening seated at the kitchen table until dinner was eaten, whether we liked it or not and homework was complete. We cleaned and participated in all household tasks; the cleaning activities was enjoyed by none of us. I will never understand the ironing of sheets.
She and my father spoke in French when discussing matters they did not want us to know. Unfortunately, although I never heard my father say a curse word, apparently my mother cursed in French. Since I didn’t know what she was saying and I wanted to speak French like my parents, I mimicked one of the phrases that I heard quite often come from her mouth. While playing with my dolls at about the age of five I repeated the elegant words in French several times. The shock on her face as well as the swat on the back of my legs stung, but the phrase was never repeated, at least by me.
We attended church every Sunday and every day during Lent. Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed immense on a meager budget. My mother scrimped and saved all year for our Canadian vacations (transportation via wood-paneled station wagon and “deluxe” accommodations provided by empty seminaries). She insisted we visit the cousins who never came to visit us. She reconnected with her father, and while the relationship was strained, he did spend holidays with us, played cards and games, and bought me a peppermint patty every time he came to Boston. I am certain she felt this didn’t make up for the lost years, but he made an impression on me.
When acquaintances would tell me about their new TV, bike or stereo purchased when it had mysteriously fallen off the back of a truck ( I always wondered how the items never broke while falling from the truck…boy was I naïve.) my mother said, “We don’t buy “hot” items.”
We visited the doctor and dentist (ouch). Braces were worn by several. Hands were washed frequently and no one ever drank from the same cup as this was how germs were spread.
My mother was tough on all of us. She was overbearing and opinionated. (I have heard this somewhere before.) I wanted her to be like the other mothers who let their daughters stay outside until 9 pm and wear the clothes they wanted. Instead, I wore hand-me-downs, had to share things with siblings and had to be home when the street light came on. She didn’t like my father’s love of sports on TV, but at least he enjoyed this activity in the comfort of home. There was no allowance so we had jobs as soon as jobs were available to us and she insisted we save some of the money. This job and savings provided me a safety net when my father had a heart attack and was unable to work. They could no longer pay my Catholic high school tuition, so I paid my tuition rather than having to leave the school I loved. She made us write thank you notes, address the envelopes and pay the six to 14 cents it cost to buy a stamp to mail it.
She didn’t want any of us especially the girls to marry and go away. She wanted her table full forever and I wanted to be as far away as possible.
My mother didn’t want me to go away to college. So of course I went 400 miles away. On the first day I met a lifelong friend, my roommate, Peggy Anne. My roommate forced me to go to a mixer when I wanted to study only four days into classes. At that mixer I met a young man, Hubster who grew up only one hour north of my Boston home. We dated for five years and have been married for 28 years. Together we made a home with our two sons. My mothering days of whines and runny noses are in the past and my boys are beginning their independent lives. I feel confident that they can read, write, calculate, eat properly, attend to health concerns, clean (you are welcome significant others, although an activity they don’t enjoy), and love.
For all of this and so much more I blame and miss my mother.
To ease her empty nest when I left home she began a new career…
1920 1918 – 2009
(The strike through 1920 is a complete story in itself.)
Happy Birthday, Mum!
* Names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.