Sweet ’16

…not quite a coming of age tale.

Hopefully everyone has recovered from the revelry that was New Year’s Eve. We here at A Milkman’s Daughter didn’t have to worry too much about the recovery part because our evening consisted of dinner, a beverage, and some watching of movies; including St. Vincent which I have seen and written about (here) before, but wanted to watch again. Peggy Anne, our weekend visitor, loved it and highly recommends it if you haven’t seen it. Midway through the evening in order for me to watch the New Year ball drop I needed a nap so Hubster and Peggy Anne watched a movie they knew I wouldn’t care to watch…some zombie movie which I do not recommend. Anyway, after the movie and my nap we toasted the New Year as Sweet ’16. We even received celebratory texts from our Son-sters and Peggy Anne’s boys letting us know they were safe and sound.

Because today is January 2, I must honor my mother as it would be her 98th birthday. It is bittersweet that I deem this year Sweet ’16 as if you choose to reread a post I wrote last year to celebrate her life you may note that not all was sweet.

“I blame my Mother”

It is the seventh 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.

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Circa 1982…L-R (front) The Milkman, Sweetheart Mum, (second row L-R) Beemie, The Irish Twin, Keary, Family Matriarch, (back row L-R) #1 Son, Piano Man, Baby Boy

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.

Like something from a picture at Downtown Abbey, only without the money, bloodline, large estate and not in England.

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.

We need those “war-time ” code breakers to try to interpret the handwriting.

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.

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This was what I visualized every time she told this story.  These chickens were not served “scratch”. photo credit: poultryguide.com

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.

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I don’t know if this was the hospital, but I have seen a photo of her sister when she was placed in the same hospital …she was standing on a porch with big windows like the windows here.

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.

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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.

OLOL

Our parish church…my parents were married in this church and so were the four girls…….we sang in the choir and more than likely sat in every pew on the right hand side facing the altar.

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Seven of us attended and graduated from this school…I am certain one of us occupied each room at least once for an entire school year.

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.

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Visiting the country cousins in Grafton, they lived on the Blackstone River…I think a few of the children are missing as I only count 12, there are 14 cousins …I am the baby in the pink bonnet on the right…my mother is in the blue v-neck dress…Uncle Francois in sunglasses…his second wife, Aunt Vivienne* covering her face, my father’s sister, Aunt Celeste* sitting in the center . The Milkman, standing in the back second from the left.

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 29 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.

Her birthday 1984….not just another holiday.

To ease her empty nest when I left home she began a new career…

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If there was a band, DJ, microphone or someone tapping a foot…she volunteered to sing…although she was asked to sing on many occasions. The Milkman became her bodyguard and chauffeur for all of her singing engagements.

LFMP

1920  1918 – 2009

(The strike through 1920 is a complete story in itself.)

Happy Birthday, Mum!

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* Names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.

3 comments

  1. janey says:

    Wow. What a cool story! First…I whole heartedly agree with your mom on the birthday thing. Mine is jan. 8 and I blamed my mom my whole life for never letting me have opportunity to have a real birthday! Not until I learned who Elvis Presley was, did I think my birthdate was cool! (we shared the day) Sidenote: I gave birth to my firstborn on New yrs eve!!!! hahahahaha. He blames me!!!
    How cool is it that you have all these stories to re tell from your mom’s life. Either my parents never shared any details of their lives or I just didn’t listen, but I would give anything to sit at their knees and listen to stories of their youth. When my daddy died, I devoured his “war box”….the lil green box the army administered to keep their personals in. He then kept his personals in it for duration of his life. Hid it in the air conditioning vent in case of burglary. I never knew it was their until his death.
    Loved Loved Loved reading your post! I could almost put myself right into your story.
    My question for you: when things did not go exactly right in your life, raising your boys, did you ever blame your parents??
    Curious because both my siblings did blame mine for everything, but I did not. Granted, they are 6 and 8 yrs older than me and maybe they remember more or maybe times were just easier when I came along, but I never blamed them for anything. Just thought they did the best they could do with what they had. And I see that so clearly now as the mother of three grown sons with families of their own…..
    Thanks for the good read and precious walk down my own memory lane….

    • Beemie says:

      Thank you for your wonderful comment…my Dad had a drawer that he began collecting things about his life as he neared the end and before being hospitalized. We didn’t know it was there until the day after his funeral. I learned so much from the contents of that drawer. As far as my siblings go, most recognize that my parents did the absolute best they could do for us as parents. At times a word of bitternes might be spoken only to be followed up with…”…they did their best.” And you are so right about not understanding parents until you have your own…sometimes the rearview mirror sees 20/20 and makes you understand why things are the way they are today. Sorry about your January birthday…I have a brother who is the 17th and besides myself, two other siblings with December birthdays, so we feel your pain.

      Laughing about where your Dad hid his war box…my Mum hid things so well that she couldn’t find them…fortunately when we cleaned out the house we found things she had thought were stolen when the house was robbed years before…don’t worry no insurance claims were made as the stuff was not that valuable. Anyway…happy Sweet ’16!

  2. Marsha Cannon says:

    Catching up on my reading after the final chick flew the nest today! I loved reading your story and it makes me appreciate having my mother still here – even though she was also a bit overbearing! She has mellowed in the last few years and I am truly blessed to have both parents still living. Thanks for sharing your sweet family story and Happy New Year!

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