Monday, May 15, 2006
First, an explanation.
You know how some people have a birthday on or around Christmas and it kind of gets lost? It just sort of gets melded into the larger holiday and that person gets somewhat cheated out of two special days? My Mom's birthday is like that. She was born on May 16th, so her birthday always falls within a couple of days of Mothers Day. As a result, some people believe she gets the short end of things from me.
However, I'll tell you that my mother isn't all that worried about it. A shallow person she is not. She is very intelligent and she understands the situation. This is not to say that she wouldn't want two parties or two bunches of gifts or two of whatever; everybody likes twice as much good stuff if they can get it. But she understands. And I love her all the more for understanding that I love her just as much, even though I sometimes may not show her how much twice in the same week.
This is my birthday card to my mother. You may or may not "get" everything I write here, but she will and that's what matters. These are mainly just short fond memories of times I treasure; times I had with my mother and things we did together. The greater parts of them are from my childhood. So are the pictures, which look the way they do because I only barely know how to use a scanner and photoshop. If I waited until I knew what I was doing before publishing, this space would be blank for about a decade.
I suppose it makes sense to start with the usual Mom-type stuff.
She wiped my tears and bandaged my scraped knees and kissed my boo-boos and made them better. She vacuumed and made the beds. She did the laundry - early on with an actual washtub and scrub board and wringer - and she hung the clothes to dry on the clothesline in the backyard (or, in the winter, on a clothesline we had strung in the cellar) and a bit later we got a dryer. She did the ironing while watching Loretta Young and Mike Douglas. She was almost always ironing when I got home from school, it seemed.
She nursed me through all the usual illnesses and gifted me with my first copy of MAD magazine during one of them, and thank you for trusting me at such a young age with such revolutionary material, Mom. She put patches on my pants, as I needed them.
(Does anybody put patches on pants anymore?)
She gave me eggnog to drink for breakfast - an actual egg stirred into a big glass of milk, perhaps with chocolate syrup. Those were the days when it was considered healthy to feed your child eggs and milk every day, even raw eggs - maybe especially raw eggs. She gave me vitamins.
(One time, I decided that if a single vitamin tablet was good for you, then taking a whole bottle might turn me into Superman. Mom was the one who called the doctor.)
She packed my lunchbox with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, slices of apples or oranges, usually a cookie or two, and always a thermos of milk.
(How many thermoses did I break? Many. You'd drop one of the things and hear that shattering of the insides and you knew without checking that your milk now had big shards of glass in it. Mom always bought me a new one.)
She made dinners of swordfish or fish sticks or tuna casserole. My Dad did much of the cooking, and he hated fish, but when he wasn't around Mom made sure I got enough of the seafood that I loved. She would buy salmon and tuna just for me to eat straight from the can - something I still do often, although now I might spoon it out onto a plate first. She made me macaroni and plain tomatoes, still one of my favorite simple dinners - and one that, as it turns out, is quite healthy.
We would do some cooking together. We made peanut butter cookies. We made bread pudding. She would bake a cake and I would graciously help out by licking the bowl clean. I was always glad to do my part.
Sometimes, we would go out to eat, just Mom and me. We might go to the Liberty Deli in Lower Mills, or perhaps we would end up at a restaurant called Colstone's in downtown Boston. Both of these would be places we visited after we had been to church to say a prayer and light a candle. The Deli after Saint Gregory's; Colstone's after Arch Street. She would put a coin in the poor box at church and let me light the votive candle. She taught me to pray and she taught me reverence for holy places. She gave me a great sense of God as benevolent and likely to listen to me. It was, and is, a good thing.
She sang, always. She loved to sing; still does. She sang standards around the house. She had a lovely voice; still does. She and her sister, Jeannette, actually had their own radio show when they were teenagers, on WJDA in Quincy. The story, as I remember it, was that they had spoken to the station manager and complained that there wasn't enough programming for teenagers. He told them that if they thought so, maybe they could come up with some themselves. They said, "OK" and went on the air. Pretty gutsy stuff, that.
I owe my livelihood to my Mom. Even before I went into kindergarten, she was teaching me to read. I was always the best reader in my class in school. I am still one of the best readers I know and I work with professional readers every day. Without that early acquisition of knowledge, provided by Mom, I wouldn't have the job I have today. I am very grateful for that.
She taught me an absolute love for the written word and she taught me that acquiring knowledge doesn't have to be a drag. She would buy me books at every possible opportunity. I still have a half-shelf of Golden Library Of Knowledge books, which she bought for me - one at a time - from a store downtown every two or three weeks. I learned about dinosaurs and the planets and insects and the elements and animals from far off lands, and learned about them before I had to learn about them in school. I glided through much of elementary school because my Mom gave me such an enormous head start.
While I was in school, she kept a scrapbook. It is in my possession now. Entitled "Jimmy's School Years", it is an amazingly embarrassing collection of inept crayon drawings, declining-in-quality-as-I-moved-into-high-school report cards, class photos (who are half these people?), and other assorted ephemera from my times at the Gilbert Stuart, Boston Latin, the Woodrow Wilson, Boston Latin (again), and finally, Boston Tech. Grades K through 12 wrapped up in one overstuffed segmented package. While it is embarrassing, even for me to look at in private, I am so very thankful she did it.
I remember something I wasn't thankful for and which non-thankfulness I have been ashamed of ever since. One day, when I was perhaps four or five, Mom came home from a trip downtown and she had a small present for me. It was these two small replicas of phonograph records, one reading "YES" on the tiny label in the middle, and the other "NO". I don't know what their actual purpose was, but I suspect they were part of some advertising gimmick. I seem to remember that they came from Filene's Basement, but I may be mistaken.
Anyway, she had had a small little nice thought when handed them by whomever - "I'll bring these home and maybe Jimmy would like to play with them". My Mom came in and handed them to me, saying something to the effect of she wasn't sure if I wanted these but, if I did, I could have them. I behaved like a bratty little shit and said I didn't want them; why would I want them?; something entirely ungrateful. Maybe I was expecting something else from her for some reason? I don't know.
(Silly thing to remember, but I do. And I am ashamed about it. I was ungrateful for a gift given with love. Now, I'm almost willing to guarantee that my Mom doesn't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about. She remembers good stuff about me and forgets bad stuff. Well, I apologize anyway, Mom, and now I feel better.)
Well, you see, I'm getting into small weird things here and, if I keep on like this, it will be a book before long and even then it won't feel like enough. In the interests of getting this thing published by her actual birthday, I'm going to just list a few things now, things that - if you aren't my Mom - may well sound bizarre or psychotic or both. She'll read each and every one, slowly and lovingly, and have memories - perhaps many memories, and strong - conjured by each.
You were the savior of Davy and the unfortunate bearer of bad news concerning Tippy.
You were Sugar's midwife, twice, and every cat's best friend, always.
You were the teacher and player of Fish, Casino, Rummy 500, Chinese Checkers.
You were my pass to the cafeteria at Prudential and then to shuffleboard in the employee lounge afterwards.
You are the gatekeeper of the "For Now" room.
You were the grower of the rose bush, the tiger lilies and my willow tree.
You gave me a box of kitchen matches and a bowl of water.
You were the magician who made stars appear on my bedroom ceiling.
You allowed my jumps down the stairs and piled the pillows to land on.
You put up with marbles in the bathtub.
You made me believe that the second half of The Wizard Of Oz was in glorious color even though I was watching it on a black-and-white television.
You came to see me play at McCarthy's and you actually stayed through the second set.
You were the buyer of South Station bowling.
Your room had the jewelry box filled with shiny things and a Kennedy/Johnson campaign button, the atomizer, the radio that played Jess Cain every morning, and sunbeams that never were as warm after you left.
You were the person with me as I watched The Flintstones, The Addams Family, Camp Runamuck, Hank, Bewitched, That Girl, Fractured Flickers, The Hathaways, It's About Time and I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. At the very least, three of those were shows you really were not terribly fond of, but you watched them with me anyway.
You brought me to a brave radical church and I gained a new circle of friends.
You introduced me to MY WIFE.
You were the saver of newspapers - "Kennedy Assassinated", "Man Walks On Moon", "Red Sox Win Pennant" - and I wish to hell I had been the saver of them, too.
You were the person I reported the Dow Jones to every night. Why? I haven't the foggiest notion.
You were the person who brought me the news of a death of a person I knew; the first death I actually felt and understood the finality of. "Ma died", you said. And you held me close and I knew that in this world where people I had imagined as permanent were not, your love was.
You are possibly the fairest person in the world. At the very least, you always listen to everybody and give serious consideration to their thoughts and feelings. I've inherited some of that, but not nearly enough.
You were my traveling companion on the railway in the sky that took us to Ma and Pa's for Easter.
You are the child at heart who played miniature golf and skeeball, took swings in the batting cage, ate ice cream sundaes and candy bars, and did assorted other young things with great relish and panache, on your 65th birthday.
All things considered, you're probably the best mother I've ever had.
(Hey, I got some of this sense of humor from you, you know, so stop rolling your eyes.)
Something like this could go on forever, but I'll close with this:
I've described a large number of idiotic episodes of my life on this blog and will no doubt relate many more. I've done things that were illegal, immoral, stupid, and that otherwise seemingly reflect badly on my upbringing. Every single one of those things came about through my own volition.
Meanwhile, every good quality I possess - and every good thing I've ever done - came about as a direct result of how I was raised. That may sound like hyperbole, but it is the absolute stone cold truth.
Thanks, Mom. Happy Birthday!