A Word About My Mother

In honor of Mother’s Day this Sunday, a word about my mother. When I was growing up, my father was my greatest influence and my mother was a cypher; I couldn’t relate to her at all. She portrayed herself as a goody-two-shoes who had no comprehension of typical teenage shenanigans because she had always been as perfect as she could be. We used to get a kick out of looking at her Lafayette High School (Brooklyn, New York) yearbook (Class of 1952), where she appeared in photos for (no exaggeration): Senior Class Officer, Senior Council, Arista and Major L (whatever those were), Junior Coaches (in their sporty little gym suits, hers emblazoned with a large “L”), Hall of Fame (“Best Girl Athlete”), Cafeteria Squad and Secretary to Grade Advisor Mr. Kaster. Whew! I’m exhausted just writing that! I did participate in some activities in high school – most notably as the goalie for the field hockey team and a member of the National Honor Society (the yearbook photo for which, to my great chagrin, featured me in the front row, my breasts like two oranges in a cloth grocery sack, hanging unevenly under my skin-tight stretchy shirt as I laughed at something Linda Mishkin had said to me) – but I could never live up to Kay Pizzo’s star power.

This past weekend, Beanie Marini Martini (aka Mary Jean Martinez nee Marino), my oldest friend (“oldest” not in age, as she’s literally the same age as I am – two days younger, actually – but my friend of longest standing) told me about a “walk-through” at my elementary school, where I had attended fourth through sixth grade (see “An Aspiring Young Writer”, my blog post from 3/25/15, for some of my memories from my final year there). Seaford Avenue School hadn’t actually been an elementary school since the 1980s, having gone through various iterations since then, including as a high school for young mothers and then a branch of Five Towns College, but now it is being torn down to make room for senior housing (we joked that we would soon qualify for residence). So we picked up Beanie’s mom and crossed the street from her house to visit the old alma mater, at the corner of Seaford and Waverly Avenues, for the very last time.

The building was unkempt and full of peeling paint. A glass display case outside the library (which was much tinier than I remembered it, as was most of what we saw, including my friend’s first-grade teacher – “You used to be so big to me!” she said as she towered over the miniature-sized woman) featured event programs from 1987. Oddly, there were a couple of things from that day that reminded me of my mother. One was the auditorium. My mother had a rich and resonant alto singing voice, despite her two-pack-a-day smoking habit (which she maintained till the end of her life), and it would embarrass me no end when she would sing the National Anthem – loudly and unabashedly – at school events. I also ran into some grade-school friends who I hadn’t seen since we graduated high school, who reminded me of a debauched afternoon at my house, when we raided the liquor cabinet and were inexplicably inspired to empty the contents of the refrigerator into our backyard pool. (There was sour cream and a pork butt, among other foodstuffs, not all of which floated.) My parents came home early from the out-of-town wedding they had been attending, and my mother, so flabbergasted by the destruction, in her rage, yelled: “I give you an inch, and you take the whole arm!”, gloriously and memorably mixing her metaphors.

I didn’t appreciate my mother until I actually was a mother, and even then, I rarely agreed with her. She was, inexplicably, a Republican, and a bit of a racist.  She hated my tattoos, and her most frequent criticism of me was, “For such a smart girl, you have no common sense!” But the one thing we could always do was make each other laugh. Whenever my mother, my sister and I were together, we’d inevitably end up in some ridiculous giggle-fest. As we’re all silent laughers, we’d be hysterical, tears running down our faces, but no sound would be coming out.  It actually used to scare my niece when she was little to see the three of us in the throes of laughter.

In her final months, when the diabetes that had been slowly killing her for more than a decade picked up its pace and caused her to start losing toes, and then pieces of her foot, then her lower leg, and she spent her days bouncing back and forth between the rehab center and the hospital (and although she never wanted to discuss it, as she was slightly delusional and always painfully private – another point of disagreement, as I tend toward “too much information” disclosures and she could never comprehend why I would be so willing to divulge my personal secrets – I think she knew deep down that she’d never be able to go home again anyway, not without a wheelchair, and her apartment in my sister’s basement was not set up for a wheelchair), we still managed to laugh. She would be visited on a daily basis by dead and distant family members.  She’d tell us in great detail what she saw (that wasn’t there), and she would get frustrated that we couldn’t see it, too. One day she told us that her hospital roommate had climbed into bed next to her and they had smoked a joint together (“And I liked it!” she said, which was very funny, because even though my father was a pothead in his later years due to his hanging out with young scuba divers, my mother barely even drank alcohol, sometimes nursing a single glass of scotch on the rocks for an entire party, let alone smoked marijuana with him.) But then the laughter stopped, and it was just pain, and fear, and otherworldly moans of utter misery. Finally it was time to take her to hospice, where at least she went peacefully, with her one remaining leg and the skin on her arms black from gangrene. I believe, in the end, even through her deliriums and suffering, she knew we were there with her.  Despite the fact that she was never my hero, or the person who influenced me, I fiercely loved my mother. I was especially grateful to her once I became a mother myself and my daughter put me through the ringer even more than I had done to her (which, believe me, was no small feat). She told me once that, from the time I was about 15 until I went away to college, every time I came into the house the hair on the back of her neck would stand up. The things I put that woman through! Yet I was able to finally make her proud the day I graduated from law school (at age 42), which I think is what she had wanted for me all along.

I do miss her. I miss her fake “public” laugh and our yawning late-night phone calls. Of course I realize now that there were many ways in which we were similar: We were both night owls with a self-destructive sweet tooth (I think I’ve mentioned Nips in prior posts; Nips were one of her obsessions, as they are mine), who loved crossword puzzles and sports (although she had a passion for televised golf, which I could never comprehend, and the New York Islanders and New York Jets, which was contrary to the rest of the household of Ranger and Giant fans). I often think of her when something makes me laugh that I know she would have appreciated.  I’m glad my daughter developed a close relationship with her as she got older, because goodness knows she was bratty when my mom was her primary caregiver (for free) while I went to law school. And perhaps her greatest gift to her family was her generosity, which has helped to support my sister and me and our kids even now, five years after she passed away. I may never have lived up to Kay Pizzo’s example, but I hope she was proud of me and comforted by my presence in the end.

* * *

When Beanie asked me to go to the Seaford Avenue School walk-through on Saturday, I told her that we’d have to go early. I had to be home in time for puck drop in Game 2 (I can – and do – DVR games, but I don’t like to get too far behind, especially at playoff time when there’s a chance there could be overtime) because Rangers hockey is the most important thing in my life right now, which was absolutely true (if maybe a little pathetic). I can’t help it! I love the Rangers.

But I hate when the Rangers lose and then I have to wait two whole days for the next game, especially at playoff time. They lost Monday night, a game they certainly played well enough to win. They were beaten by a fluky deflection goal, but given a little “puck luck”, the bounces could have just as easily gone the other way. Ultimately, they couldn’t solve the Caps’ goalie or break through the mass of humanity in red jerseys in front of him. They’ve got to find a way to put the puck in the net. As Jeff Marek said on Monday’s Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast,  “Do the Rangers want to do anything easily? Does everything have to be the hard way?” It’s so true, and so frustrating. As well as they’ve played this season, there were many occasions when I was mystified by how they seemed to make things so difficult for themselves, failing to take advantage of dead giveaways or “grade A chances” (as Coach Alain Vigneault calls them).

I close this week’s post with an appropriate quote from Coach Vigneault on the Rangers’ inability to score: “I would say in playoff hockey, the more you advance, it’s usually harder to generate offense. Goaltenders are getting better, you’re playing against better teams. But all that being said, we’ve had good looks that we haven’t capitalized on. We need to find a way to finish. Our guys are aware of that.” (Brett Cyrgalis, “Irate Vigneault blasts Rangers, refs, Capitals in message to team,” New York Post, 5/2/15). I heartily agree, AV. Let’s hope your words have the desired impact and, by the next time I post, the Rangers will have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.


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