Storyworth: What Was Your Mother Like When You Were a Child?

| January 10, 2022 | 0 Comments

When I look back on my mother’s life, at least the part since I was born, I see specific chapters. The first chapter is the time when she was building a family with my father. The second chapter was the time after my father got sick and had to stop working. Then the period after he died. 

They were married in June of 1952 and I arrived in May of 1953. So, they got right to it creating a family of three boys and a girl.

My father worked as a machinist at B. F. Goodrich Company. It’s known today as a tire company, but, in those days, they also made sneakers. They eventually sold the sneaker division to Converse. The two top brands were P.F. Flyers and Jack Purcell’s. P.F. Flyers were high tops for kids. Jack Purcell’s were tennis shoes that grownups wore. Every spring, my father would bring home a pair of sneakers from the “seconds” pile at the plant. These were sneakers with imperceptible flaws. He got them for free, which I thought was incredibly cool. One of my “coming of age” moments came when my father brought home the Jack Purcells instead of the P.F. Flyers. I felt that was a sign I was growing up. Back then, that was good news, less so these days. I know I digress and this anecdote should have gone into the chapter about my father, but it came to mind, so I’m sharing it here.

But back to my mother. She was what was known at the time as a “homemaker” or “housewife.” Today, it’s “stay at home Mom.” She didn’t have a job outside the home until after my father died.

I honestly don’t remember much about my childhood. Either it was horrible and all my memories are repressed. Or it was just normal and nothing really memorable happened. I tend to believe the latter. I think it’s fair to say my mom was a good mother and my siblings and I were brought up well. 

Things got more memorable – and not in a good way – when my father got sick with a heart condition that forced him to stop working. I think I was about 12 or 13 at the time. Living through that period, I remember it as tumultuous. My parents argued a lot. My father drank too much. I think my mother might have been drinking too, but not as obviously. Looking back, I have great sympathy for them both. They must have been going through holy hell. At best, my father was told in his late 40’s that he couldn’t work anymore. At worst, he was told he would die soon. As noted in a previous chapter, my mother was, in fact, told he would die within a year, though he lasted five. I can’t even imagine the grief, anxiety and depression they must have experienced having their only source of income cut off. And the prospect of declining health and increasing medical bills. In their 40’s. With four young kids.

My father died at age 52 in 1971. I was 17 in my senior year in high school. To this day, I don’t know how my mother kept us in the house after my father died. 

Immediately after his death, my mother was somewhat liberated. Obviously, she grieved. But the tumult in the house subsided. I remember she got some dental work done to fix a black splotch on her front teeth. It improved her appearance enormously. She was, in fact, a very attractive woman. 

What I remember now, but didn’t fully appreciate at the time, was her tremendous sense of humor. It was a very self-deprecating humor with a brilliant eye for irony. She had an older brother, who was my favorite uncle, named Francie who was always considered the wit in the family. And he was. He was a master joke teller and would break up any room he was in. My mother was more of an observational humorist and got laughs by noting the folly of human behavior, including her own. 

That said, she was also available for parties and functions to perform her two favorite routines, Louisville Lou and The Hat. Louisville Lou was a musical number performed while dancing and swaying. The Hat was a spoken word performance describing a man going to the gallows whose last words are “Mother! Mother! Where in Hell did you get that hat?!” 

Her life took some turns after my father died. I was certainly a burden on her as I bumbled through my 20’s during what I call the “lost decade” of the 70’s. We had some epic fights. Like all of her siblings, she struggled with alcohol. On the brighter side, she and my father’s brother, Eddie, became companions. They were inseparable and Eddie introduced her to his many interests. He was a life-long learner and his involvement in our family was a blessing to us all.

Her last years were not unpleasant. Her health declined and she was anxious as she approached the end of her life. But she always kept her sense of humor and never failed to offer some ironic observation about whatever was going on around her. In the nursing home where she lived, she was always taking some poor soul under her wing who was having more trouble than she, navigating through day-to-day life in old age.

Throughout her life, she often joked about the various foibles of the Irish character, including the inability of Irish people to express true deep feelings. Her final joke on that score came days before she died. She had a conversation with my sister, Susan. They both knew the end was near. Susan asked her if there was anything she would like to say. Mom said, “Like what?” Holding back tears, Susan said, “Like ‘I love you’?” 

My mother answered quickly with a mischievous smile, “Oh no. I’m not THAT desperate.”

Bill Black, January 09, 2022


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