Per la mamma

IMG_6825My mother died on Easter Sunday.

She’d been in a nursing home on Cape Cod for about a year…a very difficult year, as you can imagine.

Thanks to my niece, I was able to see my mother on Skype and Facetime during her last few days.

On Saturday, in a moment of lucidity, she told Stefano and me, in Italian: “nessuno dovrebbe soffrire in questo modo. Voglio volare via,” which means, “nobody should suffer like this. I want to fly away.” I told her to let go.

Unlike previous times, our last Skype sessions were mostly silent. She didn’t have the strength to talk or even to pay much attention to whatever I was talking about. So I ended up just watching her…in silence…

On Sunday there was a change for the worse: she was having a very hard time breathing. Very difficult to watch.

But my last memory I have of my mother is of her blowing me a kiss through the phone…

Six hours later, she was gone.

No more suffering…

Ciao, mamma.

Paradigm shift

My seventeenth birthday came and went. The summer ended and fall became winter. Home was a tense camp whenever my father was around, but other than that, things were okay. All except for the school. At first agreeing to hand over my diploma, the Academy changed its mind saying that the school constitution required commencement attendance. If I wished to graduate, I would have to return the following year and participate in the ceremony. In a wink I had gone from an early high school graduate to a dropout. I spoke to Mr. Pearsall about it and he said that the school was within its rights, that the contract for my admission required that I meet the requisites of the school. This only served to make things at home more tense, my father now referring to me as “the dropout.” I started making plans to join the navy.

I ran into a snag there too. In order to join the navy I had to be eighteen years old. That meant another year of hanging around the house and hastening a blowup between my father and I. As it was, I was sullen and unhappy and my father wasn’t very pleased either. We existed in a state of detante, mostly out of respect for my mom who was constantly hand-wringing about the poor relationship between father and son. Neither my dad or I wanted to upset her any further. My mother had a problem with alcohol, and the more tense things were at home, the more she sought solace from a bottle. Understand that my mother was a very intelligent woman from a very intelligent and well to do family. Her father was a real estate magnate in California who bought up tons of failing orchards outside of Los Angeles. He kept accruing property and the property kept accruing value. He was finally made an offer that was too financially significant to pass up, and sold his holdings to a holding company that represented a group of investors, very interested in the area known as Anaheim. This is where the bulk of the property was. The properties would later be added to others adjacent to become the happiest place on earth. My grandfather passed away before either my sister and I was born, and his wife, my grandmother on mother’s side passed away when I was six. The only heir, my mother became a millionaire, which, for the late 1950s was significant money.

The truth is, my family’s money came from my mother. While working fairly successfully as an executive of a marketing research firm, my father’s salary didn’t come close to covering the costs of living in the style to which my mother chose to live. Wisely, the money was set up as separate property and while mom would give dad pretty much everything he asked for, she did maintain a financial barrier between them. Only her death, with the right will provisions, would give my father control over the wealth which was constantly increasing as a result of the rising economy. The years between 1950 and 1960 were very good for our family, whose sound financial advisors and managers multiplied my mother’s holdings dramatically. A sad family secret was that my father’s salary was considered as his disposable income and he used it for self entertainment of disreputable humiliation for my mother. Her money had secured out acre properly on Long Island sound and the cars dinner parties, vehicles and domestic help our family maintained for social appearances,

March was rolling around again on the calendar, and for the final time I un-racked my Whaler and took to the sound as combination escape and adventure. I’d just returned from a good day on the Sound, if not a bit chilly since it was way early in the season, and headed to my room. I took a shower to warm up and got myself dressed in jeans and a buttoned long sleeve shirt. My sister knocked on my door and stuck her head in. “Family meeting in the living room.” she said. “Right now.”

I sighed and wondered what was up, but had a feeling of dread that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. Walking into the living room my dad was seated in “his chair,” a wide armed overstuffed thing that had followed the family for as long as I could remember. My sister was perched on one arm, my mother on the other. The scene made it clear that they were a group and I was an outsider.  A Samsonite suitcase sat at my father’s feet.

“Son, I know you don’t think so, but I have done my best for you. But no matter what I’ve tried, I’ve never managed to meet your expectations.” I was appalled by that statement since, in my view, just the opposite was true. “But I have come to a conclusion. I accept that you wish to reject us as your family, that you will never be happy with all we try to do for you.” He reached down and picked up the suitcase and held it up to me. “I bought this for you. Since you’re so desperate to go, the least I can do is support you one last time, to try again as I have so many times, to support you in your goals.”

My sister sobbed and said “Oh, daddy!” and hugged him tightly. My mother just looked unhappy. I was fit to be tied. My father had, in a genius stroke, turned the situation exactly backwards and as he had so many times before, drew the line that said there was family, and then there was me. I walked over and took the suitcase from his hand, looked at it and set it back down.

“Thanks for this, but I think what I’ll be needing is a duffel bag.” I said.

“Excuse me?” asked my father.

“I’ve decided to join the army. I can’t get into the navy for another year, and besides, looking at the things they have to offer, I see I can get my GED and maybe even take some college courses while I’m in, all at their expense.”

“The ARMY!” Thundered my father. “The goddam Army? This is a naval family, boy. We don’t wear olive drab, we wear blue. You’re not joining the army, buster. Not if I have any say in it.” That was it. Meeting over. My dad got up from his chair and thumped out of the living room and upstairs to the bedroom he shared with my mother. The door slammed hard enough the house shook.

“Way to go, Studly.” said my sister. “Leave it to you to find a way to humiliate the whole family just so you can make dad feel bad.” She slid off the arm of the chair and followed my father up the stairs.

My mother looked across the room to me questioningly. “Is this really what you want to do?” she asked me. I told her I didn’t know what else to do. It was obvious I couldn’t stay in the house. For all its drama, dad presenting me with the suitcase was just him saying it was high time for me to be gone. I said as much to my mom and she nodded. There was no denying such an obvious fact.

“I’ve spent my whole life afraid of him. So many times I’ve been knocked around or punished for nothing more than his bad moods, and he acts like he’s the damn victim. I can’t believe this crap. Yeah, I need to get gone and I can’t wait a year to join the navy.”

“Your uncle could help you, guide you. He thinks the world of you, you know.” said mom.

“I don’t want his help. I want to succeed or fail on my own merits. Maybe the army is a better idea for that alone. I mean, it’s not like I have anything against my uncle.”

“I know you adore him. He knows it to and adores you right back.”

“Thing is, I need to be signed off to join the army at seventeen. Eighteen I could just join. But I need parental permission and you know that dad would drop dead before he gave me permission to join the army.”

“Bring me the papers.” said my mother. “I’ll sign them for you.” she said, sighing.

“Dad will be furious with you.”

“Leave that to me. You just get the papers and bring them to me and I will sign them off.” Mom smiled at it. It was a sad little smile that hurt me to look at.

Doug drove me up to New Haven to the army recruiting office. The word is that you never forget the name of your recruiting sergeant. That may be true. Mine’s name was Staff Sergeant Pia. He told me that I could join, complete basic training and then go to school. I had been talking about completing high school, he was talking about military specialty training. I signed up for airborne because I thought it would be fun jumping out of airplanes –I’d intended on learning to skydive. Sergeant Pia gave me the papers I needed signed for parental permission and Doug and I drove back down to my house.

I had this feeling in my gut. Kind of like the homesick feeling I’d get when going off to boarding schools. I watched Doug disappear around the corner, getting a glimpse of his bright blue paint job through the bushes. I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I would see Doug and his car. Two years later, while I was in Vietnam, Dough would drive his car up a secluded and tree lines county road, rig a hose from his exhaust pipe to the driver’s side window and take his own life. I would discover this when I went to visit him after returning from the war. His parents told me that he’d always fought depression and said that his happiest times were those he spent with me. I wished that I hadn’t joined the army, hadn’t gone to war, but stayed to be his friend. Of course, if wishes were fishes we’d all be wet.

I left the army papers on the kitchen table and went outside. I spent the rest of the day out on the water, stopping near duck to beach the boat and just look at Long Island Sound and think about all the time I’d spent on it and the ocean beyond. As the sun was setting I putted into Five Mile River and tied off at Jenkin’s Boat Yard, the place my family had purchased the boat for me four years earlier. My father had made arrangements for Jenkins to take it back. I shook the old fisherman’s work roughened hand and walked home. Leaving the boat behind left a hole in my gut and my eyes stung as I made my way back to the house.

My mother was home and sitting at the kitchen table when I came in. She was sitting there with the papers in front of her. She’d been crying. She gave me a little crooked smile and pointed at the pages. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“No. But I can’t think of anything else to do.” I said. She nodded and signed the papers. She added a copy of my birth certificate to the little stack and handed it to me and asked when I had to go. “They said tomorrow. I have to be there by nine o’clock in the morning.” She nodded and then burst into tears. I went to her and we hugged.

In the morning, my mother made me breakfast. Waffles, eggs, bacon and toast. I wasn’t feeling hungry but mom had worked hard to give me a good sendoff and so I ate the food anyway. There was no sign of my father or sister.

My mother drove me to the recruiting station in New Haven and got me there fifteen minutes early. We stood next to her Thunderbird and she gripped me in a strong hug. “I love you so very much.” she told me. “You are my son and you are family. Come back to me alive. Please come back to me alive.” Tears ran down her cheek. I kissed her on the cheek and gave her a final squeeze.

I’ll do my best.” I said.

She smiled and I walked into the building with other recruits arriving. Thirty minutes later I was on a bus headed to Fort Dix, New Jersey.


then, Mom says…

November 2008

I sat in the office in silence. I was parked on a student chair, one of the kind that are too small for kids no less an adult. But it accommodated my 11 year old frame well enough. The Assistant Principal, Mr. Knowles, was sitting next to me at his desk, an army surplus all steel unit that showed every one of its 30 years of existence. Knowles was studiously ignoring me, doing that faculty versus student dance that wordlessly spoke “You’re in trouble now, boy.” Mr. Knowles was like Ichabod Crane. He was six-three and weighed in at a Kleenex fluttering 110 pounds. He was balding, but still had enough hair that he tried to fake it with a combover. His hair was salt and peppery, and way too long in order to be used as camouflage topiary. It had a lusterless gleam to it that shouted Wash Me louder than anything scrawled on the back of a dusty truck. I sat with my hands jammed into my pockets and started at the wall. There was a knock at the door.

Mrs. Hardesty, the battleaxe of the school office ducked her ancient and wrinkled face in and announced “Mrs. Kirkpatrick is here,” and pressed the door wide open as she withdrew. My mom appeared in the doorway and she didn’t look very happy. Mom had been pulled from her S&B party. On Tuesdays and Fridays, she and her gang of friends would join one another for lunch at one of the homes and eat finger sandwiches while they sampled different wines and talked about acquaintances behind their backs in unkind ways. This was Tuesday and the school had called my mother to come in for an immediate conference regarding young Master Robert. Actually, no one called me Robert except the school, a tradition that follows me today, except you say ‘government’ instead of ‘school.’

“Why am I here, Bob?” she asked. “You know today is S&B day for me.”

“Sorry mom.”

“Sorry nothing! Mary Ellen was telling a delightful story when the phone rang. I missed the whole delicious tale!”

“Sorry, mom.”

Mr. Knowles spoke up. “I’m sorry to have had to disturb you Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but the circumstances warranted it as I’m sure you’ll agree.” My mom looked at Knowles and her mouth twisted in that funny way she had when she was curious. “I wasn’t aware that you were involved in a meeting.” he said.

“It’s alright.” said mom with a look of longsuffering. “It was just my S&B day.”

“S&B?” asked Knowles.

“Stitchin’ and Bitchin’ …it’s a get together with the girls.”

Knowles looked surprised. “Stitchin?”

“Well, we used to call it the sewing circle, but we stopped sewing ages ago. Now we just bitch.” Knowles looked more shocked.

“It might be wise,” he said icily, “to use a bit more restraint with terminology around the tyke.”

My mom used her foot to kick the door closed and pointed a well manicured index finger at the Vice Principal. “Don’t you ever take a tone with me again, you officious pipsqueek. You do not tell me what to do. Is that quite understood?”

Knowles’ eyes opened wide. He wasn’t used to being dressed down, he was the one who did that sort of thing. Yet here was a parent berating him, and in front of a student. “Forgive me, I was just thinking…”

“Thinking my foot. Why am I here?”

“Your son had an altercation in the lunch line.” said Knowles. He was regaining a bit of the regal stature he normally wore. “In violation of school rules, he engaged in fisticuffs with another student.”

Mom looked at me. “Is that true?”

“Well, yeah. But he grabbed my milk money and wouldn’t give it back.”

“That’s no excuse…” Knowles started to say, but my mom quieted him with a stony glare.

“Did you ask him to give back the money?” my mom asked me.

“Three times.” I replied.

“Well, there you have it.” she said. I did my best to look angelic. “My son was accosted by one of the riff raff and defended himself. I fail to see a problem.”

“Mrs. Kirkpatrick, fighting is strictly forbidden at school.”

“Are you nuts?” My mom and dad were rich and well placed in town, but my parents were real people. My dad said she married my mother because she was the only sailor in the bar who could out drink him and she wasn’t even a sailor. “Bob’s father and I have taught our son to defend himself when faced with an adversarial situation. We do not find it cause for concern that he has done exactly that. Certainly not enough to take me away from some wonderful conversation over a nice little Bordeaux.”

“I, uh, I’m sorry Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but the rules are very precise on this matter. Fighting is grounds for suspension –at least for the rest of the day. We need to keep the combatants apart for a while to allow the bad blood to settle.” My mom was only half listening.

“Was the other boy suspended?” asked my mom.

“Why yes,” said Knowles. “He took his bike home about twenty minutes ago. We would have had his parent come for him but they both work.”

She looked at me. “Did you get your money back?” she asked.

“No, they split us up before I could get it.”

“Well, he has a twenty minute start on you. I suggest you get moving.” she looked a bit stern.

“Now, see here…” Knowles was saying. But I didn’t hear anymore. My mom told me to go, so I went. I felt a little sorry for Knowles, left with my mom, but I would feel a lot sorrier if I didn’t produce my milk money when I got home.

I was thinking about my mom today. She passed away in the late 70′s and her death left a hole in me that will never be filled. I have story on story about my mom, and the wholly real way she always approached anything that dealt with me. There was never a time that she had no time for me, and when I would come to her with my child’s laments, she always listened so hard her lips would move along with my words as she made it a point to hear every syllable and nuance.  She never spoiled me; I had to toe the line like every other kid I knew, and perhaps more so. It was my father who insisted on my being a man, but it was mom who showed me how to do it.

Though she’s gone, it is, I think, her strength that gives me the ability to face these days. The doctors tell me I’ve had it. Cancer is taking me and so more than ever it’s time for me to be a man. To “man up” as they say these days. It’s a good strength to have and it supports me, along with the memories I have of the woman who loved me more than any ever would.

No Joy in Snowville

Our Colts pranced all the way to the Superbowl only to get whupped, and whupped hard. I’m not a rabid fan, and I don’t mind losing, but boy, it honks me to lose to a team called The Saints. First of all, with a name like that, shouldn’t they win every freakin’ game? And I know they were named before the Age of Political Correctness, but I’m sort of surprised the name has lasted this long. Sour grapes aside, there’s no question that they played the better game and deserved the win. It was nice, though, just to get that far and make it to the SuperBowl.

Another local team is getting some notice. The Butler University Bulldogs have won 12 in a row. In fact (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), I believe they’ve made it to the Sweet 16 the last few years. I’ve got a soft spot for the team and the school – it’s Dad’s Alma Mater and the site of Mom & Dad’s meeting. So… Go Dogs!