There is a tone of wistful nostalgia when my mother, Helen, talks of growing up during The Great Depression and the war years. Collective deprivation produced a cohesion never experienced before or since in America. She reminisces about playing kick the can on Albany Street, collecting metal scraps and newspapers for the war effort, and as a five-year-old, walking to the corner grocer to pick up a stick of butter for her mother, or cigarettes for her dad. The neighbor kid showed her the family’s machine gun hidden in the violin case. Where the violin was stored, no one knew. She and her siblings attended the Saturday matinee religiously, to swoon over Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.
Her younger sister, Frances, was admired for her beauty and blonde locks, her older sister, Laura, praised for her comportment. My mother felt she was harder to love. Helen was reprimanded for her fiery temper, and teased relentlessly for her red hair; attributes inextricably linked in common lore. Her father, Bill, was a larger than life, loving guy, who fondly called her “Pinky”. He appreciated her for her sharp wit and assuaged her combativeness with humor.
Childhood came to an abrupt and absolute end, when the family buried her father, on my mother’s eleventh birthday. Her own mother went to work full-time to support the family. My mother, and her sister, Laura, became surrogate parents to their two younger siblings.
Responsibilities, in addition to school and homework, now included cooking, cleaning, laundry, mending and sewing, grocery shopping, and raising a five and a seven-year-old. When he came around, they fended off an abusive teenage brother, whom their father could no longer protect them against, and their mother could no longer control.
Helen worked her way through college graduating with honors, Phi Theta Kappa. She immediately began teaching grade school, which she considered more vocation than job. She supported her older sister and mother on her meager salary and took a job in the cafeteria of the state hospital during the summers to keep a paycheck coming.
Written off as an “old maid school teacher” at twenty-five, she surprised everyone, including herself, when she met and married my father in 1962. She was a seasoned veteran at raising kids and all things domestic when we three girls came along in two-year intervals. My mother was warm and loving, yet a fierce disciplinarian. Everything she did was for family.
Helen never had a “me” day. An indulgence was the “beauty parlor” to crop her red, wavy hair, or a few bites of a Hershey bar she stashed in the cupboard, until I began climbing on the counter and stealing it.
In an era of Hamburger Helper and TV dinners, my mother made everything from scratch. Not in an egotistical Martha Stewart way, but it was simply what she knew. Homemade tarts, granola, delicious whole wheat bread, which barely made it out of the oven before my sisters and I devoured it. She sewed all of our clothes, until my oldest sister begged for a pair of “store bought” jeans when she was in seventh grade!
She supported all of our endeavors. When I took a comparative literature class in high school, my mother read all the Chaim Potok books that I read, so we could discuss them as I prepared my term paper. In an era when parents were less involved, my mother shuttled us back and forth to lessons, and attended every competition and performance. She volunteered at school, long before parent volunteer hours were required and meticulously tracked.
My father died six years ago, after forty-six years of marriage. As the fog of grief lifted, my mother discovered a curious thing; freedom. For the first time in her life, she no longer was a twenty-four-seven caregiver. Today she is a vibrant, very young, seventy-seven year old enjoying the simple pleasures of life on her own terms; reading, watching movies, traveling, tending her beautiful garden, and spending time with her family, which now includes three wonderful sons-in-law and four grandchildren, in addition to her three daughters.
Words seem inadequate for the intense gratitude I feel toward my mother, who loved and loves unconditionally and fearlessly.