Everything I am proud of having done or stood for I owe to my Mother and Father. To my Mom, however, I've always felt I owed a little more. Maybe it started with Ma laboring 31 hours to deliver me, while Dad just nervously pranced the floor. Maybe as an averse-to-sleep, night crying baby, she had to hug me more and the hugged imprint stuck. Maybe it stems from the times I can still remember. Those times when I'd come home from college, and Dad would be teary eyed and happy to see me, and after some simple words, he'd go to bed to rest for his night shift Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper delivery job. Then Mom andI would talk into the night. Mom hung on every college story, collegiate feeling, learning wonderment, friendship made. Often I thought she was dreaming her own youthful college experience through my words. Only after I recently re-read her only book --- ME, typed in 1932 on 21 fading pages as her 8th grade graduation assignment from Cleveland's Brownell Grade School, was I reminded of the dream her son's words lived for her on her couch:
"My ambition is to be a junior high school teacher. I will try to earn my own way through college. I wouldn't enjoy going to a college in Ohio. I would like to go to a college in a different state. I will try to be kind to everybody in college and senior high school. From the wages I earn when I begin work as a teacher I will give part to my parents and keep the rest. During my summer vacation I will travel to different parts of the country. I expert to work as a teacher until I am promoted to the principal of the school. I hope that my future will turn out as I want it too."
As the first college graduate among her sisters' kids, I won't forget what she said after I told her I wanted to go into the Peace Corps upon graduation, "There's nothing more we can teach you, give you. You've got more education than any of us. You've got to know what's best from here on." She didn't want me to be half a world away, but she sent me off with that sturdy independence, warmth and conviction and not a single tear. Sturdy and tearless, the mother I had always loved.
I can remember that Mother. She could be tired and curt, but always unafraid, caring and helpful. For a long time I assumed she'd be that way forever, and I'd always love her. I was right on one of two.
The way I remember her most vividly now is still sitting on the couch, anxious to see me but now hobbled by a stroke, with never seen in younger years, tears on her cheeks and voice. The slow lifting of the arms, the hug and the now rolling tears tugged at my heart. Now her tears and just a little talk would leave her in need of a nap. Sheltered in a blanket and sleeping, I would gaze at my once indomitable mother, wishing for her sake more of that earlier her could return to her.
This is the Mom, who like so many moms, sheltered her kid from the realities of life. The Mom who left me frolic in kid-hood, for she knew that too soon life would teach harshness and tears. When I wanted to go to my dream high school, Cleveland's expensive St. Ignatius, she went out and took a clerk's job at a discount store. As I romped through life, I thought she liked the added experience of working and raising two kids, and a dad. When I came home and asked, "Ma, the other kids at school have lettuce and tomato and stuff on their sandwiches. Can't I have lettuce on mine? "
I got the lettuce. Years later I learned how the lettuce grew. Ma, who on paydays immediately shred her and dad's paychecks into white envelopes hidden in her dresser drawer and floor furnace venting, said, "I didn't have the money to buy lettuce for your sandwich, but I said to myself, 'If it means not eating, my kid's going to have what the other kids have.'"
This is the Mom who wanted to see me and missed me -- but encouraged me to travel with my friends during college breaks, who worried when I hitchhiked and jumped freight trains, who was scared when I traveled and worked thousands of miles away after the Peace Corps. "Travel. See the world. You won't get a better education. Once you have responsibilities, you won't be able to ..."
When I pushed to get a paper route to earn some money, she asked, "You want to be a grown man with a job already? Do you like playing baseball, football, swimming, riding your bike, going on trips, getting your homework done? With a paper route, will you have as much time to still be a kid? Be a kid for as long as you can..."
When I had a chance to buy my first fixer-upper in pricey Marin County, she volunteered, "Dad and I can give you some money to help." Mom, like her Mother, never stopped turning small change into miracle lettuce that she'd pull from that little white envelope marked "Kids."
the inside, the weakened lady laying on the couch in her little "coucha" (Croatian home) in Ohio had never
changed. The vibrant, gorgeous young
woman, who on the dance floor with my dad in her twirling days was slick enough
to have had Hollywood producers offer to squire her to Tinsel Town, wasn't
going to raise her little kids in the alley house on Cleveland's East 25th
where she and dad started. She found a
safer, suburban Parma house that dad, the small-time sometimes bookie, was
afraid to gamble all their savings on. "I didn't bring these kids into the
world to raise them in an alley...
They're getting a better life.
I'm buying that house and taking the kids. You can come, or stay, but we're going."
Dad may have been scared, but he wasn't stupid.
Not yet ten, I fought, cried and argued about leaving that alley, about leaving my best friend, Frankie Boris, and the adventures and tussles he meant. In the end, Mama knew best not only because I found other Parma friends and adventures, but because Mama needed a better home to take care of Marlene. It wasn't long after we moved that my sister got sick, stopped eating, and seemed to this little boy to be sleeping and shrinking to death on our couch. Finally, Dr. Hall and Cleveland's infamous Dr. Sam Shepherd and his brother diagnosed Marlene and started the long and often repeated hospital process of fighting to save her from a diabetic death. Over the years, my parents spent hundreds of nights at Bay Village Hospital with Marlene on the critical list. My mind's eye can still see the hospital corridor hall and this little boy often sitting with his baseball and glove. Understanding little of what Ma and Dad and Marlene were going through, I would often feel sad for my sister and then find my thoughts turning to tomorrow's games.
Suzzane King, a California friend who often sat with Mom when work beckoned me from being Ma's caretaker, and would read her the Garrison Keillor stories that Ma liked so well, often got her to talk of earlier mothering days. "Your Mother feels sorry about how she raised you. She thinks she and your dad didn't have enough time for you and that you were neglected. You had to make do on your own because they had to spend so much time taking care of Marlene, and that's why you are like you are..."