Saturday, July 1, 2017

But She Use To Have A Carefree Mind Of Her Own, With A Devilish Look In Her Eye

The first time I went out with Wingman, he remarked about how much I reminded him of his mother.  When we finally met, I just didn't see it: she was a tall, chain-smoking blonde, with a Lauren Bacall-esque voice, while I considered myself just an average size brunette with no distinguishable qualities.

She and I began our own relationship with stories about our lives, and she won every round of "Can You Top This". At 10 years old, she helped deliver her brother when her mother went into labor at home. Later, her alcoholic mother walked out on the family and was never seen or heard from again, so she dropped out of school to help. At 19, she and her husband eloped, and thought no one knew.  A photographer however, took a picture of them outside City Hall which became the cover of the afternoon edition of the NY World Telegram. (Oops.) A couple of years later, her very pregnant self drove her father and his equally pregnant girlfriend to City Hall in Newark to MAKE them get married.  Her half-brother was born a week after Wingman. Mouth dropping stuff that urban legends are made of.

She ran a tight ship at home. She had to. Her husband was a traveling salesman for a GM ball-bearing company and was only home Friday night until Monday morning. She had four boys ranging from 13 to 20, including one with special needs. Weekends with dad meant Sunday night dinners were mandatory for EVERYONE, and I eventually became a regular for her homemade meatloaf, turkey Paprikash and other budget stretching casseroles, but she could never remember that it was Wingman's old girlfriend who hated mushrooms in her salad-not me.

Before we started dating, she got her GED. By the time I entered the picture, she was studying for her associates degree which landed her an entry level position in an insurance company.  She climbed the corporate ladder quickly while still cooking, cleaning and ironing her boys jeans and tee shirts, a cigarette in one hand with glass of Chablis nearby.  When I floundered in my entry level retail job, she suggested that I handle my staff the same way she did and manage like a mother.  I had NO idea what she meant by that.

Wingman and I decided to get married, and I wanted to include her in some of the planning.  I only recall one mishap: at a wedding showcase, she introduced herself to the other guests at our table, then said "this is my son Wingman, his fiance and her mother ROSEMARY," which is NOT my mom's name. It was, however, the name of the mother of the non-mushroom eating, ex-girlfriend.  Wingman quickly removed her wine glass and she was flagged for the rest of the night.

At a pre-wedding luncheon, I paid the tab with my new married name AMEX.  She was shocked, and admitted ruefully that it was going to be difficult sharing not only her son, but her name as well.  She insisted on being a part of all of her sons' lives and demanded their presence at every holiday.  It was either her way, or...her way. Nine years into our marriage we moved closer to both sets of parents and I demanded that Christmas Day was now OUR holiday and they would have to come to us or not see the boys.  Score one for the little brunette.

Wingman was still well enough to help his parents out when his father was first diagnosed with dementia.  As my boys got older and more into college sports, both men began to sink into their respective black holes until it was just the two of us women who could turn to each other.  On my worst days, I would drive over, have a glass of wine with her and talk about nothing and everything.

On the day before my father-in-law passed, we all sat in the nursing home, waiting for the inevitable.  Wingman started shaking until it got so bad in the evening that a nurse insisted that he be hospitalized. She became a widow the next morning. Three months later, I too, became a widow.   Three months after that, both of our homes suffered extensive damage in Sandy.  Too many things in common for two woman in just six months.

Sadly, her health has since started to fail. Her balance is terrible and she falls. Her once beautiful penmanship has been reduced to block letters. The thrifty casseroles for six that were replaced by elegant gourmet meals for two are now simple plates for one prepared by her live-in aide. But the worst part is that her memory is failing. I wish I could believe that it's a defense mechanism for losing her husband and her oldest son, denying the fears of what will become of her special son, and never seeing her youngest son and grandsons. I wish the son who now bears the burden of her care, or my oldest son who has started doing some of the things that Wingman use to do, could hear the stories just one more time about Chukchi Mary, Wujek Victor and Sister Adele. About the kitchen fire and her running into the street in baby doll pajamas. About making homemade peppermint schnapps and chrusciki at Christmas and singing Sto lat. But she can't remember the names, the places nor the details.

It's sometimes said that pets & owners begin to resemble each other.  There are definitely things I now do like my mother-in-law.  Just like her, every year when the boys were in grade school, I dressed them similarly for picture day.  I now manage my younger staff with a firm hand like I did with my frustrating as that is. I understand that my daughters-in-law will roll their eyes whenever the boys talk about me making their names in pancakes the same way I rolled mine when Wingman mentioned her ironing his jeans. I also remembered to KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT when my future daughter-in-law invited me to go wedding dress shopping. I never insist that they spend their holidays with just me because I know how much stress it causes. I tell the stories that will become my own urban legends, like accidentally locking my 18 month old in a sweltering car while having labor pains 2 minutes apart before delivering a 10 lb. 12 oz baby. I even dyed my hair almost blonde at one point.  And yeah, then there's the white wine...

This week was her 85th birthday. We went to a family luncheon down at the beach which I loved, because all three of my sons were there. She was happy because she had her baby brother, two sons,  six grandsons and two great grandchildren there. Today, I took a turkey breast out of the freezer to make Paprikash.  With the Summer Son eating me out of house and home, I needed a dinner casserole that would stretch my budget a little.  There's enough turkey to double the recipe so I sent some over for her, my brother-in-law and her aide. If you've never made it, or if money is ever a little tight, here's the recipe in Wingman's classic penmanship. Serve it over egg noodles. And don't worry about the missing proportions of the spices-just do it the way YOU want to. Just like she always did.

Happy Birthday Mom. I hope there's much more to celebrate in the years ahead.


  1. Great story, Barb; you can't just make this up!

  2. Very very good Barb. You certainly have a gift for writing and I am grateful for the peek into the life of a Matriarch. You Rock!

  3. And I know the thought of her in her babydoll pajamas in the middle of Calt Drive must have given you a good chuckle!


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