Tuesday, August 16, 2011


My mother was born in 1955 on Long Island, New York.  Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a cabbie.  He was in the war, but he didn't talk about it.  Her mother was an awesome cook who made a lot of things her mother and grandmother made; this was a household of traditions.

My mother was a Girl Scout.  At least a Brownie - I have a framed picture of her in uniform, standing with her brother the Boy Scout and her sister, who is a Cadette in the picture I think.  She was the fourth child of seven; she had just the one sister.

She had very blonde hair, all the way until adulthood, when it would suddenly grow dark unless she kept using Sun-In (or, when I was younger, lemon juice and water in a pump hairspray bottle).

When she was six, my mother had rheumatic fever, and it was bad enough that they feared for her life.  She didn't remember much about it, except the needles, and the fact that she missed Easter and her birthday that year.

Easter was a big deal, hats and new dresses.  When my mother was a girl, they still had to wear their hats in church, and gloves every Sunday.

On St. Patrick's Day, my grandfather would wear orange, a sign of protest to annoy the little old Irish Catholic ladies he drove to church every week.  My mother grew up in a world wear the Polish kids lived on one street, the Irish on another, the Italians on yet another.

There were never a lot of stories of growing up, not real stories, about playing with the neighborhood kids or getting into scrapes or any mad adventures that only kids have.  Mom talked about the food her mother cooked, about always being "Billy's little sister" to teachers, and sometimes what they watched on television.  She remembered the moon landing pretty vividly, and always told us how it rained in New York that day.

In my mother's house, the New York Yankees were the team to watch, and they didn't really watch football.  Her father was a baseball man.  And a Republican, in a neighborhood that wasn't.  She told me that with a wry look on her face, and about how her father used that when he picked on the little old Irish ladies, too.

Mom lettered in field hockey in high school.  She never showed me pictures of this, so in my head she looks like Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday.  It kind of works.  Jodie had blonde hair, too.

I look sometimes at the small stack of pictures I have from my mom's childhood - there are more, in her photo albums back home - and I try to see what she wasn't telling me.  They didn't smile a lot in the pictures, but then they were always facing the sun, and so many of the pictures are posed.  You can hear my grandmother: "Stand closer together, go on, pretend you like each other."  I try to imagine the little girl in the dress running as soon as the shutter clicked, to grab her bike or her book or to find her best friend.

I know what she did once she left home.  I know almost all of those stories.  Going to court reporting school, changing her mind.  Joining the Navy to see the world.  Meeting my dad, in a foreign country where she never did know the language.  Marrying him, even though he was a Catholic, and how they had a big steak dinner at their reception.  Living in an apartment in Rota just below avowed Communists, who owned a big Doberman who always ran down the stairs barking when Mom had her arms full of groceries.  Coming back to the States, pregnant with me, and going to her own mother's funeral.  And all the stories after.

I just wonder, though.  Did she giggle a lot?  Did she like to bury her nose in a book the way she did as an adult?  Did she play just with the kids on her street, or did she branch out?

The only way I can ever think to connect with my mom as a girl is to make her cucumber salad, the recipe has been handed down through the German side of the family on her mother's side.  When the apple cider vinegar smell hits the air, I think maybe our girlhoods collide there.  Maybe there, we understand each other.

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