Tuesday, April 25, 2006
She was the Midwest champion in backstroke in both 1937 and 1938. She would've gone to the Olympics had their been one in 1940. She played the piano at an exclusive dinner club in Chicago, and she was only 18 at the time. She blushed when my father took her to a floorshow at a speakeasy with tickets he'd gotten from my grandfather. She'd never seen a fan dance before. She stayed in the bathroom for the entire show.
She married a man that reminded her of her father -- a brilliant and compassionate man with an impulsive, intense anger -- and stayed with him for more than 50 years. She never complained to the kids about how unhappy she was in the relationship; she felt it was her duty to stay. Her mother-in-law berated her for being an inadequate mother and wife. She never said anything unkind in return, and never said anything unkind about her to us.
She didn't make me go to church, but let me know how hurt she would be if I didn't attend. She watched all of her children attend Catholic schools, some of us through college, and wished that one of us would've joined the clergy. She understood when, as the ninth child passed through school, that none of us received that kind of calling, but never stopped praying that somebody, someday, might just try it out for a while.
She made me become an alter boy and a choirboy. She watched me in the choir loft, with her back to the alter in the middle of church, sing the Hallelujah Chorus. She said that she heard my voice above all the others. She never took her eyes off me, and mine never left her; I was singing to her, and I remember the smile widen on her face when we finished the last note.
She let me go out to play even when I had homework to do. She met with my teachers and agreed that her son had potential. She also agreed that her son should do better in every subject; invariably, she came home from those conferences and always said the same thing: "I wish the earth would open up and swallow me." Every year, she hid my report cards from my father.
She loved all my friends-the parolees, prisoners and honor students the same-and they loved her. She always invited them into the house, and each one of them remembered her for her kindness.
She sewed my name on my underwear before I went to college. She dropped me off at the train station when I left, never letting me know how much she was going to miss me, even though I saw in her eyes how it hurt her to see me leave. She sent me Spam in care packages, money in birthday cards and always signed each of her cards and letters with the same, warm, looming, perfectly scripted signature, "Love, Mom."
She suffered from terrible depression, and spent many of her days horizontal, reading. She read mysteries, and I always wondered what was in those books with the scantily clad women on the front. Who was Mickey Spillane and why was my mother reading this stuff? She had been hospitalized for depression and never shook it. She never complained about how she felt, but she overate in order to insulate herself against the sadness. She became large, and her mobility was restricted all her life.
But she had a smile. She had such a smile. She would smile at the most inopportune times, times that I was sure I deserved otherwise. She smiled at me when I made mistakes, smiled when I knew I was in trouble. She smiled at me for no reason. She smiled at me just to let me know I was in her thoughts. I have a picture of the two of us above my desk in my office. She is smiling, broadly.
She always said "I love you" before she hung up the phone. She said "I love you" to be reassuring, to let me know that she is right there with me, always.
And she told me "I love you, darling" just before she died.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I love you, too.
Ed McShane is a psychotherapist. His commentaries will be featured monthly on kpbs.org. You can contact Ed at email@example.com.
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