“…she sowed compassion in us…a dollar at a time.”
Mothers Day, to remember, to honor
A journal entry: Oct. 15, 1974 a visit to the hospital’s ICU:
You can only visit for 15 minutes on the odd hours and I was there at five. The bed was cranked up so she was almost sitting but she was leaning to the side with her head tilted as she slept.Her head shook slightly almost in rhythm.
I wanted her to know that I was there but the nurse said it would be better for her to rest. I stood at her bed for the fifteen minutes in case she woke up. She looked frail and drawn with sagging lines under her eyes. Her bowed head made her look weak and vulnerable and the transparent plastic oxygen mask distorted any familiar features that remained.
This wasn’t my mother! The mother who raised me was stout and strong, built of hardy German stock. Where was that robust mom with the honest laugh who could bang out ragtime on a piano like few others? Where was that workhorse woman we all depended on, who never let us down, who never let herself be sick, who was indestructible?
I watched the monitor in its pathetic attempt to visually present her heartbeat on a cold orange screen encased in stainless steel. It was silly to think that any machine could reproduce any mother’s heartbeat.
I saw the plastic hoses disappear under the sheets to add or to drain to keep her alive. There was a constant electronic beep from somewhere and nurses talked in friendly casual voices.
I stood by her bed and the two of us were remote from the matter-of-fact technicians efficiently going about their work. My shoulder muscles were tight and my the back of my neck ached. I watched her and remembered happier, healthier days of warm smiles and hopeless attempts at stern discipline.
As I looked at her trembling hand the memories became too poignant. My eyes began to burn and I looked around the ward for distractions. I read brand names from cold instruments:
Baumanometer, Electronics for Medicine. Anything to avoid the welling that already began to blur.
She was here before and recovered to go home to my father. I expect she’ll find the strength to do it again. I’ll pray that she does. At quarter after five she was still sleeping and I left.
She didn’t know I was there.
My mom died six days later, Oct. 21, 1974
“No man is poor who has a Godly mother.” Abraham Lincoln.
Poor is such a relative state. Many around our planet aspire to be among the poor in the United States of America. Most of our poor have roofs, electricity, lavatories, clean water and at least some food. Some country’s poor have none of these from cradle-less infancy to coffin-less grave.
But my mom grew up among the poorest in our New York region. She lived on Barren Island, one of 33 islands that were in New York’s Jamaica Bay, at one time home of the Canarsie Indians.
(Much of the detail in this post is credited to my sister, Mary, the family historian.)
Commerce in dead horses:
In 1850 Barren Island became industrialized when a glue factory was built there. Dead horses that served New York City were taken there for processing. A second factory was later built to convert NYC garbage into fertilizer. These combined to make the most malodorous of living conditions. In 1928 during the fledgling airport era a huge dredging operation connected all 33 islands into one and it became the famous, Floyd Bennet Field.
This 1890 Map (credit Max Liboiron, creative commons) shows Barren Island pre Floyd Bennet Field.
The people on Barren Island were poor but even on that island, the strata of well being was in place. My mom’s dad, Henry, and his wife, Marie, immigrated from Sankt (Saint) Ingbert Germany in 1888, through Ellis Island; he was sponsored somehow by a liquor dealer on Barren Island. There were four saloons and a one-room school house on the island. Henry and Marie went on to own and run a general store there so they were among the better-off on that poor piece of planet.
To replenish the store’s inventory Marie rowed across the bay to mainland Brooklyn, loaded the boat, then rowed all the way back. They didn’t have any Amazon online to call for deliveries, Marie was the Amazon:
My mom, seated right on the lap of her mom, with her siblings:
My Granddad, on the porch of the general store. I don’t know where his wife, Marie was that day, maybe too busy for photos? Maybe rowing across the bay to Brooklyn?
Henry and Marie, built their own house, as did all the people of Barren Island but they had to pay the island’s owner’s $3.00 per year in rent. They were among the first to leave the island for a house they bought on Decatur St. Brooklyn. By 1936 everyone had to leave the Island for the New Marine Parkway bridge construction. The area became a national park.
My mom met my dad at a Brooklyn dance. She asked him not to tell anyone she lived on…Barren Island, she was too embarrassed. They married and started a family in that County of Kings.
My mom and dad 1928:
They later moved to Queens. Yes, for those of you unfamiliar with the boroughs of NYC; we do have boroughs outside of Manhattan called Kings and Queens, the apron of “royal” real estate which surrounds the Isle of Apple. But neither Kings nor Queens Counties ever led my mom and dad to royal living, so when they died they didn’t leave their heirs much in the way of jewels and such.
My dad was a widower with a daughter, Anna, when they wed, my mom was a devout Catholic, and as such added six more children to raise. This is a photo of my family in the early fifties, (me extreme left, and artfully a step forward, apparently always ready for my mug to be in full view, just like my grandpa.) The photo was taken in our old house in South Ozone Park, Queens:
My dad, mom and little Mary in front of that house. Dad must have been into Country Western music that day…I guess.
Me and my surviving siblings revisited the house in 2006:
From left to right: Marilyn, me, Mary, Lorraine, Rod.
My dad was a hard working man. He was never without a job: typewriter repairman, electrician, Trainmen, NYC Transit cop. But seven kids meant a life of what they called, a “stretched dollar”. However, no matter the hardships and trials of growing up we were never really poor.
I recall a young lady telling me she didn’t know her family was poor until the local parish gave her family a Christmas basket. I guess that basket was the imprimatur, the official license, that “thou art the poorest of thine parish.”
My mom took our financial situation in stride, others had it tougher, she knew. She made our clothes at times. I remember one Easter Sunday wearing homemade gray, glenn-plaid, pants to church. Kids wore their finest on Easter. I knew and I felt every other kid knew…mine were “homemade”. But I did have clean pants on to cover my butt and my shoes were amply coated with Shinola liquid-black to cover the bone-white scuffs at the toes…so I was good to go. And in our family we also knew when we sat down to dinner how many hot dogs or meat balls each we were allowed. But as hard as life was financially, Mom always could find generosity in her heart for anyone.
We may have had homemade clothes at times, and hot-dog-and-beans nights but we still gave at church on Sunday. And my mom contributed to just about any solicitation for donations that cared to ask. She’d say to me, “I can only give a dollar but maybe that will help some poor soul.” My dad found it impossible to argue with her on this point.
I suspect this all related to her background among the very poor of the New York region. I think she developed her innate compassion among the poor, compassion her mom nurtured in her, ultimately developing into a genuine saintly lady.
After she died I saw in the mounds of unopened mail, endless petitions for continued donations. Those dollars might not have had much impact on the institutions to which she gave. But she did make a difference in us, she sowed compassion in us…a dollar at a time.
She not only gave from her thin pocketbook but she gave of herself as well.
She sold raffle and booster tickets for the church regularly. She helped sick neighbors, even on a daily basis for one bedridden soul. She took in a family for a while who were evicted, adding four more to our family. My sister Lorraine recalls, “People were sleeping everywhere.”
She played piano at various church functions, singing the National Anthem at St. Thomas the Apostle’s ball games. She played and sang at the Veterans Hospital in Northport, Long Island.
When WWII ended she played the piano right out on the street. Yes, my older sister, Marilyn recalls vividly on VJ Day (Victory in Japan), men rolling a piano from Frank’s, a local bar where my dad was fairly well known, right out onto Sutphin Blvd. They then rolled it a block down to our house on 147th St. and parked it in the street.
My mom whaled away on those keys with gusto. She wasn’t one to imbibe in our family. But someone might have persuaded her to have a highball that very fine day. The neighbors were so happy the war had ended they danced, they laughed, “they even cried, they were so happy,” my sister recalls. Their kids were coming home from war! The celebration went on into the night.
The bar gave the piano to my mom. It was a Cabaret type affair with a glitter-music staff at it’s end-panel. My dad painted over it but when I think of it I can still see and feel the rough impression of the music staff.
My mom at the piano with her mom atop:
Now, “Godly” in the above quote by Abe Lincoln means, devoutly religious. My mom was certainly that. Church on Sunday was not only compulsory for all hands, of course but that was only the start of it. Certainly a foul street-word dared never to be uttered in our home but my mom wouldn’t even allow “Devil Dogs”, the tasty factory, “pastry” of the fifties to come into our house. She didn’t believe in honoring the word, “Devil”.
My mom sent her brood off to St. Clement’s Catholic school for our proper education. At home she taught us personal honesty, generosity and compassion by example, the way she knew God meant it to be taught.
It was those home-taught-and-demonstrated values of compassion that I believe impacted me most. Impact me yes, but far too high a bar for me to scale. I just do the little I can.
I suspect most of you had moms with similar values, values you took note of as you grew up. Maybe you carry those values on through life. When you do you honor her, she did her job. Moms do what they need to do, they row and they sow.
My mom went through life just like her mom rowed her little boat, a stroke at a time. She gave of herself a day at a time and a dollar at a time…till she got to the other side.
Happy Mothers Day to all mothers out there and to those of you born to a mother too.
My Mom and Dad at their final home, Elderts La. Queens, NY. Kings County was right across the street: