Had she lived, my mother would have been 98 this month. The year she was born women had not been given the right to vote.
Her father, a Polish immigrant, bought the house she lived in (and eventually died in) because, as she used to tell me, he wanted “little Helen to grow up in fresh country air.” (Ironically, the street the house was on became increasingly crowded in the first half of the 1900s.) I grew up listening to stories of how thrilled the neighborhood was when a small cavalcade featuring FDR paraded down Lowry Avenue.
My grandfather died a long and horrible death, the result of what today would be called a traumatic brain injury. I listened with a child’s fascinated horror to Mom’s stories of the violent fits she witnessed, fits that ultimately resulted in her dad’s commitment to St. Peter Hospital, a place that was casually referred to by my eastern European neighbors as an insane asylum.
As the Great Depression dragged on, there was less and less food on the table. My grandmother, despite her talent as a seamstress, was now a single parent who was hard pressed to feed her two daughters. Despite a favorite English teacher’s pleas that Mom rethink her decision, she quit school in her junior year.
Five years later, Mom nursed her mother who was dying at home of diabetes. “To this day I can’t stand the smell of apple juice,” she used to tell me. “I had to tap my mom’s urine. It smelled like apple juice.”
Jump ahead another 20 years: Mom’s closest and dearest friend commits suicide. Mom finds the body, a still-lit cigarette burning into her good friend’s neck. A quarter of a century later her now-apparent (to me) strength would once more be tested when she finds my hemorrhaging father in their bathroom. She doesn’t call me until well into the following morning, after the ambulance had left and she had cleaned up all the blood.
These stories are flooding my memory these days because I’m getting ready for a writing workshop. My goal is to create a memoir of my years growing up “in a blue collar neighborhood with white collar dreams.” I’ve been jotting down thoughts and ideas, vignettes and paragraphs. What I’m discovering (realizing?) is how strong my mother was. And I wonder: How much of her is in me?