By Rosalie Tirella
My mom passed away last summer. Here’s a list of things I miss most about her:
1. The way she stroked my little girl’s hair when she talked on the telephone with my Aunt Mary.
My mom was a single working mom who never stopped working! We were raised very Old World in our Green Island flat. In my childhood, adults worked like mad at jobs that were physically demanding and low-paying (factory work, day laborer, dry cleaners clerk), but they earned the money that paid the rent, utility bills, bought the food. So they got to make the rules. They fed you, clothed you, took care of you – and you were grateful … and stayed out of their way – tried not to get underfoot, out of respect and a little bit of fear.
My mom would not – could not – spoil us the way most kids are indulged today. Even when it came to affection (and we knew she loved us), my two sisters and I had to catch it on the fly – like when she was talking on the telephone with my Aunt Mary. It was then, when my mom comfortably seated on our red vinyl sofa, unwinding at the end of her work day, chatting and gossiping with her favorite sister on our big old green Bell telephone, that I, seven or eight years old, would sneak into the living room and lie down on the sofa, softly placing my head on her lap. As she gossiped in Polish and laughed her very husky, sexy laugh (my mom didn’t smoke or drink but she didn’t have a sweet, girly voice – it was sexy and deep), she absentmindedly stroked my fine brown hair. Stroked and twirled and played with it, as she joked and talked with my Aunt Mary. Our third floor Green Island flat was high up in the sky so I could hear the birds chirping in the trees so clearly as my mother stroked my hair. I watched the old five and ten draperies that my mom bought at White’s Store on Millbury street, billow into the living room. They looked dreamy …
2. The way my mom whistled.
My mom was the best whistler in the world! She could whistle entire songs: verse, chorus, verse and fill our tenement with her own bird songs – usually old jazz standards. She was a child of The Great Depression and World War II. I think they did a lot of whistling back then, to stave off very real fears of: Hitler, poverty, Hiroshima, Polio, death. Watch a Frank Capra movie or check out a Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart film. They are whistling!
3. Her Sunday chicken dinners.
Always the same – for the 18 years I lived at home: Baked chicken, baked potatoes with butter, spinach from the can but super tasty, and milk. It was all part of the incredibly stable life she built for her three girls despite working 60 hours a week at a shit minimum wage job, putting up with my father who came in and out of our lives whenever he felt like it – sometimes disappearing for a few years only to return looking tougher and meaner than when he left.
My mom? She was the ROCK, THE FOUNDATION. Her sit down, fancy Sunday dinner never changed. It was as constant as the Northern Star; preparations had a rhythm all their own, like funky waves beatin’ down on some inner-city beach. Cans would clunk, butter would sizzle in a little pan, the chicken’s legs would get all crusty brown.
Sometimes, as a little kid, I would watch my mom make the meal and try to help. When I was older, a teen hoping to be thee first in my family to go to college, I would sit at the kitchen table doing my homework – and enjoy the familiar, soothing sounds and smells of Ma making Sunday chicken dinner.
4. My mom’s love of old movies.
All the classics from the 1930s and 1940s. Her love of the era’s movie stars – she never called them actors – only STARS for her universe. As a young woman my mom, like most Americans back in the day, went to the movies AT LEAST once a week. There was no TV. People were fascinated by the BIG, moving pictures projected onto the huge screens of their local movie theaters, and they read all the star magazines, many of which weren’t even printed in color. And the movies didn’t have to be first rate! The second rate ones were called “B Movies,” as in second rate and my mom and her sisters and their peers still went to see them – and loved them. There were even B picture movie stars!
When I was a little girl, I loved watching old movies with my mom because she would give you a brief bio of each movie star as you watched the and then say things like “he was only in B movies” or “she was in the best.” My mom called Bette Davis “Bette” Davis, never adding the “eee’” sound to the end of Bette. It was like she was best friends with Bette Davis, calling her “Bette.”
Sometimes a movie star just bugged my mother. She couldn’t connect with them no matter how beautiful or handsome or talented they were. She was not fond of Robert Young, Loretta Young (no relation to Robert), Fred Mac Murray or Myrna Loy – one of my faves. She adored Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyk, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Judy Garland.
5. Saving the grasshopper.
There I was on the back porch, full of my nine year old self! I had just put the grasshopper I had caught in the field next door on his leash, a long piece of white thread I had snitched from my mom’s sewing kit, and had expertly tied around the middle of the grasshopper’s thin, brown body.
I was a neighborhood girl. Ran around the my hood with neighborhood kids (many of them tough, a few of them who smoked – get this – at age 6!!). I played in the streets and I played in the fields. I made up my own little games with their own sometimes cruel worlds, when I played in the field alone – a field filled with Queen Anne’s lace, dandelions, clover, brambles, earth worms, beetles … . An inner-city paradise, that old vacant weed-choked lot. My mom and grandma nicknamed it “The Big Yard” as in “Ma, I’m going out to play in The Big Yard.” That meant I was gonna go out and catch grasshoppers and dig up earth worms and stick them into glass jars into whose covers my mom had punched holes with her trusty can opener.
But this time, my mom was not happy with my grasshopper adventures, the one I had tied a thread around, the one that was struggling against me, fluttering so hard that his back was oozing a brown juice.
My mother, who never lectured or nagged us, came out on the back porch and saw what I was doing. She looked mad. My mom could look scary when she was mad. Her lips would get tight, her face beet red. She put her hand in her housecoat pocket and pulled out her manicure scissors, the new, perfect little scissors that she used to cut her fingernails every Sunday night. A weekly ritual – she got ready for the new work week on Sunday with her special scissors and gave herself a mini manicure. She was the “counter girl” at a dry cleaners and was fastidious about her hygiene because, as she liked to brag to us, she “worked with the public.” These were her special scissors.
But there was Ma, on the porch, using her beautiful, silver scissors to cut the thread that I had looped around the grasshopper’s body, actually touching an insect, which were not part of her world. Like an expert surgeon she held the grasshopper between the fingers of one hand and cut the thread with the other hand. The grasshopper flew into the air and over our third floor porch railing, back to nature. My mom said nothing. Still looking angry, she turned around and went back into the apartment. The screen door closed shut with a slap.
6. Her Elizabeth Arden red lipstick and Orange Skin Cream.
I loved the way my mother wore her fire engine red lipstick! My mom, who had dark brown hair, many folks called it black, looked smashing in red lipstick!!! Her makeup staple. She wore red lipstick her entire life – from 18 to her early 80s.
Always the same color red – bold, eye catching, none of the tamed down reds. And she always bought the same brand of lipstick: Elizabeth Arden. Found only in department stores, she liked to tell her girls. And boy did Mom sparkle! Just like a 1940s movie STAR.
My mom, all the way up to her 40s, had a killer smile! Perfect white teeth that she brushed and flossed and took to an old dentist downtown for cleanings and fillings and obsessed over. She had a flawless set of teeth, perfectly shaped, pearly white. This was God’s gift to my mother, her lovely smile, despite the grinding poverty, the abusive husband, a Green Island flat. Here was her bit of old Hollywood. She wore no braces in her youth, had nothing capped or realigned or bleached. Nope. Her beautiful smile was all her own. It was so great that my father used to tell her: “I married you for your smile,” as if he had been seduced by her great set of … molars! My mom loved when Daddy threw that compliment her way. Usually he hurled insults at her – laughed at her niceness and decency, the kind of home she had built for her girls. By the time we were in our teens, my sisters and I would have jumped the old man if had laid a hand on our mother. I would get bold and ask my father: Will you leave now? He never did.
Through all her stressful days with Daddy, in good times and bad, happy and tragic, to work, to church, to school parent nights, to downtown, to wakes even!!, my mom put on her red lipstick and made her way through her world with a little extra something. Pizzazz.
Later, I began to see her Elizabeth Arden tube of red lipstick as a kind of armor she wore before she went out to conquer – or at least deal with her difficult world. Car-less in Green Island, walking to work every day in all kinds of weather, her little brown paper bagged lunch in one arm, her brown pocket book in the other; sitting at the kitchen table, the monthly bills spread out before her, the money orders she had made out waiting to be signed. Red lipstick made it more bearable!
As a child, even as a teenager, I used to love to go into the bathroom and find my mom’s lipstick and jar of Elizabeth Arden Orange Skin Cream on the vanity. I would secretly open the jar of Orange Skin Cream and stick my nose two inches over the big jar of orangey, whipped goop and INHALE. It smelled divine!! So luxurious. Just like a grove of perfume-y oranges. My mom told us her special cream was expensive. So she would apply it to her face only on Sunday, getting ready for the work week to come. She would wear her special moisturizing cream around the house all day! She looked shiny-faced and cute! She even wore her special cream to bed – to wring out every last beauty benefit.
My mother had the softest, prettiest cheeks …