MY MOTHER’S SIDEKICK
Of the many character traits, I hold dear, perseverance is one that I keep coming back to. Whether it’s the national hero Churchill, or the military leader Ulysses S Grant, the business philanthropist Bill Gates or freedom fighters Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, they all share this essential trait.
My first model of perseverance, and the one who had the deepest influence on my life, was my mother. Not because she was a paragon of all things a mother could possibly be. My mother was actually an alcoholic during many years of my childhood. She gripped a drink fiercely in one hand. But with her other hand, she embraced me and my sister with grit and resolve to clear a path for us that had never been open to her. She hadn't been trained or educated to raise and support two young kids on her own. She'd signed on with the rest of the women of her generation, long before women empowerment and gender equality, many of whom found themselves solely in charge of keeping a steady flow of meals on the table, known as the single Mom.
Alcohol and depression limited my mother but it didn't stop her. The permanent image etched into my mind is of her holding her head in her hand looking down at the dinner table. Her instinctive motherhood was the focus of her struggle. Life was difficult but her fragility was not what defined her. It was from my mother that I learned the value of what it meant to struggle for the things that mattered to you. Despite her impediment, she persevered. Despite her lack of preparation, she carried on searching for new careers that might enhance our way of life. Well, careers might be a bit grandiose. Mom looked for work. Flipping jobs like hamburgers she jumped from rental car check-in to ER receptionist to selling cheap homes in Florida. She came up with maneuvers to get us out of the hole we were living in. They were the sort of schemes we watched on ‘I Love Lucy’ when Lucy would cook up something to get her out of a jam. The difference was of course that Desi Arnaz always came to save the day twenty-two minutes later. Lucy had a safety net at the end of every episode. My mother had the same electric bill to pay. Child support came to $62.50 a month for each my sister and me. I can remember looking at our groceries and seeing that a jar of French’s mustard cost only 17 cents, thinking that is not too much and we can make it work.
Since there wasn’t a budget for a babysitter and because daycare hadn’t been invented in North Miami in the Fifties, I went along with Mom to work. This was my first exposure to what it meant to get a job done. There was her real estate chapter. We traveled across Alligator Alley, through the Everglades to the other side of Florida, Mom driving our un-air-conditioned car to show potential buyers the dubious wonders of swamp life. These were the days before A/C was affordable or common and when Florida was still largely known as a series of military bases and swampland with the occasional stretch of flashy hotels along Miami Beach (ergo, the dozens of Forts: Meyers, Lauderdale, Meade, Taylor, et al.). It wasn’t yet the glamorous destination for models and art festivals and ocean-front condos and mansions lining every stretch of beach.
I can still remember Mom rehearsing her pitch, refining it and re-rehearsing it. The aerial photos, drawings of community pools and strip malls, screened patios. I don’t know if she ever actually sold a parcel of swamp to anybody, but her presentation always sold me. And I’m sure the two of us must have made quite a lasting impression on the house-hunting couples from New Jersey who we picked up at the beach motels. The young mother with her seven-year-old son sagely advising couples in the sweltering heat — mosquitoes aswarm about our heads — what a great investment they were about to make in the middle of nowhere. We were selling dreams in a place called “Golden Gate Estates” – except there was nothing ‘golden’ about it. Ironically, as turns out, if you’d followed Mom’s advice, she'd have made you a 10,000 percent profit — just sixty years later.
There were the rides back home across the Alley, the desolate highway that still stretches across the belly of the state. The sweltering eight-hour round trip had added not a nickel to our grocery money. My mother tried to make it seem like an adventure. But even as a child I knew this was not a sport or a game. We needed to stop for gas on the way home. And my mother fished around in her purse for a dollar’s worth of change.
Then there was Mom’s “career” in the car rental business. Back then, before the modern off-site car lots, her “office” was the curbside kiosk at Miami Airport where she rented cars to tourists and businessmen. Hanging around this sweltering little painted red shack in the afternoons and evenings made me wonder what it would be like to go through the doors of the airport and onto an actual plane to take off for another part of the world. Needless to say, nobody is more appreciative of the women staffing a car rental than I am. But we never did pass through those doors to board a plane. Perseverance is not about the path to the plane and into the great beyond; it’s about the many glide paths out the door in the morning. It’s about learning new routes to the same destination, to find a new route to the runway.
If you think the only route out of town is the airport, then you’ll always be stuck. Our interpretation of an airport was not a place for airplanes, it was a used car for rent. Little did I know that decades later I would venture through more airports than I could ever recall, this time on my way to a modern jetliner.
My sister, Peggy, and I knew there wasn’t much money in the cookie jar, but the value of money is so amorphous to a child that we never quite grasped how so little needed to go so far. My mother let me feel I was making a contribution to the household with my afternoon paper route. Mom contributed to my sense of self-worth by making me feel I made a difference making my rounds. I slung the canvas bag of papers over my shoulder and thwacked them onto two hundred front porches after I came home from school. I eventually graduated to selling papers on the street between cars and exhaust fumes. Some drivers would give me tips (including a puppy on one occasion) on the condition that I retreat back from the dangerous meridian to the relative safety on the curb. But there was more money dodging cars, so after they drove off, back I went. I moved up the chain, I took a leap onto the delivery truck where from which I would hurl freshly printed stacks of the Miami News to waiting news agents around the city. My first proper job in the media would come next. Most kids long for summer vacation to begin for days out on the baseball diamond. I longed for my exciting days as a copy boy in the news room of the new Miami Herald Building on Biscayne Bay, just off MacArthur causeway named after the West Point hero of WWII. I experienced for the first time the heat that was generated by the writer who took the breaking news that I delivered off of Telex sheets. I was never so proud as when I told my mother that night that I had handed the raw story of an article by the famous sports writer Edwin Pope. I had my first taste of making news. You could not be any lower on the totem pole, but I felt 10 feet tall everyday as I entered the Herald Building on Biscayne Bay. Who cares if my first task was the coffee run for the entire staff. I walked into my first war room of working men and women who wrote the news. I was allowed to feel I played a consequential role in our family. That’s a great feeling to give to a child. “What you do has consequence to this household. It doesn’t just hold you. You help hold it up. It has meaning. You have meaning. You matter.”
Before anybody can develop the qualities of perseverance, first we all need to know that we matter, that what we do, how we live, counts. Before a child feels inspired to engage in the world in new ways, he needs to feel that sense of consequence. My mother gave me that gift that has stayed with me all my life. My wife, Alex and I strive to give that gift to our children today. Some days it's harder to give that gift to a child of privilege than a child with rusty handlebars.
My father took a “vacation” early on in my life. That’s how my Mom explained his absence. One day, when I was looking out the window at 1480, 136th Street for the thousandth time for my father’s uniform to round the corner, I asked: “Mom, how long do vacations last?” I could see in my mother’s eyes that this vacation was of a permanent variety.
There were no father/son days. He grew up as an orphan and I suppose he was passing that distinction on. I rarely saw him except for the ritual holiday visits once or twice a year. Since I was the younger by six years, I sat in the back seat while my father and sister bantered in the front about the history he and I didn't share. I don’t ever remember speaking during those drives to the Dairy Queen. I never knew what to say to him. I read my comic in the back seat. Or pretended to read – I wanted to know what I'd missed out on by sitting in the back. It turned out my father had not left for vacation; his visits to our house where we had once lived together were his vacation from his real family and his real life.
Children call their fathers an array of names: Dad, or Pop, or Papa. I never called my father anything. Never bestowed any warm fuzzy nickname on him. On those annual visits, I tried but it always sounded fake. There was never any pretense, unlike in the sit-coms we watched on TV, of his playing Ozzie to my mother’s Harriet. Thinking how best to get my father’s attention, I settled on “Hey!” I couldn’t fill that void in our lives with a false familial name of affection.
But there’s this wonderful invention called television. You didn’t need to be a millionaire to own one. But if you choose wisely, you may discover the knowledge of the ages through its portal. Despite my Mom's single status, there was a very powerful father who lived in our house. A Dad I bonded with and looked forward to spending time with, looked up to. He was around the house constantly. He lived inside our RCA black and white television. He was Mr. Cleaver, Robert Young, Fred Mac Murray. TV Dad didn’t go away on “vacation.” He didn’t move out. He didn’t marry somebody else. He presided over domestic disputes with a firm compassion. He helped his sons with their science fair projects, or taught how to change sparkplugs and oil filters. He smoothed over disputes with neighbors when his sons broke a window. My childhood was soothed by the presence of these ‘fathers’ in my life.
Anyone who has been a single Mom or has been a child of a single Mom knows how hard life can be. Mom and I were buddies; we read the daily paper together, we went to the drive-in movies and watched television most every night, before we tackled homework together at 10 pm, thus launching my night owl habit. This is how my love affair with television started. Some kids play the piano for visiting relatives. Or gush forth complicated multiplication tables. My party trick? I memorized the TV Guide. And recited the weekly schedule flawlessly to my Mom’s friends, to their immense delight and Mom’s pride.
Our home life wasn’t a sitcom. There wasn’t a laugh track running in the background of our cinder block house on a modest dead-end street. I suppose it started out with some comic potential. My father met my mother delivering a telegram to their house near the Boardwalk in Atlantic City where he lived. How romantic is that? They married and were living in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. Following a script of “From Here to Eternity”, until the attack just before 8am December 7th, 1941. After my sister's birth at a makeshift hospital, they were evacuated to San Diego while my father stayed on overseeing the shore artillery sites. But that’s about as far as it went.
My Mom faced two rough stretches when she was overwhelmed by the challenges of single parenting. When I was four she put me in care for a year with a local church family. And again when I’d just entered eighth grade, she abruptly sent me to live with my father and his new family in Washington, D.C. I was the least popular addition to my father’s new and improved family. My arrival disrupted all their living arrangements, uprooting and forcing them to move to a larger house and to a new school district. Just as I was settling into my new eighth grade routine, getting to know and appreciate my two new sisters Mallory and Alison, finding new friends and fitting out my secret hideaway basement bedroom, my mother just as abruptly called in tears months later, ordering me back to her side in North Miami. Or that’s the way it was sold to me. It might well have been that after my father was shipped out to Korea, his wife Frances quickly arranged a return trip for me.
I felt like a pinball ricocheting around a cosmic arcade. But some part of me understood that my mother and I were both pinballs in a game neither one of us would ever control.
There were the men my mother would audition as potential stepfathers. Mom was an attractive young woman and there was no shortage of applicants. Whether they were suitable or worthy candidates was another matter. Given my mother was a single Mom she didn’t necessarily meet men at the University Club or at strawberry socials at the parsonage. There were very decent men she lined up among her acquaintances. And would I have run up and hugged the President of the University if she’d brought him home? Doubtful. Nobody was going to be good enough for my Mom. I couldn’t appreciate at the time — what young boy could — how essential an adult male’s income would be to our teetering household. And how vital the emotional and physical support would be to a woman still in her prime.
My mother was working all the phones at once. She was working the best jobs she could find. She was casting about for a new Dad in the family. As reined in as she was by her addiction, she was not pinned down by it. She struggled with her past for the good of our future. She was an example of creative resilience inside a tough knot of circumstances. What did my mother know about real estate or the selling of it? There wasn’t a less seductive deed on the planet than the ones she was trying to sell in the middle of the state of Florida in 1956. Mr. Sotheby himself could not have auctioned off one of those parcels. But listening to my Mom rehearse her pitch, she passed onto me the value of perseverance. I have seen that same perseverance in the eyes of mothers and fathers around the world. And there are not many bank accounts I would trade for it. Being my mother's sidekick, she also gave me my first taste of entrepreneurship from sensing when there was a chance to make a buck in the air.
My Mom was one of the invisible mid-century women who raised children solo but were uncomfortably avoided by her neighbors because she’d violated the great unwritten code: she hadn’t kept her man. She’d allowed her marriage to fail. As preposterous as that accusation sounds today it was as common as rain. The fate of the single Mom was a warning to other women: You have no job skills, no bank account, no prospects. Look at this woman; see how she lives, how she scrambles. Walk out and you walk out into the abyss. Hold on to your man or lose your resources, your security, your social connections and the community’s respect.
And yet despite her less-than-auspicious circumstances and prospects, her one piece of advice never changed: "Be happy." I repeat that advice to her grandchildren every chance I get.
Every Mother has various health issues as they age and mine was no different. Her Irish DNA always carried her through.
Alex called me when I was in Argentina on business, I took the next red-eye to get to her bedside. My sister, Peggy and her husband Bart were out of the country that week. The news was dire. Alex picked me up at the airport. We needed forty minutes to get to the hospital in Fort Lauderdale.
A cop stopped us for speeding. I thought when we explained the situation, he would wave us on. A part of me thought he might even give us a police escort. Authority doesn’t read from your script. Authority writes the script.
We were driving our family mini-van. We were dealing with a family crisis. We were rushing to the hospital, because Mom was very ill.
“The speed limit is for everybody, he explained. Regardless of destination. We don’t have one speed limit for hospitals and another speed limit for beaches.”
When we finally managed to get to the hospital, my mother’s life force shimmered on the screen. Things seemed to be ok.
When we saw the doctor, he told me: “We need to fix the bleeding ulcer. I do six of these a week. Your mother is losing so much blood she can’t fight any more. She has a good shot once we get in there. But we need to move now.”
I gave my mother my word that I would not let anybody operate on her again, as she had been in the Operating Room too many times before.
I approached the doctor, “This is my mother. She still has a lot of good years ahead of her, just this morning she was reading the newspaper.” As she consistently did every morning.
I gave him my very best motivational speech. I had been given her authority to speak for her. And while I knew she didn’t want any more surgeries, we had no real choice based on the doctors’ advice.
The situation was serious. We knew she wasn’t going out to have her hair done. We knew there was risk. But the great authority in the white coat had made it seem so routine.
Mom made it out okay. She survived the operation. The bleeding had been severe and they had stopped it. We were relieved. But her heart rate was very elevated. She was unconscious and on life support. Nurses and doctors stood around her bed talking about the next shift as if my mother wasn’t right there in front of them. It was as if she didn’t even exist, or hadn’t ever existed. It became gloomy, but in a strange way, all was still routine.
My Mom was no stranger to the indignities of hospital ordeals. For many years, she’d worked the front desk at the emergency room. She now found herself in the exact state she never wanted to be in. She had told me many times, “no life-support and I don’t want to be a burden”. But we still had hope. We saw a flickering behind her eyes. We tried to rouse her by talking about our children Noa and Liam, and her other grandchildren Lauren and Monique – all of whom she loved and adored. We talked about their graduations, their weddings, their children—all decades away—and we wanted her there for each occasion. Was that a slight smile forming on her lips? We talked about our plans for the rest of the summer together. Throughout the night, Alex and I held up photos of Liam and Noa in front of her eyes. She seemed to rally.
“Liam and Noa are coming in the morning. They can’t wait to see you! Look at them.”
She had so much to live for, we cheered her on and told her how much we loved her.
The young doctor who had pressed the case for surgery had now retreated down the long corridor where authority hangs out when things become uncertain. The nurses as usual were left holding down the fort. The morphine drip was turned up just the slightest notch to give her comfort, the Irish nurse confided: “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t look good, can we make here more comfortable?” I nodded uncomfortably.
We kept an all-night vigil. We held up the children’s photos and discussed our plans with her for that summer, and beyond. We tried talking her out of death, and she was fighting hard -- but she would not be diverted, her heart rate accelerating. Minutes became hours, morning was coming and with it a new day, new hope
Suddenly I felt a physical cord inside me snap. Not a feeling, not a metaphor, but a palpable physical force snapped inside me. I never felt it before, never felt it since. She was gone.
My mother died just after 5am.
Like all children, death is not a desired conversation with their parents. Still, I once asked my Mom what she thought would happen after one dies. She replied, “It has to be better than this life.” Yes, she had a tough life, with many shattered dreams but I learned much from her. Perseverance, reading a newspaper, the power of television, work ethic, being nice and the importance of a paycheck. And above all to live by her motto: “Be happy!” Now after her death, I hope that wherever she may be – that it’s better.
Returning to our apartment still in shock, we broke the news to our four-year-old daughter Noa the next morning. Our little girl saw the devastated state I was in.
She hugged me: “Daddy, don’t cry. I’ll be your Mommy now.”
Or maybe a SIDEKICK.
There are days when authority should be damned. But thank God for the power of love.