I'll be in Baltimore on Mother's Day reading at Cyclops Books and Music. My mom was my best friend and biggest inspiration. Here's to you, Ma!
Portrait of a Working Class Feminist
In college when I finally decided what to focus on, I surprised myself. I took an English major and a Women’s Studies minor. I read pages and pages of feminist theory and stacks of novels by female authors from around the world. After school, I wound up working in fundraising for domestic violence shelters in Boston for a short period of time. But I never wrote anything personal with a focus on women or feminism of my own accord merely for the sake of writing. In fact, after school I never finished anything literary at all until I had been in New York for a year.
Then my mom got sick again. This time the pain was worse than ever. Numerous cat scans and tests showed nothing. At the age of 66, with a medical history of cancer in the breast once and in the colon and small intestines twice, I knew this would not end well. After showing initial symptoms and developing infections from bed sores, we learned she had a large tumor in her stomach. There was nothing to be done except to make her comfortable. The pain medication killed her senses as well, as I watched her once a week slowly stop making sense. I knew it was coming. She was transferred to a nursing home and I began packing her apartment on weekends when I could escape New York and return to my hometown in New Jersey.
One day I received a call at work from my older sister telling me our mom was dying. I knew she had been dying weeks ago, months in fact, but now the time was close at hand. I took a bus from work in the afternoon to the hospital and stayed with family at her bedside until evening. After signing the release form for her cremation, I left to go back to Brooklyn, knowing I wouldn’t be at work the next day. I didn’t even set an alarm. The call from my sister came at 8:30. She had died at 2 in the morning. A retired nurse who died in the middle of a nurses’ strike and then lockout, attended by temporary nurses. I spent the next few days at my old apartment with my former roommate, who also lost her mom to cancer, and then my best friend’s new apartment in Staten Island.
The first night I was at his new place, we raised our drinks and I toasted “To Ma, the symbol of matriarchy. The symbol of motherhood,” and we clinked.
What did I mean by that? Death makes me think about life and about what I knew about my mother’s life. That made me think about gender and class inequality, poverty and abuse, as well as charity and strength, independence and stubbornness.
Preferring to pack my mother’s things myself, I stumbled upon a box of personal effects, a potpourri of papers and small items from various family childhoods, among them my mom’s. I took pictures of several items and turned them into a zine (The Silk City Series Supplement- Issue 3 ½.) What made me stop, sit and bury my head were the letters to Santa from my older siblings. They all started off “Dear Santa, I hope you’re not sick this year.” I thought of stories I heard of my aunts and uncles giving gifts and food to my mother for her kids after she had divorced her first husband. I thought of her pointing out on the way past our family cemetery plot,
“See those buildings back there? This is the Totowa section of Paterson. I used to live back there in public housing. Did I ever tell you I was on welfare?”
She wasn’t on it long. I had known the details for years, even before my freshman year of college when I did extensive interviews for projects. Seeing those letters made me lose it. Writing had helped me get through this so far and then further after she died. When she did, I knew I had to write about her. Her life from the very beginning was filled with hardship, no doubt. But she didn’t complain about her situation.. She was tough enough to roll with the punches and play both parental roles when necessary. Strong enough to do what she wanted.
My mother was born in 1942 in Paterson, New Jersey, the oldest of three born to a railroad switchman and housewife. Her mother would die 11 years later of cancer, leaving her eldest daughter to assume the role of mother. Despite his job and involvement in his railroad union, the family was poor and her father an abusive drunk.
“One April Fool’s Day I switched salt for sugar for Daddy’s coffee. Oh man, did he beat me with the belt for that one. Sometimes I’d get it for no reason.”
Sometimes it’d be canned ravioli for dinner. Sometimes a mayo or ketchup sandwich. Relatives took the kids on vacation and helped when they could. The city was largely working class and racially divided. My mother took her brother and sister to a movie theater in the black part of town after being warned repeatedly not to.
“They sat behind us and stuck gum and pins in my head until we finally left. Then when my father found out I got a beating.”
She of course grew up to be a typical “bad” teenager. Hating school, she played hookie, drank and dated a gang leader before eventually dropping out and working full time to support the family. Among her jobs were modeling gigs for wholesale fashion. Like many women from her time who didn’t go to college, she married young and became pregnant with a son. She soon gave birth to a daughter as well (one year later.) Her husband was a manic depressive and violently abusive. She luckily earned her GED during this time, while she kept leaving and coming back to her husband. There were no shelters for battered women at this time. Police often simply told husbands to “Take a walk around the block and cool off” when wives actually spoke up.
She mustered the courage one day to finally leave, knowing she’d never be able to remarry in the Catholic Church she loved so much. Then came welfare, family assistance, nursing school at night, night shifts, dating and eventually meeting and marrying my father and giving birth to me at the age of 41. My father’s fluctuating employment status and lack of involvement as a stepfather and later a father became evident quickly. Meanwhile she worked at a run down Catholic retirement center, Little Sisters of the Poor, for low wages, as is often the case with Catholic health centers. Soon the fights started and the pair divorced in 1986. Luckily my father would never stiff my mother for child support, like so many other fathers did. We still struggled, but my older siblings spoiled me when she couldn’t. When babysitters were abusive, she switched to working nights and cleaning houses. After siblings moved out, I became the quintessential latchkey kid.
While I loved my father, my mother was my role model and my learned behaviors were here personality traits and quirks. She married and then divorced again, unable to see eye to eye on where to live. Then after high school, she developed cancer in her colon again. She had it once, when I was young. I remember visiting her at the hospital at the age of 6 to find her hooked up to oxygen. It returned 6 years later in her breast, but this was much more serious. A surgeon at a reputable hospital botched her surgery, resulting in infections and a slew of problems and hospital visits for the next two years. She lost her entire colon and a majority of her small intestine and soon had a permanent colostomy bag and nightly IVs. Soon she was on disability. No lawyer would touch her case, claiming you could not beat the hospital in court. We moved a lot, but luckily somehow she still kept her health insurance.
In windows of good health, she did what she loved, fixing up the front yard (she improved every apartment we rented), delivering food from the local Catholic Church to the worst blocks of Paterson and running her own small pet sitting service to make cash. Social Security on its own wasn’t enough. She refused to take food stamps and Section 8 rent assistance had a waiting list several months long. When she died, she died broke. For a while I was upset about this, not that I wouldn’t inherit anything, but that she was never able to retire comfortably. Then I realized something. She could have become an R.N. or gone to college and made more money. She wasn’t perfect. She didn’t save wisely or handler her finances (neither do I). But she was comfortable with what she had.
I asked her one day years ago why she got married to any of her husbands.
“For money. For financial stability.”
“So nobody ever told you to go to college or keep going in school?”
“No. It wasn’t thought of as important.”
“Did anyone ever tell you you could do anything you wanted?”
“Ever hang out with any hippies back in the day?”
“Me? No! I was too busy raising kids and then raising kids and working.”
But she could have taught those hippies something. When my father or stepfather got on her nerves, she gave them plenty of shit, which was fun to see. She took none of my sass or anyone else’s and did what she wanted. I’m lucky. In her own right, my mother was a true feminist and didn’t know it.