Saturday, January 19, 2008

my mother mary

You know the Beatles' song "Let It Be"? I've always believed that the verse, "When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be..." was written for me, about my mom.

My mom's name is Mary and more often than not, she is the person that I turn to when I find myself in times of trouble.

Here's a little history.

My mom is the youngest of nine. She grew up in Boston during the Depression. Her family lived in a small apartment, above a store. They had one bathroom. Mom slept in a crib until she was seven and didn't own a toothbrush until she graduated in to a real bed.

Her oldest brother, that mom never met, died from a ruptured appendix at the age of six. She has memories of my grandmother washing clothes by hand and hanging them out to dry on a clothes line - and during the winter - my grandmother would be in misery because her hands were so cold as she plucked garments off the line that were caked in ice.

They were poor, but mom said she never realized that they were poor because there was always a lot of love in the house. There was also a lot of laughter.

Mom is convinced that although her older brother, Bernie, was the youngest Sergeant Major in the history of the United States Marine Corp, she was my grandfather's favorite. Frequently when he would come home from work - provided he had work because it was often difficult for an Irish Catholic plumber to find employment at times, specifically when stores would hang signs that read "IRISH NEED NOT APPLY" - Grandpa would scoop mom up and buy her an ice cream cone. So my mother felt love, even though her family never verbally expressed it.

Even mom's older twin brothers, Robert and Raymond, loved her. Despite the fact that they would threaten to throw her dolls out the window unless she would sit in a closet and "confess her sins". In return for a Necco wafer (which was supposed to be Holy Communion), they would rat out all the bad things my mother (the family pet), confessed to my grandmother.

Everyone loved my mother. Everyone still does. She has a magnetic personality and has more friendships than anyone I know. She is genuinely interested in every person she meets and has the nickname "Barbara Walters" because she will know your life story in 10 minutes or less. And then, she'll teach you how to play cribbage.

My parents met at a dance and married right after my mother finished her nurses training, in 1956, when she was 23-years old. My oldest sister came along nine months and three days later. Mom then went on to have another six children over the next twelve years ... the next five children were born within six years of the first.

Mom worked hard. Really, really hard. She was raising her children, helping my father with his business, and trying to remain sane in spite of it all.

It wasn't easy, particularly when our family suffered several losses. Within two months, mom lost both of her parents - my grandmother passed on January 1, and when my grandfather heard his wife had died - he passed five days later. My 14-year old cousin died of leukemia and my aunt died of lung cancer, leaving behind two young children. Because my mother was the "nurse" in the family, she was present when each person died.

When my parent's marriage dissolved a few months later, after 23-years together, my mother loaded my brother in the car, and with just the clothes on her back, drove to South Carolina to visit her older sister, Grace. (I know that my Aunt Grace is rolling because I just wrote that she is older than my mom. Sorry Auntie, I promise I'll mail you some Godiva.)

My sister, Eileen and I were in South Carolina already, visiting with Aunt Grace's family and I remember the day that we were supposed to fly home, my Aunt told me "Jenny, you and Eileen are staying with us for a while longer. Your mom and Wally are on their way down."

It sounded good enough to me.

I loved South Carolina.

My Aunt Grace and Uncle Bill lived on about 50 acres in the country and had horses, a lake, a tennis court and riding lawnmowers. But little did I, or anyone for that matter, realize that my mother would never return to live in Massachusetts.

Of my mother's seven children, only three were with her when she first moved to South Carolina. My oldest two sisters, Mary and Janet, were both married; my oldest brother, Frank, was in the Marines; and my sister, Beth, was finishing high school and working alongside my father in his drugstore. So it was just the four of us and for the next several months, we lived with Aunt Grace and Uncle Bill, and my four cousins - Margaret, Lisa, Bill and George.

Thankfully, they had a large house, but their hearts were even larger than their home. They'd have to be, to take in all of us.

My sister, Eileen, soon made the decision to return to Massachusetts to finish high school. My brother and I, however, stayed with my mother and were enrolled in school. Once the school year finished, we drove back to Massachusetts with my mom, because the divorce process had begun and we needed to be present. Ultimately, my brother and I stayed with my father in Massachusetts (and my sisters Eileen and Beth) - and my mother returned to South Carolina - alone with my Aunt Grace.

That year away from my mother was the hardest year of my life. I suspect that was also the hardest year of my mom's life.

Looking back now, I know that mom needed the time to get her life on track, but I was only nine and I missed her terribly.

The summer of my fourth grade year, I flew down to South Carolina to visit mom and the day that I was supposed to get on the plane and fly back to Massachusetts, I remember as if it were yesterday saying, "Sorry, Mom. I'm not going."

My bags were packed and we were walking to the car for the airport and mom said "Jen. You have to go back. Your father is waiting for you and I'll see you soon enough. Besides, I need a little bit more time for myself." My response was "You've had enough time for yourself. I'm 10. I need my mother and you need me. I'm staying."

And that was that.

I moved in with mom who had moved out of my Aunt Grace's house and was living in a one-bedroom apartment. For the next year and a half, mom and I shared less than 600 square feet of living space.

Even though my father had made a very good life as a pharmacist and had a 50-foot motor yacht and a 13 room house chocked full of possessions, my mother didn't want anything from the marriage. After all that she had been through, the heart ache and pain, she wanted a fresh start completely. As a result, mom started out - on her own - with very little to nothing.

The art that hung on the walls of our apartment were rented from the library. She went from driving a brand new Lincoln Town Car to an old Plymouth Volare that had been willed to us kids, by a good friend of our family. Instead of a sun roof, air conditioning, power windows and fine leather ... there was sticky vinyl, an AM radio, no air conditioning and hand-crank windows.

Thankfully, mom had her education to rely on and accepted a job working as a nurse for General Electric. By the time I moved to South Carolina, my mother had the foundation of her new life in place. She would go for hikes in the local mountains on weekends, was a member of the Natural History Society, both the YWCA and YMCA, had found a new church, and in typical fashion, had developed friendships with people, everywhere.

Mom's shift was from 6 at night until 2 in the morning. But because I was only 10, mom hired a high school girl to come sit with me until 10 every night she worked. Still, I was alone from 10 until 2, so very soon, mom quit her job at GE and took on another occupational nursing job that allowed her to be home with me in the evening.

There was a lay-off and for a short period of time mom accepted unemployment. But never did I have a want. Well, except for a pony, but that was unlikely in a one bedroom apartment. Come to think of it, I'd still like to have a pony. But sadly, it's just as unlikely now as it was, then.

Mom had me enrolled in horseback riding lessons, gymnastics, tennis and I was on the swim team. Because I fell a year behind in math, mom hired me private tutors. When we moved in to a two-bedroom condominium, mom had an interior decorator come design my room. Mom never dated during the time I lived at home, because all of her energy was directed to me, her friends, and trying to heal herself.

Even though I am one of seven, I grew up feeling like I was an only child.

During my summer vacations, mom would volunteer as a Camp Nurse at the YWCA camp I attended, so I wouldn't have to go alone. When my cabin had a mouse infestation and I was afraid that a critter would scamper across my face in the middle of the night, mom let me and several of my girlfriends come sleep in the nice big beds of the rodent-free infirmary.

Mom took me everywhere. We went camping together and I traveled with her on almost all of her business trips. She was my best friend. Which was good, because I didn't have very many friends my own age. What with all the moving that I had done from Massachusetts to South Carolina to Massachusetts and back again - I attended nearly 10 schools by the time I was in 9th grade.

I remember being in 5th grade and mom driving me to school and on the way we passed my friend, Paula's house. Paula was sitting outside on the trunk of her parent's new Mercedes and as we drove by, mom honked the horn on the Volare - which sounded more like a pachyderm passing gas. I was so horrified to be driving in the old blue Volare, that my mother was HONKING, I dove under the seat, smacking my head on the AM radio on the way down.

Not long after that, mom gave my brother, who had returned from the Marines, her Volare and bought a sporty BMW. I know she didn't buy that car because of me, because at the time, I thought BMW's were the ugliest vehicles on the road - next to Volares - and what I really wanted mom to buy was a Buick Century with electric windows.

Even though the BWM didn't have electric windows, it did have a sun roof and air conditioning. It also sustained about $7K worth of damage when I crashed it my sophomore year in high school, while returning from the grocery store with a box of Betty Crocker brownies. I'll never forget the anxiety that gripped me and the fear I had for my social life, when the police officer drove me home and I saw my mother sitting on the dark porch. Waiting.

Mostly, I was embarrassed and ashamed. Here my mother trusted me to take her car and I got in to an accident and caused damage that would cost her money that she hardly had. How could I be so foolish?

About 20 years ago, my mother befriended a man from her church, we'll call him Tony, that became her financial adviser. Tony is happily married and an extremely nice guy. In his spare time, he is a nudist.

Tony and my mother get together once a month for lunch and to chat about her finances. I'm convinced the guy is a multi-millionaire because he absolutely doesn't spend a dime that he doesn't have to. I'm sure I could learn a lot from Tony, if only I could give up my pesky desire to have nice things.

A few years ago, when mom was living in California at the Optimum Health Institute for a couple months, Tony came out to visit. I think that he came out because he missed seeing my mother - but also - because he couldn't wait to get a tan on Black's Beach.

While he was in California, he rented the smallest vehicle I've ever seen. I think it got 70 miles to the gallon. According to Tony, the rental was virtually free. He had a coupon for this, and a discount for that, and rented it on such-and-such off month. By the time it was all said and done, he paid $15.00 or something crazy, to rent a car for an entire week.

While he was here, he stayed with Charlie and I at our house. Every morning, Tony would get up and eat a bowl of Cheerios. The name brand variety, in the yellow box. At the end of his stay, he wanted to replace the box of Cheerios, so he drove down to the local grocery store. While my mother was sitting in the tiny car waiting for him, Tony ran in to the store. Standing in the checkout line with a generic box of O's, the cashier informed Tony that if he had a Club Card - or knew the telephone number of someone with a Club Card, he could save $0.25 off his purchase.

While he made the people behind him in line wait, Tony scurried out to the car to ask my mother our telephone number, so he could plug that in to the computer and save a quarter, off his purchase of generic cereal. For him, O's are O's are O's. What does it matter if they are generic? What's important is that he could save money.

Once my mother met Tony, she began scrimping and saving (and saving). It is because of Tony and his financial tightfistedness wisdom, that mom was able to pay off her condominium and have enough money put aside so that she could retire at the age of 65. Yet even with the tight reins Tony has on my mother's spending, she has remained generous. She has given her older vehicles to family members, instead of trading them in. But the new cars that she buys are the absolute base model. No whistles and bells. No electric locks. No power windows. No cruise control. No CD player.

When I moved off to college, mom supplemented my education fund, that she was managing, with her own money and because of her generosity, I didn't have to take out any financial aid until I went to graduate school. Although I did work over the summer and had around $14,000 in a trust fund, I know my resources weren't enough to cover books ... supplies ... two years in one university ... three years in another out-of-state university ... costly field trips ... and general living expenses.

Through the years, I know that mom has helped my siblings at times, too. Whenever someone turns 40 in my family, my mother will take them wherever they want to go, in the world. Thus far, mom has been to Ireland and China, Alaska and Nova Scotia, Spain and the Caribbean.

When Charlie threw his back out the first time in 1999 and wound up in the hospital for a week, my mother flew out to California to help. When Charlie threw his back out in 2006, mom was here again.

Mom came out for two months when the triplets were born and came out for six weeks when Henry was born. Mom has flown out when Charlie had to go away on a business trip so I wouldn't be home alone with multiple infants, days on end, and has flown out to help Charlie when I have had to leave on business trips.

It is highly unusual for a son-in-law to adore his wife's mother, but I think it's safe to say that Charlie loves my mother almost as much as I do. In fact, a boy that I dated for six years through high school and for the first two years of college - still calls my mother every few years just to check in and make sure that she is doing alright. Here, I haven't spoken to the guy in almost ten years, but my mother gets a Christmas card from him, every year.

My mother is by no means financially wealthy, by American standards. She has worked very hard and lived very simply. For the past few years, she has spent four months out of the year with her fiancé Jim, renting a condo in Florida. Perched high with an ocean view, I will talk with her every few days and she will excitedly tell me about the whales that are migrating, right past her windows. And then she'll tell me that she's exhausted from playing Bocce and Bridge and swimming in the pool, everyday.

Yeah. That retired life is a real kick in the pants.

Before I went on maternity leave with our triplets and cut back to part-time status, I was making more than twice what my mother was making when she retired as a nurse from 3M. Yet even still, my mother - with the guidance of Tony - set up a college fund for our children when they were born. Every year for Christmas and birthdays, mom will send a check for the children's college education. Mom doesn't send toys or clothes because she believes that more than any material possessions, children need money for school. If she sends toys or clothes, they are things that she has picked up at her church thrift store. The only exception is when she sent Elizabeth a pair of Princess shoes to commemorate Elizabeth going poop in the potty.

Mom understands, first hand, the importance of having an education and she knows that more money will be added and with the beauty of compound interest, there is a chance that there will be enough to cover tuition, when it's time.

This past week, mom sent us a check that would almost completely cover a full year tuition at preschool for all three of the children, if we so chose. Although finances aren't the primary reason we haven't sent our three children to preschool, they have been a consideration.

But just like that.

Without so much as asking, "Do you need..." Or "Do you want...." or "How would you like it if I..." my mother cranked out a check. A check that she knows would be put to very good use, because we have cut back substantially on our work schedules to stay home and raise our children. A check that I didn't even know she was sending, until I opened up the envelope.

My ability to look at the bright side of life comes from my mom. When I am feeling desperate or down, my mother is the one who taught me to count my blessings, get out and shake the house off myself, and then - go do something for someone less fortunate.

My ability to find humor in almost any situation also comes from my mom. I know very few people that would laugh if their temporary bridge fell out, leaving them almost completely toothless the day before their daughter's wedding - and they were supposed to perform a reading in front of 250 guests. Her response? "Well. What are you gonna do?!"

My mother would do anything for her family. She has already done so much for me and continues to humble me with her generosity, compassion, laughter and love. It is for this reason, that if there is one thing in my life that I must accomplish ... it is getting my mother to Chicago for a television show. Because if there is any person that my mother loves as much as she loves her children, it would have to be Oprah.

With all she's done for me, I figure it's the least I can do.

Now, I just have to make it happen.


  1. What a loving tribute. I know all of us Mom's hope to have our children write what you did...I know I do. I have two boys 21 and 20 not months years old. I hope one day they write what you did.

  2. What a nice tribute to a wonderful Mom.

  3. Jen - you Mom is amazing - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. What a testimony.Let it be. I hope you can wing her a visit to Oprah - maybe you send Oprah your post ...and let her know what a fan she is too.

  4. Jen,
    What a wonderful tribute to your mother and her life. She has lived an extraordinary life and, obviously, has contributed to your life (and many others) beyond measure. God Bless Jen's Mom!

  5. WOW... Your mother is amazing. Beyond amazing.

  6. What a wonderful tribute to your mom! I've always thought you are very much your mother's daughter!

  7. What an amazing story Jen. I knew your mother was awesome, but I had no idea how much so. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story - I think the fact that your ex-boyfriend still writes pretty much sums it up! Have a great Sunday.

  8. Jen,
    What a story! I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Just mailed my Happy New Year card to your Mom in Florida. I should have addressed it to "SuperWoman!" Not only should she GO to Chicago to see OPRAH, she should be FEATURED on it!

  9. What an impressive's clear that the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

    My fingers are crossed that a trip to Oprah is in the (very near) future!

  10. Just e-mail them this letter I bet Oprah would love to read it
    you just might get tickets out of it
    very beautifully written makes me appreciate my Mom today so thanks!

  11. If I knew Oprah personally I am sure I could make something happen, but since I don't I tried anyway, but am doubtful that anything would come of it. But I did try. Hopefully they will visit this link and just maybe something can come of it.

    Your mom sounds really awesome. She did a fantastic job of raising you. And I can tell just by how you raise yours...and then of course that post helped too. :)

    And, Mary, sorry about my finger nails comment in the other post, but that is a sore subject with me and my mom.

  12. Aww what a wonderful post jen. You are very blessed.

  13. Wow she sounds like an amazing woman. So kinda and generous. I love hearing of people like that. The world needs more.

  14. My cousin (also an Oprah fanatic) sent an email to Oprah every day with the desire to come to Chicago to see her. After several months (and hundreds of emails!) it happened. They called and said they had extra tickets, would you like them, be here tomorrow.

    Good luck getting your mom there - it sounds like she deserves it!!

  15. One of many cuzzins!1/20/08, 3:59 PM

    WOW! What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman.

    Jen, your words brought tears to my eyes. I know how humbled your mom will be by your thoughtfulness.

    This may seem odd to you, but one of my greatest losses as a teenager was your parent's divorce. I absolutely LOVED going to your house when I was a kid. Whenever my mother announced we'd be taking the hour drive to her baby sister's house, there was always a race to the car. My mother also had years of tough times, and she always drove junk cars that would break down...especially during the long road trips to your house. We all knew they'd be some sort of road side catastrophe that would cause an embarrassing scene, but it didn't matter to us. The prize at the end of the journey was sure to be a fun and memorable afternoon, filled with adventure and lots & lots of laughs. Oftentimes, I would sneak an extra pair of undies & my toothbrush into my back pocket, just in case I won my argument for a sleepover. Sleepovers at your house were always the best and I always hated to have to go home...inspite of the torture I endured from Francis.

    Your mother ran that house like a tight ship...but always with laughter. I still marvel at the fact that with 7 kids and a big German Shephard, there was never a thing out of place. That big white house was always picture perfect. And you kids never seemed to complain about your morning chores. It seemed that your older brothers & sisters all actually WANTED to help your mother. I don't recall anyone ever complaining about helping with housework or laundry. She made the most tedious of jobs seem important and each person was always thanked for their contribution to the chore list.

    Jen, you and I have had a big gap in years. You moved away when you were a little girl and I was a teenager. Reading your stories allows me to reminisce. You are SO MUCH your mother. You are so fortunate to have many of her wonderful qualities. Like her, you are very real and in the moment. Like her, you absolutely relish your time with your children. Like her, you have made sacrifices to raise your children. Like her, you find importance in the mundane. Like her, you love life and all that life throws you. Like her, you always find something to smile about. Like her, you have a huge heart. Like her, you are just as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside.

    Your "mother mary" has always been especially extraordinarily special to me, because she is MY Godmother. Thank you for reminding me how terrific she has always been and continues to be.

    I'm sure your words have touched her heart. True love and appreciation for a mother is difficult to articulate and often goes unspoken. You have done a good job. This tribute to "mother mary" is one of your best posts.

    Now I'm going to call my mother!

    Regina ;)

  16. Mary, if you're reading this: This isn't the first time Jen has talked you up. She sings your praises to her friends in the triplet world all the time. And we are all as in love with you as she is. You're a good egg, Mother Mary.


  17. Sounds like she is soooo deserving. You are a very lucky lady to have a mother like this.
    God Bless you both.

    Mary Agnes (Aggie)

  18. I think you should send your post to Oprah! Seriously -- it can't hurt and maybe they will feature her on a 'Mother's Day' or dream show.

    She deserves it. What an amazing lady.

    (now, go look for a good preschool)

  19. What a beautiful post!

  20. Your mother sounds like an incredibly giving woman. You were blessed to have her as a mother and a role model. Your children are blessed because of this as well.

    And hey, congrats on the preschool!

    I don't know what part of the SD area you're in, but I know several teachers at the Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church preschool, and I think it's a fantastic school. Just a thought.

  21. Thanks, Jen, for sharing such a beautiful tribute to your mom. She's just the kind of mom I hope to be. What a model you've had! You are blessed!

  22. That was awesome. I can only imagine how wonderful that kind of relationship would be. My mother has never really been close with her children but I hope that one day my children will feel about me the way you feel about your mom. Thanks for sharing!

  23. this is a beautiful tribute to your wonderful mother. this post -- and your mom -- are things to treasure.

  24. I loved this post Jen. I hope that I am lucky enough to share that kind of love and values with my own children. Your mother must feel so proud to have you as her daughter!

  25. Believe it or not - I was just thanking my mother for giving the gift of allowing me to spend time with your mother during my youth! She (your mother) taught me so much.

    Although your family indured a tragedy with the divorce for which I am truly sorry - it was our benefit! I, personally, have some wonderful memories of the years that you were here. You and your brothers and sisters have been a big part of our lives.

    Your mother literally saved my mother's life several times and for that I will always be grateful. During this time of my father's illness we are so appreciative of all the kind words and actions each of you have sent......another wonderful tribute to your mother.

    Okay, I can't see what I'm typing anymore due to my "sobbing" tears....(it's a good cry). Thank you.
    Much Love and Hugs. Love, Marg.

  26. Nothin better than a good momma! Awe, you brought me back to memories of my child hood cars.....they too lack luster. Way to go mom, say hi to the whales for me:)

  27. Again Jen, you are such an amazing writer. Any mother would be honored to read these words written by their child.

    I hope you can get her to the Oprah show! I'm sure if they read that post they would get you there in a heartbeat!

  28. I love your mother, Jen. She is a beautiful woman and a Saint! You are so lucky and this whole post brought tears to my eyes. She's a survivor and so are you!!!!! Now get your Momma on that show!!!! God Bless her!

  29. What an awesome post! I love my momma too, although she's got a different story than yours. I love hearing about strong women that overcome and have a real sense of who they are and pass that legacy to their children.

  30. I saw some people had sent this post to Oprah so I did as well. Maybe if they get so many of the same e-mail, they will do something.

    I just drove past the building where she films her show a few weeks ago. We were in Chicago over Christmas.

  31. Just had to add.....

    Tony didn't give any children up for adoption did he? Because I'm thinking Greg could be his long lost son. I've seen Greg in a rental car so small, his knees nearly hit his chin on his 250 pound frame. When I met him he was driving a Ford Granada and wouldn't turn the gas on in his apartment because there was a $30 deposit. Tony would be proud!

  32. You have such a way for words! My mothers name is Mary too and she is just as awesome as your mom.
    Thanks for sharing.

  33. And so we will all bombard Oprah until Mother Mary is an honored guest. What a beautiful post Jen.

  34. How lovely. And so thoughtful.
    She sounds so amazing!

    What happened? Why did they divorce? I can still hear the pain so many years later?

    Rebecca D

  35. I am so glad you did not mention my "evil" side. Like the time I locked you out of the house when you were late, and the time I peirced poor Regina's ears without ice cubes, and Kathy eating all those donuts while locked in the upstairs bathroom with Beth.
    It has all been fun for me and I love coming to anyone's rescue--takes my mind of my arthritis.
    I still have the card you sent me saying " Dear Mom, I hate you."

  36. what a beautiful tribute to your beautiful mother. i have goosebumps and tears. thank you for sharing your mama with us!

  37. Jen - Can you tell us where the picture of your Mom all dressed up was taken? I think one of your sisters weddings - My Mom isn't so sure! Please tell us! She's gorgeous - and still is!

    Your old Neighbor

  38. All that and a cribbage player too?! Wow!

    Thanks for an enjoyable read.

  39. Jen,
    When I was growing up, your house was the next best thing to being home! We spent so much time there as kids...I loved to sit and talk to your mother. She always treated me like a grown-up. I remember she pierced my ears for me. I remember she had me hold ice cubes on my earlobes to numb them up. When she pierced the first one, you stood in front of me and screamed, "BLOOD"! (You were 3) My eyes rolled back in my head and I hit the kitchen floor. Your mother pierced the other ear while I was passed out on the floor. I woke up in a chair on the sunporch. After that day, my mother kiddingly said that I could always thank your mother for putting two more holes in my head. Nice.

    XOXO Anne Marie