Remembering Martha: My Mother, My Friend
Martha, the second eldest in a family of six, lost her railroader father in a train accident when she was only seven years old. My mother never talked about the loss of her father or the hardships which followed. My father's sister, an eternal busybody who made it her business to find out such things, told my siblings and I about my mother's childhood: a lawyer, who had been hired by my maternal grandmother, allowed the statute of limitations to pass, thereby ensuring that the railroad company never had to pay a dime in compensation to the fatherless family. That same lawyer, according to my paternal aunt, was amply rewarded by the railroad company for his "forgetfulness".
Martha was a "Black Irish" beauty. She had high cheekbones, black hair, dark eyes, and a slim build. She excelled at school, but had a handicap - she was extremely shy. The poverty faced by her family, and the lack of styish clothes and shoes, certainly didn't help her self-esteem.
And so Martha cleaned houses after school and on week-ends to help her young, widowed mother keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. My mother never had the opportunity to attend college, even though she graduated near the top of her class and received the an excellence award in Latin. Mom's younger brothers, upon reaching the age of five, were sent off, one-by-one, to a school for fatherless boys in Philadelphia. My uncles came home to visit on holidays and for a few weeks in the summer. The separation fostered a mild estrangement from their mother and sister, but the boys were all well-educated and fared well in life. One of my uncles was a PhD who was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship during the 1960s, taught philosophy at an Ivy League college, and helped to lay the groundwork for some of the earliest computers.
According to my paternal aunt, my father was not my mother's first love. Her high school sweetheart was a man by the name of Joe, who was just as nice as she was. My aunt described him as "mild-mannered". Martha and Joe were engaged when he died suddenly of diabetes at age twenty-one. A few years later, while on a trip to New York City to visit Joe's mother, to whom she remained close all her life, Martha was introduced to my father by his Army buddy. The buddy was a mutual acquaintance of the soon-to-be-married couple. Their meeting place? The steps of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where my mother, a devout Catholic all her life, had, no doubt, gone to pray for the soul of her lost first love.
My mother's shyness prevented her from making a lot of friends - even as an adult. On hot summer evenings, while the other ladies of the neighborhood passed evening hours by sitting on wooden front porches and catching up on the latest gossip, my mother remained at home behind the safety of her sheer dime-store curtains in our rented home. On hindsight, I realze she would have loved to join her fellow housewives, not for the gossip but for the companionship. (I never heard my mother say a bad word about anyone). Sadly, none of the neighborhood women ever knocked on our door to invite my mother to join them. And she was just too insecure and shy to approach any of their porches uninvited. And so my mother's social activities in the neighborhood were restricted to friendly waves and short conversations over the backyard fence or clothesline.
But "Mommy", as her children continued to call her even after we were all fully matured adults, achieved great things that not many of us, including myself, can claim: she dedicated each day to God, rising daily at 5AM to say her rosary and other prayers, and she dedicated all of her time to being a full-time, devoted wife (a lone caretaker to my father for six of his twelve year Alzheimer's journey) and a wonderful, selfless mother. She was always there for her husband and children. I'm ashamed to say we were not quite as unselfish.
I can remember countless times when my mother would need or want something: a permanent; a new pair of shoes; an appliance, or a new coat or dress. She would put small amounts of cash aside, when she could, to save for the desired or needed item. This painstakingly saved money was kept rolled up in rubberbands (thereby hidden-in-plain-sight from my father, who liked to play cards with the boys) in a corner of the kitchen cupboard. Invariably, one of her four children, and sometimes my father, would want or need money for a particular luxury. And just as invariably, after listening to our request, Martha would reach into that cupboard, pull out that rubber-banded money and hand it over to the requester.
My mother made selflessness seem easy.
Looking back, I am overwhelmed at how good a person my mother was. I say this not just because she was good to her own children. Thank God, most of us are good to our children. But my mother went far beyond the ordinary goodness. My mother was kind to everyone- even those who were often unkind to her. This included my aunt. One of the very last things my mother did was visit my her in the hospital. My mother was more ill than my aunt at the time, and only had a few weeks to live. No one but my mother knew about her illness, and the trip to my aunt's hospital bed must have required a monumental effort both physically and emotionally. (My aunt did recover and went on for another 21 years.)
I know many of you out there are fortunate enough to have a mother like the one I had. How blessed you are. If you are also lucky enough to still have her with you on this earth, please go and give her a hug and a kiss, and tell her how much you recognize and appreciate all that she's given to you. Tell her how she has taught you, through her example, to be a better parent, a better spouse, and a better human being. It will make up for all the little sacrifices she made for you, and even for the ones you'll never know about.