My mother had a collection of Hummel porcelain figurines that she displayed on the fireplace mantel. My brother and I knew not to endanger them. One summer morning, as he and I watched television, an errant breeze blew over a large unframed picture that had been propped behind her collection. The sound as they shattered on the hearth terrified us, then Mom came running, crying, screaming. I was ten, my brother nine. She realized pretty quickly we’d had nothing to do with the accident, but her wild grief unnerved us. We avoided her the rest of the day, feeling terrible because we knew the destruction couldn’t be reversed; the fact that we hadn’t caused it didn’t help. Next morning, we found wrapped presents at the feet of our beds. Mine was an illustrated copy of The Hobbit I’d had my eye on for weeks.
Mom was good with the gesture you needed, when you needed it. When I was in ninth grade my girlfriend moved to Connecticut. Mom drove me five hours to visit her, and maintained a discrete distance as my love and I enacted Barry Manilow’s Weekend in New England on the beach. Mom made sure I knew how to cook and clean, skills I am grateful for. When my father was caught embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars, her world shattered; soon thereafter he left and never contributed a cent to household or child support. Years later, she’s happily remarried to someone who treats her well and makes her laugh. We can finally talk about those years without bitterness, without the weight of pain or the sting of everything lost and irrecoverable. She made it, and I’m proud of her.
My mother’s mother was the kindest and most loyal person I’ve ever known. She used to drive me all over town in her green VW Beetle, the only car she ever owned. I was looking for comic books, and she was patient as we visited store after store. When I was 19 I moved to Utica, and we’d have lunch a few times each week. She loved Kirby’s, where she always ordered the same thing and sent her compliments to the kitchen. When I became a runner she’d microwave a potato for ten minutes and heat a can of Campbell’s Homestyle Minestrone soup on her hot plate. (She’d read that baked potatoes were the ideal food for athletes.) Dessert was a piece of angel food cake (don’t you dare refuse.) When I told her I was getting a divorce, a conversation I’d dreaded, she listened, said nothing, then got up, removed a sticker from a Chiquita Banana and placed it over my soon-to-be-ex’s face in the framed picture on her dresser; no judgment, no further discussion necessary. (My father’s body was topped by an identical sticker in another picture.)
My mother’s sister used to pack a picnic lunch and take us to Nicks Lake. She’s the only person I know who can take a recipe in Cook’s Magazine and make it turn out the way it’s supposed to. When I started my stage lighting business she and my uncle took a chance and invested $10,000; no bank was interested in a young man without a college degree. Sixteen years ago, Susan and I went for a sail with them, and found ourselves rolling up and down six foot waves. As my uncle puked off one side, I puked off the other; my aunt calmly piloted the boat. Since I started performing again a few years ago, she and my uncle have frequently been in the audience. After one of those, my aunt said “You play a good jerk.”
I met Betsy Larson because she was the mother of my girlfriend’s best friend. Betsy had a pile of dirt she wanted moved from the front yard to the back yard. That turned into a painting job and a dozen other tasks that stretched over a summer. She’d feed me and we’d talk. We attended movies together. Once, I saw a review for the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, which was playing at Geva. She called and said, “They have four tickets for tonight. We’re going.” I moved in with the Larsons when Betsy saw me in the grocery store one day, asked how I was, and made up her mind that I’d be going home with her. I lived there for eighteen months. She was furious when I quit my job at Abbott’s Frozen Custard to write and act in a show at University of Rochester’s black box theater. Then she came to the show anyway, and wrote a review. She left it on the foot of my bed.
Before I asked Susan to marry me, I asked her parents. I called them, set a time to visit, sat on their couch mouth dry and heart racing, got up to leave and finally blurted out my intentions. “You’ve got my blessing, said Anna, a tiny tear twinkling in her eye. (Bill said, “She doesn’t cook or clean, but I’m fine with it.” Cooking and cleaning, you’ll recall, I could do. Thanks, Mom.) Once, Anna and I decided to bake a chocolate bourbon pound cake. We didn’t realize the recipe was enough to make several cakes. We poured the batter almost to the top of the cake pan, but we reasoned it must not rise much. Wrong. As the batter flowed out of the pan and through her oven, we kept placing cookie sheets underneath to catch the spillage. The cake was delicious. I still make that recipe, cut in half.
Susan was pregnant once before Sarah. The baby died somewhere between fourteen and eighteen weeks along, and Susan had to deliver, an hours-long ordeal for her. We were fortunate to have another chance. With Sarah, Susan had morning sickness the entire time. And not just in the morning. Sarah arrived a week early (Susan: “It might be the only time in her life Sarah’s ever been early.”) I’d gone out for a run, and when I returned Susan said, “How about today for a baby?” I wasn’t ready. I started frantically cleaning the house. Susan’s regular doctor, a petite soft-spoken man with tiny hands, was on vacation. His replacement was a giant. With immense hands. “HELLO! WE’RE HAVING A BABY TODAY!!!! YOU SHOULD GET THE DRUGS.” But we’d been to the classes. And Susan had delivered before. She’d do it naturally. “I WISH YOU’D GET THE DRUGS!” She didn’t want any. Hours later, when everyone was exhausted and Sarah was being stubborn (facing the wrong way, which caused the hospital staff to keep Susan in bed, not up and moving around like she wanted to be), the despondent doctor moaned “I TOLD YOU TO GET THE DRUGS…” And then Sarah arrived.
I am thankful for these Mothers I’ve known. They’ve nurtured me, inspired me, cheered for me and have even saved me. I am who I am because of them. These memories, just a few out of hundreds, are dedicated to Sue (Mom), Ruth (Grandma), Pat (Aunt), Betsy, Anna and Susan with respect, gratitude and love. Happy Mother’s Day.