Back then, the one who believed in me lived thirty square blocks west.
Most Chicago streets are squares or rectangles, called “blocks” by the natives. The main streets are fastened to the ground by taverns, currency exchanges, liquor stores, Walgreen’s drugstores, storefront restaurants, and all manner of other enterprises. The city was laid out that way, in straight blocks that seldom let you see a sliver of sky touch the street where it ends on the horizon, and mostly straight streets that keep the same names from one side of the city to the other, often for miles. Mom’s house was where I could indulge in lofty expectations for both my future and my self.
1948 – Eight years old.
We came out the side exit. Mom always wanted to arrive early when we went to the Southtown Theater to feed the swans and ducks at the pond in the lobby and watch a movie. It was a scene I would never see again in the multiplexes years later: a huge pond with ferns, rocks, water lilies, live swans and ducks swimming and walking around and begging popcorn and staring at me. All this in the lobby of a movie theater. And although she always wanted to arrive early, she always took the quickest way out when the movie was over.
On the way out Mom would open the door a little and peer out behind a shiny hand that she held up to shield her eyes from the transition to bright sunlight, her other hand closed around mine, tugging me along. She moved at a slow trot, with quick little steps. In the winter she’d pull at my arm and tell me how moving quickly over the packed snow and ice was the only way she could keep her balance. Leaving the movie theater she’d sigh: “Back to reality. Didn’t you just love it when that little boy tried to save the dog from the clutches of that nasty old crone? That was a brave thing to do for such a little boy, now wasn’t it?” I was too young to be embarrassed by the Irish in Mom’s speech, but not too young to hope none of my friends saw me being steered down 63rd Street by my grandmother.
All the days of her life her children and grandchildren called her Mom. Fifty years after she changed her first child’s diaper she still wouldn’t abide Grandma, Grandmother, Gram, or anything other than Mom. “I’m just not up to that now, am I?” she’d say, more statement than question. And who would argue? For me, Mom could do no wrong.
1956 – Sixteen years old.
My room had been at Mom’s off and on for the better part of a year. At Mom’s I thought I had begun to win the struggle to keep my balance. My life was school, work in Sol’s Wachovsky’s jewelry store, a chore list, sports that changed with the seasons, and dreams of escape. In the house ruled by my mother and stepfather, I choked on shouting, slammed doors, discouragement. “Believe in yourself,” Mom would command. “If you can read you can do anything, and you’re a good reader.”
1957 – Seventeen years old.
My last full summer in South Chicago was beer truck deliveries and bar clean-ups, mowing lawns and clipping hedges, delivering pizzas and shooting baskets, running errands and running bases.
On a sticky July night I climbed the porch steps late, Mom’s television set providing the only light from its eerie glow through the living room window. I could see her through the window as I reached for the front door with my key. She was asleep in her chair, her legs on the footrest, her hands clutching the Chicago Tribune in her lap. I slid my key in the lock, opened the door, and stepped into the small entrance hall, closing the door as quietly as a thief. I opened the inside door to the living room just as quietly but was greeted by wide open eyes and a big grin. “What a lovely program I was lookin’ at just now,” Mom said, stifling a yawn. “You look ready for some Jell-O and ice cream.”
“It’s a test pattern on the screen, Mom. You shouldn’t wait up for me,” I said.
“I’m not so old and daft I can’t decide for my own self what time to go to bed. Besides, I want to tell you about a movie we’re off to see tomorrow. If you can spare your old Mom the time.”
Over strawberry Jell-O and vanilla ice cream she read the paper to me. “Says right here the Russians might have more bombs than we do. Here’s a movie for us: A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards and Martin Balsam.” She put the paper down and sipped her tea. With her free hand she wiped at the table with a dishrag.
I wondered how many movies the Air Force would let me see the next four years. “My plane isn’t until eight,” I said, “enough time for three movies.”
“Three movies indeed,” she said. “You’re doin’ the right thing. Choosin’ your path instead of just lettin’ yourself be blown like a leaf in the wind.”
How did she always know when I needed her encouragement?
The next day we caught the bus and the movie. I suspected Mom had snuck off by herself to see it before, because when his nephew told Jason Robards that he had to get back to reality Mom whispered the retort right along with Robards: “I’ll only go as a tourist.” She nudged me with her elbow. “Back to reality, but only as a tourist,” she said. “What a lovely thought.”
1965 – Twenty-five years old.
Mom had cruised through her sixties and into her seventies. I held on to life like a water skier; moving ahead until the boat slowed down, a big wave came by, or the rope broke.
I’d call and stop by to fix a leaky faucet, a sagging storm door, or a ceiling that needed paint – if Mom didn’t beat me to it. Sometimes I’d see her at my stepdad’s tavern, where I cleaned up and where my mother still tended bar in the afternoon. Once in a while Mom would bring some friends for what she called “Nips and Grins.”
“Seen any good ones lately?” I asked her one evening at the tavern. We sat at the end of the bar, near the back door, and spoke while occasionally turning toward each other but mostly looking at reflections in the mirror behind the bar.
“Not a one,” she said. “And what about you? I expect you can’t afford the time or the money what with the wife and the two wee ones lookin’ to you, now can you?”
“I could still go see a film with my Mom now and then.”
“Film is it? Film’s what I put in my camera. If it was a movie you’d be up to, I might have an interest to take it in.”
I insisted on a plan and on the day I left my downtown cubicle early and took her to see Sean Connery in Goldfinger.” She came up with a new line as we exited the theater: “No tellin’ what reality might be after that.”
1966 – Twenty-six years old.
A few weeks after my birthday I received a call at work from one of my sisters. “Mom’s broken her hip. She had a few beers with her pals and when she got home she couldn’t find her keys and decided to climb up a ladder and go through the pantry window. She almost made it, but stumbled on something in the pantry and fell.”
I left work to go straight to the hospital. Soon as I saw her I felt a stir in the air, an angel passing by. On my third visit she gave me a look I never thought I’d see in those eyes that had saved me so many times, a look that made me realize hope was a visitor that didn’t stay long before offering an excuse to leave early.
“Why the long face?” I said. “Surely you’re busy telling all the doctors and nurses how things should be done around here?”
She looked through me. “You’ll need to be helpin’ your mother sort things out, now won’t you?”
I wondered what else; had the sinking feeling there was more than a broken hip. On the way down the hall to Mom’s room I’d passed my mother and her brothers and sister, my uncles and aunt. They said they were going back down to care for my children and their cousins, all too young to visit a hospital room in 1974. Mom’s children taking charge.
Two weeks later I stood on the steps at St. Rita’s Church listening to an older cousin tell me I should start thinking about dressing more warmly as we both stood shivering in light coats. My tears held off right through the services at the church and cemetery but came in such a flood on the drive home I had to pull off the road and get out of the car.
That night, my family safe with their dreams, I pulled my jacket tight against my pajama top and closed my eyes against the chill wind in my back yard. I looked at the stars but in my mind pictured Mom sipping tea with one hand and cleaning the table with the other, using leftover wash water to scrub the basement floor, checking on pans of bread and rolls rising on the kitchen radiator, stopping at the Baptist Church because she like their music better than the Catholic music at St. Rita, dishing up Jell-O and ice cream at midnight, inviting the scissors sharpener from his cart in the alley to a place at her lunch table. I heard her voice whispering to me like a conspiring bandit about life breaking an Irishman’s heart before he was thirty-five and how I was “the marryin’ kind,” the kind who won’t be happy without lots of family around. I saw her kneeling by the side of her bed for evening prayers and heard her reminder that God helps those who help themselves.
I wanted, not for the first time, to go back in time. To burrow down in a cave of sleep in my aunt’s fur coat in Mom’s back bedroom while I listened one more time to the laughter and the shuffle of cards; see Mom one more time at Halloween, wrapped in an old blanket, with makeup applied in ways the manufacturer never intended, curlers and floppy bows in her hair – she called it her “wool” – trekking along Chicago sidewalks with gangs of pirates, princesses, cowboys. sailors, and monsters of all kinds. She would look around to make certain only children could see, then take out her teeth and wiggle her mouth around and look like a photo of a toothless old Indian woman in a National Geographic. I still have that blanket; use it for Sunday naps, the scent of it transporting me back in time.
I wanted once more to be awakened by a scratching sound from the edge of my bed. Then a breathing sound. Then a lift of the covers to reveal a long snout resting a few inches from my head. Lady, a German Shepherd, wearing a pair of spectacles and one of Mom’s frilly nightcaps. A contest to produce the bigger ham, Lady or Mom, her peeking around the doorframe to judge the effects of her dog’s disguise.
I once read that grandparents and grandchildren are close because they have common enemies. I let my eyelids lift slowly and looked up through the crisp winter air and wondered if my grin was the same as hers.
I saw my daughter staring at me from a corner of her bedroom window, one hand clutching the satin at the end of her blanket and the other rubbing her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. I waved and she turned away.
I wondered again at the love that Mom had poured out to me, and the optimism she displayed about my chances in life. It took me a long time to understand that she was teasing about only going back to reality as a tourist. At the end of A Thousand Clowns, even Murray Byrnes, the character Jason Robards plays, goes back to work. He sees that his nephew will be put in a foster home if he, Byrnes, doesn’t get back to reality.
Mom taught me that reality is not simply to be toured, looked at but not participated in. Reality demands attention, perseverance, the ability to get on with doing whatever is needed to be a decent human being, spouse, parent, friend – even when no one is looking.
As I made my way to our back door to return to bed, I said a prayer about being a special someone to my wife, my children, and my children’s children. Thank you, Mom, for all your gifts, large and small.