Today, my mother turned 86 years young. I called her to wish her a happy birthday and somehow, we got onto the topic of politics. History has taught me nothing, for it’s impossible to have a serious discussion with my mother, the female Yogi Bera and soul sister to Lucille Ball. This morning, I pontificated, “It’s not possible to run for public office in this country unless you’re filthy rich!” A heartbeat later, my mother’s asked sweetly, “Oh, when did that change?”
My mother’s comedy routines began in early childhood. It’s not that she set out to make people laugh; it’s just that … like certain angels … trouble simply followed her. Hilarious trouble!
At the tender age of nine, my mom was a product of extreme poverty. The Great Depression and my grandfather’s illness meant no luxuries of any kind, for it was a struggle in those days for my grandmother, the sole breadwinner, to put food on the table, pay the rent, and clothe her family. Understandably, when my mom’s Uncle Dan pulled up in front of her brownstone one day in a shiny brand new car, she thought she’d landed in Oz’s Emerald City. My mother’s aunts were already crammed into the car’s front and back seats, but Uncle Dan rolled down the window and hollered for his young niece to hop into his new jalopy. She didn’t need a second invitation for her very first ride in an automobile.
As the aunts yammered on excitedly, Dan made a rather sharp turn at a corner. Like kids piled into a carnival ride, the aunts all shifted en masse … against my mother. Under their combined weight, the door flew open, my 9-year-old mom rolled into a puddle, and the aunts continued to chatter on, oblivious to their loss. Dan had his eyes on the road ahead of him, not the puddle behind him. No one missed my mother as the car rolled blithely along with the passenger door flung gregariously wide.
A few minutes later, a wet and very ticked-off little Mary came up to the car, wind-milling her arms and legs and hollering at the top of her lungs at her stunned relatives, who blamed her for the tumble. My mother was completely unharmed, for as she often says, “Thank God I was born with a hard head!” Hard as it was, that head still gave her some trouble.
At the age of twelve, tomboy Mary was playing in the street (probably the same one into which she’d rolled three years earlier). As it was not considered “lady like” to play where cars rolled by and horses clopped, all the other kids on that street were boys, including my mom’s two brothers. Now, my Uncle Vince had a good friend nicknamed Whitey. The reasons for his nickname were his platinum blond hair and pale blue eyes. In an Italian-American neighborhood, the fair Whitey stuck out like a sore thumb — but his looks were not his only distinction.
Whitey, though young, was already in possession of two JD (Juvenile Delinquent) cards, courtesy of the NYPD. New York City law demanded that if a boy incurred three JD cards, he’d become a guest of the State. Unruly boys were jailed in those days. And these were real jails, not today’s politically correct holding pens where perps “get religion” and subsequent early release.
That day, Whitey the JD was amusing himself by tossing rocks around. He knew not to aim at the other kids or the windows on the brownstones. Being a city kid with no pond upon which to skim stones, he was flinging rocks at nothing in particular.
My mother had just finished chalking up the street with a hopscotch diagram. She straightened up to proudly admire her handiwork. In the instant that she did, she caught one of Whitey’s rocks right in her third-eye chakra: smack between her eyes. Under the impact, she swooned to the ground like a Victorian maiden, bleeding profusely. Housewives hanging out of windows screamed bloody murder. They screamed for my grandmother. Whitey turned even whiter and ran for the hills, not even stopping to see if he’d done away with my mother. Quick like bunnies, my uncles snatched up my mom and ran with her straight to the pharmacy, with my screaming/praying grandmother in tow. In those days, few people had money for doctors, so pharmacists filled the bill except in the direst of emergencies.
Bleeding and woozy from her ordeal, my mother endured the two stitches that the pharmacist put in her head. As if sewing up a hole in a sock, he was not artful as a physician would have been. His handiwork would leave a scar between my mother’s eyes in the shape of Jesus’ cross, an appropriate and most noticeable symbol for one pulled all too often out of harm’s way. Whether out of guilt or pity, the pharmacist then handed my mother a cool, delicious ice cream cone, free of charge. Ice cream, a costly luxury, was never, ever seen in her home. Immediately, her brothers commandeered the treat, telling their injured sister between licks that she was too ill to eat the cone!
Whitey vanished into thin air. For years, no one had seen him or heard from him, not his family and not even my Uncle Vince, who had been his close friend.
When my mom was all grown up and working in the department store in which she was destined to meet my dad, management put her behind the sweater counter, selling fine women’s sweaters sewn with sequins and other feminine embellishments of the day. She was a natural saleswoman, warm and friendly with customers. Hardly anyone walked away from her counter without making a purchase.
One day, a couple strolled into her department. As the woman examined the sweaters my mother had placed on the counter, my mom took a good long look at the man. Something about him nagged at her as she struggled to recall a childhood face matured into that of a man. Suddenly, it dawned. “Whitey!” my mother exclaimed. Instantly, Whitey turned, well, white. “You — you must have mistaken me for someone else,” he stammered.
“You mean you don’t remember me?” my mother asked incredulously. “I’m Mary, Vince’s sister, from the old neighborhood.” “I’m sorry; you’ve mistaken me for someone,” Whitey insisted again, guilt written in his pale blue eyes and the blush creeping up into his platinum blond hair.
“Oh yeah?” my mother countered in her best Edward G. Robinson voice. Pointing to the cross between her eyes, she demanded, “Did you forget this as well?!? You put it there!” At that, Whitey snatched the sweater out of his wife’s hands, tossed it onto the counter, and hauled her out of the store as if his butt were on fire. Across the selling floor, my mother’s department manager was stunned. “You didn’t make that sale,” the woman said in surprise. “That man looked as if he’d seen a ghost. What did you say to him?” “Beats me,” my mother shrugged innocently.
Like Ricky Ricardo’s Lucy, my mother was always getting herself into a pickle. She had a real problem with doors that locked, particularly bathroom doors. Being a modest woman, she insisted upon locking those doors. But being mechanically inept, she also managed to lock herself into a number of bathrooms in her lifetime.
When I was eleven years old and suffering from the flu, she did just that. A frantic pounding and howling from behind the bathroom door roused me out of bed. Hot with fever, I told her not to worry, that I’d phone my dad. When I did, he snapped, “Deal with it! I’m at the office; I’m trying to earn a paycheck here!” “Hang on,” I told my mom, “I’ll go get Grandma and Grandpa.”
My grandparents lived in the apartment below us; it was their house. My grandfather was more meticulous than Felix Unger could ever hope to be. To give you but one example of his fastidiousness, my grandfather ironed and folded rags! That day, he and my Gran were hanging wallpaper that had a very distinct pattern; one screw-up and their walls would have looked like hell. “I’m hanging wallpaper here,” my grandfather insisted. “So? Your mother’s always locking herself into bathrooms!”
With no hope on the horizon, I shuffled upstairs in my bathrobe and leaned against the bathroom door — wherein, my mother was having a very serious panic attack, for she was claustrophobic. Like Dracula’s Renfeld harnessed into a straightjacket, she was working herself into a real lather … except that my mother’s straightjacket was a locked bathroom door.
Rationally, I told her, “Ma, you’ll be okay. You have running water if you’re thirsty. You have a toilet if you have to go. And you have a window for fresh air. Go open it and take a good deep breath. Ma … you opened the window?”
“Yes. Thanks. You’re so calm!”
Of course I was; I had a fever of 101○. “Don’t worry,” I soothed. “I’m gonna call the Fire Department now. They’ll bring a ladder and you can climb down.”
“Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!” she shrieked. “I’m afraid of heights!!!!!!!!!!!”
“Ma. We’re only two stories up.”
“I am not climbing down that ladder!!!!”
“Okay, then stay there ’til Daddy gets home.” It was ten thirty in the morning, and Daddy would not be home until about 6 PM, if the subway gods were kind.
Summoned by the screams through the open window, my grandparents had left their glue pots and curling wallpaper to check out the situation. “Break the door down, Grandpa,” I suggested mildly, suddenly wanting to see some action. My grandfather looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “You know I just painted that door last month. I’m not ruining my house!”
Thus at a loss, he consulted the neighbors. In a matter of minutes, every neighbor on the block was convened outside my bathroom door. This meeting of the minds included Mike, a convivial little terrier of a man who lived directly behind us and was rumored to like his booze. Come to think of it, Mike did smell a tad medicinal that day. “Don’t worry, Mary,” he said to the door, “we’ll just remove the door frame, get at the hinges, and take ‘em off.”
“Over my dead body!” thundered my granddad. From behind the door, my mother alternately moaned, screamed, and supplicated as if she were being dismembered. I eyed my grandfather knowingly. “You’ll never get that room wallpapered at this rate, Grandpa.”
“What else ya got?” he then demanded of Mike.
“Nuthin’,” Mike shrugged. Neither did anyone else. They wound up removing the frame and the hinges, after all, and then replacing everything. When my dad got home, he arrived suspicious, for my mother, as I’d said, had had problems with bathroom locks all her life. He walked into the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and then jiggled the lock, as you would a thing that has a tendency to stick. It opened easily!
My mother was so grateful to Mike that, after her escape, she ran to the fridge to liberate the lone can of beer in there (my family were not big drinkers). She tossed the can over the fence to Mike, who caught it with a gleam in his eye. A few minutes later, our phone rang. It was Mike. “Mary,” he drawled, “you lobbed that beer at me like Whitey Ford pitchin’ a ball. It exploded all over my kitchen ceiling!”
Trouble follows some angels, yes. But even some angels are afraid to tread where my mother goes!