Today my mother turns 90 years old. As a man almost half her age her longevity fills me with wonder and awe at such an accomplishment. Cynics (like me at most times) might scoff at the accomplishment since she didn’t have to do anything except not die, but it’s not like that’s easy. Besides, there is more to it than that.
First, let’s look at the raw numbers. At the time of her birth her life expectancy was 57.4 years. This meant that she had a 50-50 chance of living through the end of August 1978. She had less than a 4% chance of making it to her 85th birthday in 2006. Thankfully living conditions improved, especially for poor Americans.
My mother was born on St. Louis’s South Side, an area that was ethnically German but actually contained a mix of several nationalities who spoke German – usually as a second language. These included a large contingent from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Her mother’s father had arrived in August 1891 on the SS Trave, a steamer out of Bremen, and her father’s family, also Bohemians, had arrived just a few years earlier. On the day she was born, her father had gone out fishing, hoping to return home to a boy, only to find another daughter. He wasn’t too pleased about that, and never treated her affectionately as best as she could recall. She did seem to have a pleasant albeit poor upbringing; none of the flats or small detached homes she lived in had indoor plumbing until after she had married.
The Depression hit her family hard, and she got her first job selling door to door at the age of 16, working to support her mother. He father had died suddenly, taking a fall down basement stairs on his way to get some homebrewed beer, which he had made my mother bottle and cap for his and his friends. It gave her a life-long hatred of the smell of beer. Ironic, given that fact she met my father at a beer-garden soon after graduating high school. His father, of pure Irish stock, wasn’t pleased. “I don’t want my son marrying no dirty bohunk,” he is rumored to have said. This being America, even the Irish had someone to look down upon, and early in the 20th century it was the Italians and Eastern Europeans who had arrived starting a half century after the Irish were starved out of their own European homes.
Life was tough. Employment prospects weren’t good for my father who left school after 10th grade and bounced from one menial job to the next. I grew up on a steady diet of stories about how my parents skipped meals themselves in order to feed their growing family. My mother had dreamed of being a nurse prior to marriage but began a family instead – too quickly she later admitted. The War took my father away to the Pacific, leaving her at home with two daughters and the birth of a son, born while my father was fighting the Japanese in the Philippines. His wartime buddies even chose his name while they retook the Philippines, fulfilling General MacArthur’s “I shall return” pledge.
At first my brother thrived, but soon my mother noticed differences only an alert mother could spot. With my sisters in tow, she presented my brother to a doctor. “Take this boy home,” he said dismissively, “He’s going to die.” My mother cried all the way home on the streetcar, but she didn’t give up. She went to other doctors where she learned that my brother had been born with a hole in his heart, a defect that left him prone to illness throughout his childhood and that would eventually kill him. Some of them told them to institutionalize the boy so that she could focus on raising the rest of her family, but she stubbornly refused. Instead she sat in bed cradling my sick brother with my sisters laid out asleep on either side of her. She cried alone, but she never quit. Eventually she found a doctor, Dr. Danis, who appreciated her persistent and worked with my family to keep my brother alive until 1967 when he was one of the first to receive open heart surgery to patch the hole in his heart. Dr. Danis became a sainted figure in our house.
While my mother gave her all for her children, she never resented our failures to appreciate what she had done until much, much later. My mother continued working until five years ago, and always found money for house downpayments or some other unexpected financial crisis that befell her adult children. She kept the peace between my father and his children, which wasn’t easy given my father’s alcoholism and the rebellious spirit of one of my sisters.
My father had a simple rule for his daughters: always be home by 1am on the weekends. Most of us abided by this rule, but one sister fought against it. “If I’m going to be bad, I can do it before 1am,” she once said to my mother. “It has nothing to do with you,” my mother responded. “It has to do with not upsetting your father.” There was a logic to this deadline: bars closed in St. Louis at 1:30am, and neither of my parents wanted their daughters on the streets after that time.
My father, who fell asleep early, always woke up at 1am, getting out of bed and making certain that his children were home. If they weren’t, he would explode. He was an extremely fearful man who channeled his fear into aggression, and my mother had learned how to handle him. Today we would call such an “education” abuse, but this was 50 years ago. Back then it was considered simply part of being a wife.
One Saturday night, my sister wasn’t home as the clock approached 1am. My mother began to worry, knowing that my father would soon awaken. She slipped out of the house and began driving around the neighborhood looking for her daughter. She found her near the house, waiting defiantly for the deadline to pass. My mother pulled her cursing and kicking out of her boyfriend’s car.
Another time a younger sister came home, her face puffy from bruises she received after being hit by her boyfriend. My mother grabbed the keys, drove to the boyfriend’s house and banged on the door. His father opened it. “Where is he,” she said, bursting into the house. His parents were stunned, and she saw him at the top of a flight of stairs. She charged up the stairs and grabbed him by the throat with one hand and slapped him with another. “Don’t. You. Ever. Touch. My. Daughter. Again.” She hissed and spit, smacking the boy as hard as she could. His mother screamed, and eventually the father pulled my mother off their son.
My mother later explained that she was doing the boy a favor. By beating him herself she had kept my father from doing the job. She weighed half of what he did, and knew that had he found the boy he would have killed him. The boy would be dead and my father in prison, his family left to fend for itself. The beating was just her way of protecting her family.
Eventually his daughters were married off, although my youngest sister had to hide her marriage until the week before the wedding for fear that my father would stop the wedding. The three daughters whom he saw married, even the rebellious one, never knew divorce. Their husbands were all solid providers and were just as devoted to their own families as my parents were to theirs.
But like many big families there were divisions. Over time, especially after the death of my father, these became more difficult to hide. Slights between siblings became more pronounced. The number of people at family gatherings dwindled even as the number of individual gatherings grew. It was most apparent at major holidays like Christmas Eve: my brother and the rebellious sister refused to attend this gathering, so my mother would drag me along to visit my brother’s family on Christmas Day and my sister’s a day or two afterward. After I left home the situation became even worse. Sisters who grew up as friends became fast-enemies as one slighted the other at her daughter’s wedding.
My mother did her best to paper over these fractures, but there was little she could do. Her family, which she had dedicated her life to preserving, had become so successful that members could afford complete independence from one another. All of my siblings had done well and were solidly middle class, as were their children. They didn’t need the support – either emotionally or financially – of their brothers and sisters.
Although I am certain that she feels that she failed, I see this breakup of her family as an inevitable consequence of her success. My mother had raised them with the characters they needed to thrive and do better in the world than she and her husband had. They were smart with money, recognized the importance of education, valued their religious faith yet were all critical thinkers who questioned authorities, and never, ever quit. Their “children” were never “taken home to die.” Each of my siblings has persisted in the face of adversity and never, ever gave up. For some it was money; for others it was status. For me it was addiction and other internal demons; and thanks to my mother I never, ever gave up on myself.
But these characteristics that made them successful weakened their familial bonds. These were personal struggles that were shared with their spouses – at most. They were qualities of personality that created patriarchs and matriarchs who stood alone at the top of their own families; they found it hard if not impossible to accept the achievements of their siblings and desperately wanted to revert to roles of subservience set during their childhoods. In other words my parents, particularly my mother, had raised a family of kings and queens – not peasants.
For some the past was alive – too alive. What one sister did to another in 1964 was as alive today as it was 47 years ago. For others, including myself who grew up alone with my parents because my siblings had left home to live their own lives, the past was filled with loneliness and easily forgotten.
I wish for my mother’s sake that we could forget, that my brother and sisters could set aside their grievances if only for the remaining days of my mother’s life. But they are no doubt to stubborn and self-centered – and forgetful of the kindnesses their “enemy” showed them while growing up under the same roof.
Regardless, this is a day of celebration, of the life of a truly gifted, intelligent, and remarkable woman who taught six children to pursue their dreams and to persist against the odds no matter what a higher authority tells them. “Take the boy home,” echoes through the lives of dozens of my family thanks to the strength and passion of one little Bohemian woman who did what she thought in her heart was right and in the end, proved to the world it was.