GUEST POST: I LISTEN – BY ROSEMARIE HOULIHAN

It’s always a thrill for me to open my page for guest posts and share some great writing. Today it’s a special honor to present a very meaningful and personal story written by my sister, Rosemarie Houlihan. I believe her words will touch your hearts as they did mine.

Mom’s 90th birthday

If I believed in saints, my mother would be one.

Mom had a very difficult life. Her mother was an invalid requiring daily injections and healthcare which my mother gave her. Yet, despite my grandmother’s fragile health, she imposed rules and regulations which my mother had to follow.

As a child my mother did all the heavy household jobs such as scrubbing the marble steps leading up to the first floor of their three-family house. Her education was limited to the eighth grade because she had to go to work to supplement her father’s income. Mom’s first year of work was as an unpaid apprentice dressmaker. She remained a dressmaker most of her life and her work was unparalleled.

When my parents married in 1939, they lived with my mother’s parents. My father and grandfather worked conflicting hours, so Mom was always cooking a meal for someone.

A baby boy was born in 1941 but he had kidney disease and died at home at the age of two. War had already broken out and my father was called to serve. Married men with children were not being drafted at the time so all Mom’s aunts had their husbands and babies home with them. Mom was bereft, at home, caring for her mother and mourning the loss of her baby. She would sit on her bed folding and unfolding her baby’s unused clothes. Her aunts saw what this was doing to Mom and convinced her to accompany them on an errand. While she was out, her uncles dismantled the crib and put all the baby’s things in storage. Mom was furious when she returned but this act of tough love probably saved her sanity.

I was born after my father returned from WWII and then exactly four years later, on my birthday, my sister was born.

Throughout her life Mom cared for someone who was sick. Her mother, her baby, her father and eventually her husband who was ill for more than thirty years. When my great-grandmother Mada Rana found herself in need of care, my mother took her into our home and looked after her as well.

I was so used to my mother always sewing at home, doing alterations for friends and neighbors, making clothes for me and my sister, I thought nothing of “volunteering” her to sew all the ladies’ costumes for a Gilbert & Sullivan production at our high school. As busy as Mom was, she got the job done and became the official costumer for all our plays until my sister graduated high school.

Despite all she did for us, I remember feeling “cheated” that my mom was not like other moms. She didn’t sit with us after school and chat; in fact, we never really “talked”. She was always working at something – cooking, sewing, cleaning.

Into her old age Mom continued caring for my father – and he was a handful! He was a good man but incapable of doing much. Still, Mom took great pride in taking care of Dad, calling it “her duty”. I’ve often wondered if Dad was truly incapable or did he feel inadequate because Mom could do anything she set her mind to? Mom was a powerhouse and Dad may have felt overwhelmed. Who knows what he might have been capable of if given half a chance? Maybe he could have helped Mom but she didn’t know how to share the load.

When Dad died, Mom aged abruptly; she became overwhelmed with day-to-day life. The change was shocking but when I think about it, she relaxed for the first time in her life and just let go.

Throughout her life Mom never complained.  She never cried, never shouted – and everything stayed inside her, tightly sealed.

I am in a place now where I compare myself to Mom because my dear husband of 54 years has major health issues – not only physical but emotional. And I am failing miserably at caring for him.

I say I’m failing because I do not have the grace that my mother had. I cry, I yell and curse, chastise and apologize and resent him while always loving him. I start each day saying I will do better, but he rarely smiles or says “good morning, how are you” – and, of course, I take it personally which I know I shouldn’t.

But it hurts. The man I married and looked up to is facing his inability to live as he used to. His eyesight has failed him, his memory is poor, his ability to do anything physical, mechanical, technical – all gone. He feels diminished, sad, useless.

And I don’t know what to do.

Oh, I participate in a twice-monthly caregivers’ group and it is cathartic. I make promises to myself. And when I “talk” to my mother, the memories of her ability to cope often come to me. And I listen.

Do I believe in saints? Actually, I do.

RH © 2022

KEEPING VIGIL

It was unseasonably warm for November; the sun was brilliant with only a few wispy clouds scattered here and there, but the autumn leaves swirling in the wind were a reminder that winter was just around the corner.

I decided to take a walk in the nature trail near my house. I didn’t like leaving my elderly mother home alone for too long but she was having one of her lucid days and insisted she’d be fine at home doing some sewing.

I wasn’t gone long when it started getting cloudy and cold. As I walked up the front path, I spotted my mother sitting in her rocking chair on the porch. She was busy at work, her sewing basket by her side.

“Mom, it’s cold. Come inside and I’ll put on the kettle for tea.”

My mother looked up and smiled sweetly but her eyes were blank; I could tell she didn’t know who I was.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. I need to stay here. You see, I’m waiting for someone and I have to finish my mending” she replied.

“Who are you waiting for?” I asked quietly, dreading her answer.

“My husband. The war is over and he’ll be coming home very soon.”

It was then that I noticed mom was repairing the zipper on my late father’s WWII bomber jacket. Little by little, day by day, Mom slipped deeper into another era – a time long gone but fresh in her mind as though it all happened just yesterday.

NAR © 2022

AT MY MAMA’S KNEE

My name is Eden.

My mama was a wild child living on the wrong side of the tracks in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Her parents were AWOL most of the time and didn’t give a rat’s ass about my mama. She grew up faster than any baby girl should have to and learned at an early age how to cast a glancing spell at the male population.

By the age of 15 she was pregnant with me. My mama messed around with so many men, she couldn’t even begin to guess who my father was. The promise of a million dollars or the threat of a gun to her head and mama still wouldn’t be able to name my daddy. The guys she hooked up with didn’t hang around for long and none of them was man enough to fess up anyway. Mama had sex, not relationships.

Mama’s only friend was Faye, another lost soul who lived the same impulsive lifestyle. By the time Faye was 16 she already had two babies so it was only natural that she be the one to help my mama when she went into labor. Nobody else gave a goddamn.

Faye lived in an abandoned motel which was home to a few hapless drifters. She did her best to keep the place as habitable as possible. Two dresser drawers with thin cushions served as beds for Faye’s babies. Faye was no whore and never took a dime from her gentlemen friends, only accepting candy, stockings or a small bottle of White Shoulders.

There wasn’t much Faye could do about her bed – a discarded Petri dish of a mattress. Whenever she could do laundry, she’d wash the one and only sheet she had. In-between washings she’d just flip the sheet over. That’s where my mama labored with me for two long days. Faye told mama to grab the sides of the mattress. “I won’t lie to you about the pain, hon” she warned. “Hang on, this is going to hurt. A lot.”

My mama screamed and cried and cursed; Faye never left her side. A couple of curious women from the next room would pop their heads in but it was just Faye and my mama on their own. Finally, when it was time, Faye gently drew me out and cleaned me up before giving me to my mama.

The cops knew about the motel but as long as there were no illegal activities, they turned a blind eye. They even arranged for the utilities to stay on – better than having people living in the streets just because they were down on their luck. Every week the local pastor and church youth group would drop off food, toiletries, diapers and detergent. Thankfully there were some people willing to lend a helping hand.

Everyone said I was the most beautiful child they’d ever seen. My face and green eyes were identical to my mama’s but her hair was straight and blonde, her skin like cream while my hair was a cloud of dusky curls, my skin the shade of warm butterscotch. My coloring divulged my father’s race, nothing more.

We stayed with Faye until we started cramping her style, then we moved into an adjacent room. The adjoining door made things convenient; mama and Faye took turns babysitting when the other had company. Mama used a drawer for my bed, just like Faye did.

When you live in an environment like mine, it’s hard not to be influenced. I saw and heard things no kid should and before I realized it, it became ingrained in my soul. By the time I was 13, lots of mama’s boyfriends were checking me out and I liked it.

One steamy summer day, mama was next door putting highlights in Faye’s hair. I was alone resting on the bed when Hal showed up. I liked him; he came by often to see mama. Hal asked me where mama was and I told him. He sat on the bed stroking my hair. I smiled and gave him that look mama always gave her men. Hal slid the straps of my sundress down my arms, revealing my breasts. He gently touched one, then the other. He tongued one, then the other and I got a warm feeling down low in my belly. I arched my back and moaned softly. Hal slipped off my panties and sat me on his lap; there was a momentary sharp pain. I learned what to do at my mama’s knee and it was good.

There was one man who’d come around the motel; he’d sit in his big fancy car looking out the window. He never left the car except the one day he saw me sitting outside on the stoop. He came over, gave me a peppermint candy and said I was the most gorgeous thing he’d ever seen. He asked what I was doing living in that dump. He said with his know-how and my looks I could make lots of money, live like a queen in a big fine house and never want for anything ever again.

This man wasn’t telling me anything new. I smiled just like I smiled at Hal. The man smiled back and lifted my chin. He studied my face intently and said I’d do very nicely. This pompous ass actually thought I needed his know-how; he was mistaken. I already knew how. All I wanted was a ticket out of here, to live my life doing what I was good at and to make lots of money. Let this fool think whatever he wanted to think; he would learn soon enough that I knew exactly what I was doing.

Two days later the man in the big fancy car came back. He opened the car door; I slowly walked over and slid in. Glancing up at my motel room window, I saw my mama staring down at us. When Hal sidled up behind her, she laughed gaily, turned her back and fell into his arms.

Mama had set the stage for me and now I was ready for the show to begin.

NAR © 2022

TOO LATE TOO LITTLE

February 27, 2003

My dear daughter:

If you are reading this, I am no longer with you. There’s so much I wanted to tell you when I was alive, so many things I needed to explain but the words failed me. Now I find myself in the early stages of dementia and know this is my last chance to say the words you needed to hear. 

You know my life was not an easy one and I learned at an early age to keep my emotions in check. I was always the  practical one .. doing my duty for the family. How I now regret those missed mother/daughter times – never reading bedtime stories, going to the playground or snuggling with you on the couch. I was too embarrassed to tell you the facts of life and can only imagine the horror you felt waking up with your first period and thinking you were bleeding to death. 

I never worried about you because you were the defiant and rebellious daughter, unlike your sister who is too much like me. I think I always knew you would become your own woman, doing everything you could to be nothing like me. Having seen you with your own children, I know I’m right. 

Please know I did the best I could. I loved you even though I never could bring myself to say it. I hope you can forgive me.

Love – Mom 

August 18, 2009

Dear Mom –

I’m writing this letter knowing it will never be sent. You’re gone now so who can I send it to? But some words need to be said. It was rough growing up thinking I was unloved and there were times I hated you for that. For a long time I thought it was something I had done. 

My teens years were the turning point for me because I got out of the house and away from you. You know my mother-in-law was very different than you; we formed a bond and I found in her a mother’s love I desperately needed. 

How I resented you and your aloofness! What a shame … so many years wasted. Now as I look back I feel sorry for you. Deep down I believe you loved us. You just didn’t know how to show it. I forgive you, Mom, and I’m happy I didn’t turn out like you. Rest In peace.

Affectionately, your daughter 

NAR © 2018

TICKETS TO RIDE

“Well done? You call this well done? Not one single seam is sewn straight. Sloppy! Now rip it out and start again.” 

More anger and ridicule rained down on me by my mother. Living with her was not all shits and giggles, as the saying goes. 

A rigid, controlling, aloof perfectionist who never let her emotions show or her guard down .. which is why what happened that ordinary day in August left both me and my sister bewildered .. squinting our eyes and scratching our heads much like the Pythagoreans trying to decipher that damn theorem. 

Suddenly the sky parted, a brilliant stream of light landed on the envelope in my mother’s hand, angels sang and my sister and I hugged each other, jumping up and down, screaming and crying tears of joy .. for peeking out of that envelope were three yellow tickets which read:

Sid Bernstein Presents

‘THE BEATLES”

Sunday, August 15, 1965
Shea Stadium, Flushing NY

Three passes into a world we only dreamed of, a fantasy land more majestic than any national treasure in the universe, tickets more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

Clapping her hands, mother brought us back down to earth. “Hurry and get dressed. The show starts in four hours and traffic will be a nightmare. Dresses only, girls. No blue jeans and no shorts!” 

Sacred tickets in hand, we jumped into our 1957 Ford Fairlane 500. It seemed to take forever to arrive and we sang one Beatles song after another. In the distance we caught our first glimpse of Shea Stadium … glimmering in the sunset like the Land of Oz .. and the four wizards were there waiting to play just for us. Well, us and approximately 56,000 crying, screaming, hyperventilating and fainting fans.

My sister and I grabbed the binoculars and ran to the bottom of our tier to get a closer look. Hearing anything over the cacophony of squealing girls was almost impossible and we screamed and cried right along with them. At one point I looked back to see my mother singing and dancing in the aisle. Unbelievable! 

That night my greatest dream came true. I had reached Mecca, climbed Everest and walked on the moon. Being there was beyond surreal. It was the most electrifying and exhilarating experience of my life. That night remains etched in my mind and my heart for all eternity. 

Well done, Mother. Well done. 

NAR © 2018

MY DARLING

Melt in my arms tonight, my darling, for you’re safe in this room here with me
Rest your head on my chest now, my darling, think what tomorrow will be 
The moon is full now, my darling, the hushed trees making nary a sound
As snowflakes and crystals descend from the heavens tenderly kissing the ground 

The winter is here now, my darling, gone is the summer breeze song
But the fire is warm, the blanket is cozy and I’ll cling to you all the night long 
Close your eyes and sleep now, my darling, for you know I will always be near
Wipe the tears from your long golden lashes; ’twas a bad dream, there’s nothing to fear 

Hush now, no more crying, my darling, only sweet thoughts swimming round in your head
You’re so precious, my darling, my angel, very small yet so safe in my bed 
Tomorrow is Christmas, my darling, and the reindeer are pulling the sleigh
With Santa and candy and toys made by elves and he’s surely coming this way 

Chef has baked cookies, my darling, and the night servant has brought out a plate
To place on the mantle, my darling, for Santa…..his poor hungry tummy to sate 
What’s that you say, my sweet darling? Read one more story tonight?
Yes, of course, my sweet little darling, for I know all things will be right 

Just a short one, my sweet little darling, for the clock is beginning to chime
In just a few hours, my darling, you’ll awaken to a wondrous time 
Are you ready, my precious, my darling, for the story of fairies and plums?
Mommy’s here, my sweet angel darling, and here I’ll stay until our morning comes 

Sweet dream time is finally here
Merry Christmas, my child most dear

NAR © 2017