There are just so many stories of my mom. Spending time recently with my two nephews, each the son of two siblings, it brought me peace as they shared stories of how they were and still are influenced by Gramma Rose.
“You’re the best…”
I can’t remember the exact year, but I know it started when we lived in a house on South Walcott Avenue in Chicago, between 1969 – 1973, so I would have been under 10 y.o., probably closer to 6 or 7 y.o. My siblings and I all had various chores to do. The first time I had to vacuum the stairs, when complete, Mom looked over my work and proclaimed; “WOW! You did SUCH A GOOD job! Much better than your brother or sister’s.” As that young mind wrapped around the mere thought that I top ranked my older sibling’s, I tell you, I vacuumed those stairs with gusto and enthusiasm every week. When I was 15, it hit me. Almost a decade. After I put the vacuum away, I said to Mom: “Jig is up. I am NOT the best at vacuuming the stairs, you conned me.” She slightly cocked her head, a slight smile came across her face and that sparkle erupted in her eyes and she said “Oh son. It took you THIS long?”
And speaking of vacuums…when my sibling’s left home for either their own pursuits or college, Mom and I shared the house work. Mom ran the old heavy upright on the flat surfaces, I carried it up the stairs for her. On more than one occasion I would walk out of a room not knowing she was approaching with this tank of a vacuum and we would collide: vacuum and my bare socked foot. The first time it happened, I pulled off my sock and the little toe as at a 45° angle. Months later it happened again, only this time the blow cracked the toe back into a somewhat normal position. After numerous vacuum to foot impacts, I learned to just stay in the room I was in until the vacuum was shut off. To this day, the little toe on my right foot can hing out to a 45° angle.
Mom dealt with medical emergencies with a clear head, but her stress of the event would be released as a giggle or all out laughter. This really helped me to see the humor in every situation but at times it was difficult through intense pain or if I was bleeding all over the place. To be clear, her laughter at the situation wasn’t rude, mocking, insulting or premeditated, but off the cuff and to that particular moment.
I was an emergency room, stitches kinda kid. Once after I cut a three inch gash at the thumb along the palm on my left hand with a razor blade in the garage, as blood was flowing, I went into the house to tell sister what occurred, she slapped a dishcloth on the gash and called Mom at work to inform of the situation. Mom told sister to make sure I didn’t get blood on the carpet. Sister repeated this to me, then began to laugh and trade quips with mom. I said; ” I could be dying here, but sure. I’ll try not to bleed out on the carpet”. 14 stitches to close that one, left hand wrapped like a club.
A week later, Mom stuck her right hand into a glass washing it, the glass cracked and she cut her right hand. 8 stitches to close that. So for a week or so we each had opposite hands in the same style club shape ace bandage. Not wanting to make two trips to the doctor to have stitches removed, mine were delayed to coincide with her removal and we went to the doctor at the same time. When the doctor came into the exam room and saw us sitting next to each other, me on the left, left bandaged hand sticking up and Mom on the right, with her bandaged hand sticking up, he did a exaggerated double take and said “Now Rosemary, you know I can’t give you a two for one special.” Mom erupted into laughter as her face radiated joy.
Frugal, Not Cheap
Mom would balance her books to the penny nightly. How she raised for kids on what she earned those first few years after the divorce, I’ll never know. The day after my 18th Birthday, Mom requested we have a talk and she shared some of the honest details of leading up to and after the divorce. Court papers & documents, income tax returns for 1964, 1965 and 1966 and proof of non payment of child support. I was stunned and my adoration for her just swelled.
I had to have surgery on my eye the summer I was 16. We had to make a trip into the Chicagoland area for a consolation with a specialist the surgeon doing the surgery required before he would proceed. During the course of the exam, the specialist who taught at the University of IL, joked ” that it was such a simple surgery, if I had a movie of it, I’d show you.” Mom’s interest peeked, she inquired: “So there isn’t any footage available for your students to see this type of surgery?” I then watched as Mom and the Doctor negotiated a discounted rate if she allowed my surgery to be filmed for his educational purposes, with the final say coming down to the Dr. doing the surgery, who agreed it was a fantastic idea.
If it was yours, you ruled for the day. You got to choose the menu for all three meals, with your choice of one her homemade cakes and frosting for desert. Daily chores were excused. Wrapped gifts were the days bounty, sometimes a gag gift always followed by the jewel. For the 12th year, I was given a large box full of cereal box toys collected by a Great Aunt who had a mentally disabled son. As I opened the box and peered inside at all this JUNK! Mom says: “It’s been a rough year.” I was trying to just let it roll, be a little man, tough it up; but right as the emotional boy was on the verge of bubbling over, she ruffled my hair and handed me a small wrapped box. I opened it up and it was my first wrist-watch. Little man!
Three days before my 16th birthday, I won a car in a raffle in a fundraising candy drive for the parochial high school I attended. I had just started with this mantra of positive affirmations, so instead of “IF I win the car…” I would say “WHEN I win the car. I honestly didn’t have any experience with this sort of concept before, I was just doing it. I wasn’t 100% confidant, I never researched insurance rates. I never used the affirmations around school during the drive, only at home. I think the candy drive was a month or 45 days in length…at breakfast the morning of the raffle drawing, I said to Mom: “Well, I guess I call you when I get the car keys today.” She just blew up! Just TORE INTO ME! I just shut down..tuned her out. Bits came through: “Things come from hard work… nothing is free…nothing is just handed over to you..this runaway ego of yours… this arrogance and this attitude…you’re in for a very rude awakening, young man!”
When my name was read after being pulled out of the drawing, I just about shit! I couldn’t believe it! With an enrollment of 502, each name entered into the drawing after selling the case of chocolate, the odds were 501-1. Honesty, things were kind of a blur. I was in the office after having a picture taken with principle of the school handing me the keys to the car. When a woman working in the office asked me if I had called Mom, I replied that I hadn’t. She handed me a receiver and asked for the number, I recited Mom’s work number (which just popped off in my brain as I write this). When she answered, I said: “Hi mom! I won the car!” and she started to go off again, I just handed the phone to the secretary and she put the phone to her ear, A startled, shocked look came across her face, then this big smile and she just radiated happiness. She let out a little laugh and repeated a few times, quickly: “Mrs. Bielawa!” then said “This is so and so with yada-dadda high school. Yes, Joseph DID WIN the car!”
When I was 35, Mom told me at moment that the secretary told her I won the car, she knew I had her father’s “shine” but she kept it quiet, primarily not to inflate the adolescent ego any further. Leonard “Lucky Len” Cassidy was a man of many talents, as well as “professional” gambler who combined his mathematical genius with the “shine” and played the ponies.You always hear about the wins, but never the devastation caused by the losses. Still, the car Leonard drove up to the time of his death he won on some bet.
Momma don’t take my Kodachrome away…
I can’t even recall what the infraction was, but I was again, grounded to my room. Knowing she was on another level of the house, I quickly smoked a couple pinch hits of marijauna out the window, then proceeded to let the high carry me as I set up lights around my drafting table and began shooting some still lifes. Music was playing softly, but when I get lost in moments, I sing out loud terribly, but just let the moment flow.
Suddenly my door flew open, startling me and she proclaimed: “WHAT! are you doing?!?” I stammered that I was just shooting some film, being creative.
She scoffed: “This isn’t suppose to be “fun“. Give me the film that’s in the camera and your little stash”
Quite high and now freaking out at what i heard, I meekly said “my.. .stash?”
“Yes.” she continued “your stash of film. I know you have more than the one roll in the camera. Give me all your film.”
Bullet dodged, I rewound the film, took the canister out of the camera and dropped it in my spare camera bag with the other rolls of film yet to be exposed or yet to be developed and handed her the bag.
Years later, we reminisced about this incident and she just laughed! with that big smile, the way her cheeks would kinda “chipmunk up” and laughter that came from deep inside. Although she was a Paul Simon fan, and the song had major airplay at the time she took my film away, she claimed no connection to the two. Then she stood solid on her principle: “I had grounded you as a punishment and you turned that into fun & joy!”
When she did discover a bag of my marijauna for the first time, I knew the shit was coming down. She looked at me with an expressionless face and simply stated: “You have five minutes to have someone convince me not to call the police and have you arrested.” I was completely shocked! Stunned! I wasted time trying to think of a defense, how to get out of this, something to pacify her, which I knew was useless. She let out a little insulting, condescending laugh and said flatly: “You’ve just wasted two minutes staring at me in disbelief. Your time is ticking. Under three minutes now”
I scrambled, and called a priest at the high school I went to, who I was being counseled by as I was trying to short through the feelings of adolescence. He talked with Mom for awhile, she started to cry, then she handed the phone to me and I was told: “Flush it down the toilet or she calls the police.” Ka-flush!
“…trying to perfect…”
When I lipped off, which occurred more often as I really started to find my voice, I’d be dealt a sharp slap to the face after some proclamation I would utter. The first time I caught her hand mid slap and prevented contact from happening, a strange look came across her face: fear, anger, disappointment and determination all wrapped into one. That still didn’t really didn’t register, and my adolescent ego inflated! I felt I had the upper hand! In my mind I was a Jedi master! I began to let my daily chores slip, then slide. What was she going to do? Slap me? HA! I can block those with ease!
One morning after this incident, the female classmate who rode in the car pool that picked us up for school ten miles away, arrived and was sitting in the living room. I was coming down the stairs into the living room, when Mom came out off the kitchen into the living room and said to me: ” I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t spend so much time in the morning trying to perfect your masturbatory habits and spend the time in a more productive manner getting something accomplished. Like your chores! then this house wouldn’t be in such disarray” (which it NEVER was to begin with). I was devastated, speechless, shocked, stunned. My classmate let out a laugh, then quickly stifled it. I couldn’t get past “trying to perfect your masturbatory habits” and insinuating I wasn’t even capable of an effective wank. After that, my chores were always completed in a thorough, timely manner.
A South Paw?
One night during my mid-teens, I came home intoxicated, which was starting to become habitual, and I was again under interrogation and questioning. The two statements I had become quick to loathe were: “You look just like your father.” and “What did I do to deserve this?” Hearing them yet again, having them rile me yet again, that with an ego and belly bloated from too much beer, I decided to explain the reproduction process to her and began: “Well, I’m guessing in June or July of ’62 you and the old man must have had relations and…” I was always on guard for the right handed slaps, but this was a quick blur from the left and then a direct punch to my gut. I doubled over as I tried to keep the churning contents of my stomach from rising, I looked over at her and she had her fists clenched in a defensive boxing stance, ready to strike! . I ran to the bathroom as I began to vomit. As I knelt over the toilet, she stood in the doorway of the bathroom and tore so righteously into me. And she was absolutely correct in what she was saying. From that moment on, we would have our heated discussions, but I never disrespected her like that again. And not because she hit me, but because I knew she didn’t deserve it and that I had pushed her to that point.
“Right to my knees”
Although a part of me at times was an obnoxiousness, arrogant adolescent alcoholic, for the most part I wasn’t a delinquent. Whether it was my codependent behavior, my rainbow gene flaring or just my desire not to have an uproariously emotional mother in my face when she got home from work, I would prepare a dinner and have it on a candle lit table when she arrived home. This action would keep the volatile emotions of a menopausal woman at bay for a couple of hours.
If she would have friends over or if her sisters visited, there would be wine and hors d’oeuvres, usually cheese and crackers. I would slice up the cheese, arrange the platter, serve and pour the wine, while wearing a white apron, folded down at the waist, dress shirt, top button buttoned, no tie.
Mom enjoyed white wine and although a rarity, her favorite cocktail was an Old Fashioned, but never once in my life did I ever see her drunk or over a limit. A fall off a bike in her youth caused knee injuries and after a glass of wine, two at the most or one of those rare cocktails, she would hang her tongue out of her mouth, bug her eyes alittle and make “her drunk face” and proclaim: “Oh! That went right to my knees. I have had enough!”
On the occasions when the good friends or her sister’s would visit, they would get telling stories and laughing that on inhales to recover from the laughing exhale, snorts could be heard which, in turn, would result in even more laughter and even more snorts! and the occasional admittance of the wetting of pants, which brought on even more gales of laughter. Moments like this would mortify my adolescent mind, but I couldn’t help but get caught up in the joyful energy filling the room and would laugh along nervously.
“Oh no kid, after you.”
Although I didn’t continue to practice the religious doctrine of my youth, it was the religious schooling Mom insisted I have that set me on my spiritual journey, more in that I knew most of those teachings were for me, that I set out to find other truths.
When I would return home to visit, I would ask Mom if it was ok for me to go to church with her, I wouldn’t receive sacraments, but would be there with her. She always agreed.
On occasion, after I had not visited in a year or so, as we walked up the stairs of the church and got to the landing, I rushed ahead to open and hold the door for her, she got that twinkle in her eye, smiled, radiated that joyful energy and said “Oh no, kid. After you! If lightening strikes as you walk into a church, I want to be standing back here!” and she motioned with her hands for me to proceed into the church. I did and when she came in, she was laughing and smiling, which made me erupt in laughter as well. When she came up to me, I offered her my arm and asked: “Everything OK? no rumblings, sparks or lightening?” She put her arm in mine, that joyful expression on her face, eyes twinkling and said “Everything is fine.” and we walked into her church and took a seat.
“No, I’m ahead. Time to stop.”
Mom and my eldest sister would travel together lot and meet up with a cousin from Ireland and his wife. They would pick a destination, meet there, then tour the area. I was living in Palm Springs CA and some time between 1993 & 1994 they choose Las Vegas as the meet up and the American Southwest as their touring area. I drove up to Las Vegas the day before they arrived and pissed through little cash I had in a matter of minutes hoping for a big win. The next day I went the airport and when they all arrived, I drove them in their rental car back to the hotel.
After they settled into their rooms, we all went down to the casino, the Irishman went the cage to fetch $100 worth of $10 coins. The ladies and I had gathered by a change machine to get some coin. Mom put a dollar in and 8 quarters came out. Everyone kinda laughed and poked fun. Someone said: “try it again” and Mom put another dollar in and 8 quarters came out. “Holy Crap Mom! you gotta get out on the floor!” I yelped. She was laughing, her energy radiated out as she said “No, I ‘m ahead. Time to stop.” then she stepped away from the change machine. I looked at the Irishman and I think he and I felt the same energy. I jumped right in and with a remaining dollar I had, fed the machine, 4 quarters came out. My sister stepped in fed the machine, 4 quarters came out.
The energy around us was so active, the laughter, the humor, the good natured ribbing, the love. Mom was beaming, radiating this glowing energy. The Irishman and I locked eyes and I KNEW he saw, felt and understood the energy that was coming from Mom. He went over to her and with his thick Irish accent gently sternly says: “Rose. We have to get you out on the floor now, c’mon” Mom smiled let out a little laugh, stood a little taller and said: “I have doubled my money in Las Vegas. It is time to stop.”
“No one is just going to knock on your door…”
In 1995, as my life was just starting to begin it’s downward spiral from addiction, I was living in CA and renting a guesthouse and my landlord owned a bar. Someone came into the bar and asked the bartender, my landlord, if he knew any one looking for work as he was looking for temp day labor. My landlord gave him his address and told him to go talk with me in the guest house. I still had some money to keep the cordless land line on, but was unemployed and not really looking for work.
Mom called and we were chatting and discussing my current state of unemployment. She quizzed me on a plan and what was I doing, then asked: “Are you EVEN LOOKING for work?”
I hemmed and hawed like a teenager and admitted no, I wasn’t.
She took the opportunity to school me and opened with: “No one is just going to knock on your door and offer you a job.” I thought “oh god. Here we go…” when there was a loud knocking on my door. I told Mom to hang on a minute someone was at the door, with phone in one hand, I opened the door with my other and there was this dude standing there and he said: “Are you Joey? Your landlord, so’ n so at Yadda-dadda bar sent me over here. Are you looking for work? Because I need some day labor.” and out of the phone comes my mother’s voice booming “son of a BITCH!” I laughed and so did the dude at the door. I told him I was on the phone with my Mom, he smirked and nodded, gave his business card and told me to call him tomorrow.
When I got back on the phone with Mom, we both were laughing. She was still trying to school me, but would just start laughing, then said “Oh hell, what’s the point!?! I can NOT believe your luck!! You would fall into a large pile of shit and come out smelling like a rose!” and we both laughed and giggled for a couple of minutes as she just cooed “ohhh kid”
August 5th, 2008
For Mom’s 78th Birthday I took her to a Neil Diamond concert at the Verizon Center in Washington DC. Neil was her favorite and during her sixties after retirement, followed him to a few cities.
When I first asked her if she would like to go, she said no and citied aging health issues as the reason, then added “But I would love to see him.” I called the box office and made a few inquiries as far as certain seating, and they provided the best of customer service. When I told Mom she was hesitant at first, but I reassured her that everything would be fine. Oh man. When we got to the venue and then our seats, I couldn’t believe it! It was like a separate area, with maybe six or eight other folks and designated bathrooms within 10 feet. One of my most cherished memories of adulthood is rocking out with Mom, swaying arms in the air, singing along with Neil and thousands of others during “Sweet Caroline”
I have told some of the above stories over the years, but for me, they are worth repeating. There really are so many stories and memories to list that I am sure I will revisit this subject in one form or another in the future.