I was “three up, four down” in a strict Catholic family. My mother, laughing, relayed the story over and over that, when as a 6-year-old I was being scolded and she demanded to know where I thought I stood in the family of six children, I thought for a moment and replied: “Three up, four down.” She also called me her “blue-eyed baby,” because of the six I alone have blue eyes.
Time passed and as a teen I had some troubles in school and at home, more than the average. We endured a volatile relationship, Mom the schoolteacher and taskmaster, and I. I left home several times before high school graduation, laying my head in abandoned trucks, the sheds of neighbors, on the couches of friends. I was resentful, willful and uncooperative. My father, a quiet tradesman who refused to give up on me, died when I was 19 and a Navy hospital corpsman during the Vietnam conflict, having refused to go to college.
My own five children are grown and gone. Mom died a year ago. During the ten years she survived following a crippling stroke, she remained independent, though considerably slowed. I drove the forty miles from my home often to check on her, weed the beautiful gardens she cultivated during her retirement years, help modify her living space to accommodate her needs, shovel her driveway in winter and to take her to lunch. But I was cranky and impatient. We still were not close, were not necessarily friends, although she was trying harder than I. Invariably, during family holiday gatherings, it was I she would select to say the grace before the meal.
I still live in the home that I could not have purchased 25 years ago without Mom’s down payment contribution. Often broke, we depended upon her unsolicited checks and the clothes she bought for the children.
When my wife was due with our fourth child, it was dead winter and below zero. Our junky old car would not start. I was between jobs, again. Mom drove over in hers and stayed with the others while I drove my wife to the hospital. It was a difficult birth and we were in the hospital for four days. That baby, 27 now, struggles with rules and responsibilities as did her dad, and requires unsolicited aid.
My mother showered me with books all my life. My children are all avid readers. Their grandmother, a reading teacher, sent them books all their young lives. She took them to plays, and to church when I refused to go.
She lies now next to Dad in an impeccable cemetery. I’m sure he turned toward her on that funereal day, and I drive over and kick the snow, the leaves from their markers, knowing that — all the advice from all the sooth-sayers and prophets notwithstanding — I should have been a better son. I should have been a friend.
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