He was calling from New Jersey. That’s what it said on my caller ID. As a Florida guy, I know nothing of the Garden State. I’ve visited exactly once, and I was only there long enough to get a parking ticket. And from the parts I visited, it looked more like the Used Car Dealership State to me.
“I wanted to tell you about my ma,” the man on the phone said. “She was a great woman. I thought you’d wanna hear this story.”
I got out a pencil, touched the tip to my tongue, and told him to fire at will.
His “ma” was Italian Catholic. She was a superb cook, a diligent housekeeper, and a devout Frank Sinatra fan. She was small, 110 pounds soaking wet, she loved classical music, James A. Michener, she was an artist and a poet.
After she died, her children found many of her poems and sketches tucked in books all over the old woman’s house.
“We had no idea she could draw so well,” he said. “To us, she was just Ma.”
But Ma was a major talent. Before she met her husband, she had received an art scholarship. She was a full-time art student, studying to be a painter.
Even so, life has a way of stepping in and making its own choices. She married in her twenties, she dropped out of college, and that was that.
In those days, she and her husband did what most American suburban families did. They bought a middle-class one-story bungalow in the ‘burbs. Her husband got a job in the city. She stayed home and raised the pups.
“She was the best mom in the world,” he said. “She made us all feel like we were Ma’s favorite. Ask any of my siblings, they all think they were the favorite. Too bad they’re wrong. I was the favorite.”
She took them to mass often, she cut their hair on the front porch with scissors and an overturned mixing bowl. She did everything from changing diapers to mending broken hearts with ravioli.
“Altogether there were three kids in my family. We were a handful.”
They were a tight group. They did everything together. When their father got time off work, they all piled into the family heap, and took the obligatory road trips across the U.S, seeing roadside attractions, staying in Wigwam Motels. They participated in Little League, church functions, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, basketball, football, volleyball, and a partridge in a pear tree.
“We had a pretty darn good childhood, man.”
It wasn’t Norman Rockwell, but it was stable. No abuse. No alcoholism. Everyone liked each other. All the siblings got along for the most part. Ma and Pops were happy.
In the mid 1970s, after the last child had moved out, Ma got sick. It was a recurrence of breast cancer. The disease had spread to other parts of her body and it was evident that she was not going to pull through. One evening she asked her children to visit her bedside, Ma had something to tell them. “Something important,” she said.
They all gathered around her, holding the old woman’s little hands.
“None of you are my biological children,” Ma explained.
The news hit like Hiroshima. Nobody could speak, let alone pick their jaws up off the floor.
So Ma told the tale.
She was a young art student, obsessed with figure drawing and ceramics. And she was unmarried. There was a young newlywed couple in her apartment building.
The couple had three children—two fraternal twins, and a toddler. One night, the neighbor woman and her husband were killed in an auto accident on their way home from Philly. The couple’s children were left alone with no relatives to raise them.
The night after the accident, Ma was praying the rosary when a voice told her to adopt these three children. An audible voice. It was like someone speaking over her shoulder.
Ma phoned the powers that be. She demanded to adopt the kids. The first thing the powers that be asked her was, “Are you married, ma’am?”
Ma told a lie. A little white one. “Of course I’m married.”
One week later, Ma was married—just as soon as she had convinced her young boyfriend to help raise three orphaned children. Ma dropped out of school. Pops did too, and he got a job in the city. The rest, as they say, is in the history books.
The kids were shocked. Actually, horrified might be a better way to put it.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” they asked their parents. “Why did you keep this a secret for so long? How could you do this to us, Ma?”
“I’m so sorry,” said Ma. “I should have told you. I know I should’ve. But I’m afraid your mother is only human, sweetie.”
Which is true, of course. But what a truly exceptional human she was.