Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Magic of Mothers

“Why do they always want only me?” complains my exhausted daughter after yet another sleepless night. Her toddler and his infant brother have come down with one of the debilitating viruses sweeping across California during this dreaded flu season.

“They're sick and you’re their mother,” I reply, a response that belies my helplessness in the face of evidence so obvious, so universal, so inexplicably true despite my lack of understanding the why. Why do children long to build towers, play cards and stack blocks with Daddy only to whine miserably for Mommy when their throats are sore and their tummies hurt?

Why indeed? More often now that retirement allows me the time to reflect, I look back on my own childhood for answers.  Typically, my preferred parent was my father. He was reasonable, soft-spoken, humorous and open-minded. My mother, although an interesting, independent woman in her own right, shared few of those qualities and, yet, when my stomach revolted and my forehead burned, I wanted Mom. Her hands were cool, she smelled like flowers, she turned my pillow regularly and she knew to feed me dry toast and ginger ale, instead of the chili and peanuts that invariably were my dad’s contribution. My mother was the parent who worked miracles. She made me well again. 

I’m not alone in my latent appreciation of my mother’s special talent. Wounded soldiers call out for mom. Olympic medalists and academy award winners credit mothers with their success more often than any other family member. It makes sense. The bond that begins in the womb and extends through every milestone in life is a strong one. 

A mother may not be the more reasonable parent or the funnier or even the more patient or preferred, but when it comes to her children, she has extra-sensory perception. She sleeps lightly, hears every cough, every cry, and knows when to take action and when to ride it out. She has staying power and she bends with mood swings. She practices spelling lists and math facts, supervises reading logs and explains how to use research without plagiarizing. Mom, even when she works outside the home, is the parent more frequently called when a child is sick. She is the master of forgiving and, something interesting I came across recently, more often than not, a mother determines her children's level of education, regardless of her own. It doesn't matter whether or not she is educated herself, only that her children know she believes it is important. And when a mother becomes a grandmother, she is first on the emergency call list, quite an impressive job description.

“Of course, they want only you,” I tell my weary, sleep-challenged daughter. “They have only one mother. You are their miracle worker.”

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ladies’ Room/Lullaby Lounge

Lately, I’m looking at department store ladies’ rooms from a different perspective especially when I shop with my daughter and her two babies, 6 weeks and 20 months. My favorite is the one at my local Nordstrom. Who would have thought a public restroom and its accompanying lullaby lounge for nursing mothers would prove fascinating to a toddler four months shy of his second birthday?
Because he absolutely cannot stay imprisoned in his stroller for the eons of time (his perspective) it takes his mother to nurse a newborn, he wanders out of the lullaby lounge into the bathroom and I follow him. He looks around for something to do and spies the soap dispenser. His eyes light up. Having mastered the word water quite clearly, he insists on washing his hands.
I lift all 26 pounds of him, balance his solid little body on my knee, squirt soap into his palms and turn on the cold water. He carefully and thoroughly washes and rinses both hands, repeating the word dirty several times which I take to mean another squirt of soap. We repeat this more than once.
Bored with washing, he notices the paper towel dispenser conveniently placed at a level that makes it possible for him to reach on his own. Thrilled with his discovery, he proceeds to pull down the paper and tear it off the roll. He watches as I demonstrate the drying of hands and the throwing away of the towel. He does a credible job of copying me… again and again and again.
“Enough,” I say and he agrees, his attention falling on the lock of an unoccupied stall. He pushes the bolt back and forth several times and then attempts to close the door, testing his discovery. I follow him inside the stall where we spend an agonizingly long time locking and unlocking the door. Of course, this means another bout of lifting, squirting, washing and drying.
A woman clearly not old enough to have grandchildren applies  lipstick over one of the sinks. She looks at me pointedly. I imagine she’s thinking I don’t care about the trees we are wasting or maybe I don’t know that California is in the middle of a drought, or both. Actually I do. I care very much, but at this time, in this place, desperate means call for desperate measures.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Birthright - Chapter 1

                                    Chapter 1
Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland
       Look at the time, half-eight, and not a child in the house washed. The expression is my mother’s, long gone now, but voiced nearly every day in the house where I grew up, ten children tucked into two bedrooms with one bath upstairs.
We were never close, my mother and I, not for any particular reason I can remember, we just didn’t get on. It was Fiona and Kathleen she preferred and Johnny, always Johnny, her middle child, the ciotogach, the red-headed lefty of our family who wasn’t supposed to amount to much and ended up in America with more in the bank than all of us put together.
The funny thing is, Johnny loved Tralee, still does, more than any of us, Sean or Liam or Michael, certainly more than I ever did. I was desperate to immigrate and wouldn’t have come back, not after Boston, but some things can’t be planned and shouldn’t be remembered.
Never mind all that, my mother would say if she could. Memories never emptied the sink or hung out the washing. All they’re good for is regret. She was right.
 Speaking of the washing, it’s a good day for it, breezy without a hint of rain. I’m moving slowly today, feeling unsettled, not in the mood for housework and looking for an excuse to avoid doing it. Fergus Murphy, the postman, on his way to the door, is as good a reason as any to sit down for a pot of tea and a scone.
“Good morning, Mrs. Malone,” he calls out. “How is the day treating you so far?”
“It’s a bit early to weigh in on the day, Mr. Murphy. Have you time for a cup of tea. It’s just made and the scones are fresh.”
He scratches his head, checks to see that his few remaining wisps of hair are positioned over the shiny dome of his head, and winks. “Wasn’t I just thinking how I’d like one of Mrs. Malone’s scones?”
“Come in, then.” I hold the door for him. “Mind the step and sit down.” I pour two cups of tea, set out the butter, a fresh knife, spoons and the milk jug. “I hear that Bridget Walsh’s son came home for good this time. Did his marriage go bad?”
“Isn’t it an awful shame?” he replies “They’re different about marriage in America, replacing husbands and wives the same as they do their automobiles.”
As far as I’m concerned people in Ireland aren’t any different when it comes to replacing a spouse, only we don’t bother to make it legal. We just up and move in with someone else. But I wouldn’t get any information by speaking my mind. “It is a shame,” I agree. “Poor Billy Walsh. She’s a lovely girl, though, isn’t she?” I refill his cup. He finishes one scone and eyes mine. “Would you like another scone, Mr. Murphy?”
“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Malone. This is a particularly delicious batch.”
“As I was saying, Mr. Murphy, Sheila Walsh is a lovely girl. I can’t imagine why Billy would leave her.”
“I heard it isn’t Billy who did the leaving.”
“Did you?”
“Aye. Word has it she’s tired of Billy’s drinking, that and no work for more than two years. Those American girls have expectations.”
“As we all should, Mr. Murphy.”
He nods and drains the last of his tea. Only a few crumbs remain of the scone. “A pint now and then can be tolerated if a man brings home his earnings.”
I nod. “True enough. Given the circumstances, I can’t be too sorry for Billy Walsh.”
“We mustn’t be too hard on him, Mrs. Malone. A second chance may be just what he needs.”
A second chance with a mother who would wash his clothes, cook his meals and pick up after him.  What a pity we aren’t all so lucky. Another sentiment I’ll keep to myself. If I collect a shilling every time I bite my tongue to keep the words in, I’d be living in an estate in Ballyard. Instead, I smile. The postman has taken enough of my time. “Have a wonderful day, Mr. Murphy. Watch out for the dog living second next door. His bark is worse than his bite, but you never know.”
“I’ll do that, Mrs. Malone.” He reaches into his bag and draws out an envelope. “I have a letter for you, all the way from America.”
“I’ll take it off your hands, Mr. Murphy. Thank you very much.” I stuff it into the pocket of my apron hoping he hasn’t seen the shaking of my hands.
He tips his hat. “My pleasure, Mrs. Malone.  Tell himself I said hello. I hope he’s helping you here at home now that he’s taken redundancy.”
“He is and I will. Mind the step.” It takes enormous effort to smile and wave and watch him pass the house. I shut the door tightly and, heart fluttering, pull out the envelope. I don’t recognize the writing? Would I recognize it if I saw it? Would someone write after forty years? The return address says California. Funny, I can’t see him in California. He’ll always be Boston to me, that city of uncompromising divisions, Southie and the North End, Beacon Hill and Roxbury, segregated neighborhoods amid the bluest blood in America, which, if you think about it, isn’t really very blue at all. Yes, Boston is a fitting place for lace-curtain Irish with immigrating sons, like the O’Sullivan family.
I tear the side open and pulled out the single sheet of paper. I don’t bother with the body of the letter, my eyes finding and focusing on the closing, the signature. Relief and the smallest hint of disappointment weaken my knees and I sit down quickly. Of course, it isn’t him. What do I expect after all these years?
I turn my attention to the letter. Who on earth is Claire Williams and what does she want with me? The only people I know in America aren’t speaking to me.
Minutes later I manage to find my way to the bathroom and lock the door. Fumbling with the toilet lid, I let it fall into place and sit down heavily. I know I’m breathing. I must be breathing, or else I’d be dead. Dear, almighty God! I’m sixty-seven years old. How could this happen to me? Surely after four decades, I should be safe.


Honoring mothers can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, Romans and early Christians. Anna Jarvis, who remained unmarried and childless her entire life, organized the first official Mother’s Day at a Methodist church in Virginia in 1908. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. It gets more complicated than that for Ms. Jarvis, but the end result is that today, we think long and hard about our mothers.
My own mother did not fall into the traditional role I would have preferred. She was unusual given her era, extremely competent in many ways and hopelessly inadequate in others. She was highly educated with a graduate degree when most people in this country didn’t finish high school. She had strong opinions and few women friends. When my father was unable to take time off, she packed up the VW bug and drove my sister and me 3000 miles and 5 days across country to visit relatives. We would stay for 2 days, she would miss my dad and we would drive back. She earned her own money and spent it mostly on her children and, eventually, grandchildren. She threw infrequent birthday parties but when she did they were incredible with water relays, paper lanterns strung across clotheslines, barbequed hotdogs and store bought cake. Everyone in my class, friend or not, was invited because she couldn’t bear to think a child’s feelings might be hurt.
For decades she taught science at Whaley Junior High School in Compton when the Crips and the Bloods staked claims in their neighborhoods, teachers locked their doors and security guards walked the campus. My pencil-thin mother, a pale blonde with eyes lighter than aquamarines, outlawed all profanity in her classroom and demanded students respect one another, never had a discipline issue. She boycotted grapes and lettuce when Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers picketed for a living wage; she loved animals and couldn’t stay mad overnight. She refused to help with homework or projects, claiming that if we didn’t know how to do it we hadn’t been listening in class.
She was a terrible cook. The brownies and chocolate chip cookies created by television mothers never materialized at our house. For breakfast, we ate toast dunked into coffee as early as elementary school. We bought lunch at school and ate out often. Even today, I can’t pass a Taco Bell or Carl’s Junior without thinking of my mother.
She waffled on bedtimes, never wondered if we were stimulated, never checked on homework or if we washed behind our ears, threw us out of the house early on weekends telling us fresh air, sunshine and exercise would cure all ailments Needless to say we became voracious television watchers during a time when TV children were self-actualized role models.
She was not the best of mothers and certainly not the worst. She didn’t drink, smoke or use profanity. She loved my father, her daughters and her pets, in that order. She was completely loyal, utterly reliable and always appropriate. She would admonish and lecture if we did something stupid, but she would always listen and  help. Would that all of our children be so lucky. Rest in peace, Mom. 

Readers often ask me if the mother characters in my books are autobiographical. Of course, they are, each and every time. The first excerpt of Birthright, a story of a mother who doesn't want to be found, is posted here on this blog and on my Facebook author page.

Sunday, May 3, 2015


I now have two healthy baby grandsons for whom I am over the moon and more than grateful to my daughter and her husband for bringing them into the world. I’m very much in awe of parents who actually plan their children so close together. My own children are six years apart, a considerable but not unreasonable spacing that allowed each to experience life as an only child. It was also convenient for their parents. Large expenses, time-consuming projects and the typical activities of children growing up in Southern California occurred, for us, in manageable intervals. We were lulled into thinking raising children was easy because we raised them in small doses.

Then there are those who choose a different route. My daughter was twenty years older than I when her first child was born. She is now the mother of a 19 month old whose favorite phrase is, “No, no, no, no,” and a 3-week-old baby who demands food every hour. To make matters more difficult, nap schedules are not the same.

I suppose there are good arguments for planning children close together; clothing, furniture, all the trappings necessary for children born into the 21st century can be recycled, as well as the added benefit of siblings who are close enough in age to actually become childhood friends. But at the moment these reasons pale compared to the sleepless nights, perpetual disorder and mind-numbing expense and care of two children who require diapers, strollers, car seats and cribs, not to mention a vehicle that can actually carry these accouterments, all at the same time.

In all fairness, not everyone who wants more than one child can wait to have another. Age is a factor. Men and women who seek education and financial security, especially in areas where the cost of living is exceptionally high, postpone children until well into their 30’s and 40’s and with child care costs running between $15 and $20 an hour, decide to stay home, relying on family to help with day, and night, care. That’s where Grammy steps in.

That’s me. Grammy. It’s my new name. Now, while Baby number 2 is so new and awake most of the night, I work twelve-hour shifts three days a week, sometimes more. My job description varies but you can be sure it includes singing Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald Had a Farm and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star complete with hand motions, long, unbelievably slow walks along the Oso Creek Trail collecting pine cones and reading the same pop up books with animal protagonists who speak and behave like humans over and over again. My life has always been filled with children, only now they are related to me.

People ask if I’m still writing. I am, but VERY slowly because I can no longer think past 8 pm. My new project is called BIRTHRIGHT and it is, of course, and Irish story about a mother who is not at all pleased or made complete when she is contacted by the daughter she gave up at birth. Sometimes this happens and the complexities make for a great story. The first excerpt will be posted next week.