"The world is full of strife. Never add to it."
~Anne Elizabeth Austen (2012)
For all of my life, I loved my mother completely. She was gentle, forgiving, accepting. She was glamorous, with classic style, dark hair, slightly olive skin - a reflection of the Spanish and Irish isles mingling centuries before. She had a flair for life, a love of beauty, an appreciation for every gift.
She was kind to children, especially the unsure or neglected, whether from little means or a family of privilege. Her sense that something wasn't right aroused interest and compassion. When playmates would rave about how "nice" she was, I felt as unsettled as thankful, wildly possessive of this woman I thought belonged to me.
I was stunned when I saw a recent New York Times front page article, "Think Snowstorms Are Rough Now? Check Out These Vintage New York Blizzards". (click title) I recognized the first photograph immediately - "Winter's Fury". A copy hung for years on my mother's wall, now on a wall in my sister's home. My mother's story began not on the day of her birth, but the day of a blizzard that swept through New York City one month before that photo was taken, January 1914. She was 14 months old.
Her father, Joe, a vibrant 36-year-old Irishman, went to work on a blustery January morning. That evening, on the corner of 57th Street and Third Avenue, he was run down by a driver, perhaps blinded by wind and fiercely blowing snow.
My grandmother, in her twenties, alone with two small children, went to work immediately. A man called out as she stood in a long line of young women looking for work at the back door of the old B. Altman department store - "Who knows anything about lace?". "I do!", she said. Selling lace collars was the beginning of a long, successful career, moving from sales clerk to hotel clerk, to property owner, renting, subletting, buying and selling her way from New York to the Hamptons.
In the first few years after my grandfather's death, my grandmother juggled work, childcare and a full social life. There were more than a few sitters, one my mother would mention years later, "Lizzie Duffy", loved for her soft voice and patient manner. At 4 my mother was placed in the care of a childless couple. For reasons I'll never know, the arrangement didn't work out. They sent my mother back to my grandmother, asking her the day she left to leave behind the doll they'd given her weeks before.
The following year, finding it difficult to care for two children, driven by dreams of success, my grandmother placed my mother in a 'school' run by nuns in Brooklyn. In truth, it was an orphanage. As the story goes, my grandmother's sister was horrified. A wonderfully sweet woman, accomplished in her own right, a designer of then-popular, 'tea gowns', she traveled by train to Brooklyn armed with packages filled with hand-sewn clothes. She dressed my mother then took her home to raise her.
Growing up, my mother's opinions of "coarse" mugs was something my siblings and I knew well. She preferred small, delicate, bone china, rejecting mugs with a polite rebuff.
I later learned, soup was served in the orphanage in thick china mugs and when the soup was finished, the same mug would be filled with milk. I thought about the questions my mother lived with throughout her life - why she was chosen to be the one separated from her mother and brother, why the father she imagined would return, never did, and why she would end up at the age of five, in a strange, distasteful place, symbolized by its thick cups - coarseness of any kind a reminder of separation, a child's uncertainty, and the unwanted.
Growing up my mother told us struggles can make people strong. We can be sympathetic, but should see beyond darkness and disappointment. In her thinking, difficult times viewed as challenge, might have a positive effect, building resilience and determination. She knew well.
One thing my mother never did - lecture. Lessons came in the form of living example.
When I was five, I recall her telling us why flowers in a park were not be picked, "They're here for everyone to see.", she said. A lesson in empathy.
The day my older brother found a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk, my mother told a story about how it might have belonged to a child on his way to the drug store to buy medicine for his sick mother. My brother was tasked with finding out who the money belonged to before claiming it as his own. A story we would later laugh at and tease my mother about for its out-of-this-world exaggeration, but when we were young, the message was clear. A lesson in thinking beyond the self.
The day a neighbor made a point of telling my mother I was playing with a "black child", my mother quickly responded..."Oh, does her mother object?". I'm not sure at aged eight I understood the implications of what this woman said, but the look on her face will be with me forever. A lesson in fairness, in humanity, in love.
Admonished for being overly kind to an unruly teenager, I heard her say, "Maybe one day one of my children will be out there on the road, in need of help, and someone will be there for them." A lesson in open generosity.
No one would hurt a child. Not if she had anything to do with it. By word or by deed.
In today's world parents do all they can to prevent children from being disappointed, fearing any slight will harm for life. But, maybe hardship is not only bad. Perhaps misfortune can strengthen, awaken us to the needs and feelings of others. Perhaps compassion can grow out of sorrow, love out of loss. My mother eased the hurt, saw the good, loved the unlovable - formed in a deep understanding of pain, born on the day of one New York blizzard.
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