My mom lived on the edge of a crisis. Her brother was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when he was in high school, in 1950, and my grandparents lost everything paying the hospital bills. I never met my uncle since he died in a diabetic coma when he was 30, just a few months before the birth of his own son. This event loomed large in my mom’s life, and it seemed to cast a shadow over many events to come.
When we were growing up, my mom always seemed overly worried about us. When I went to the Bruce Springsteen concert at Solider Field, she worried all night after hearing about a car and a CTA bus that had crashed on Lake Shore Drive. The car was carrying kids on the way to the concert. Mom fretted until I arrived home late that night. She lived in terror of a horrible crisis or accident.
She had reason to worry. I often helped her to balance her checkbook, and we would often have twenty-five cents left with a week to go until pay day. Things were tight with a family of four kids, plus two grandparents, living in one Southside bungalow.
Despite her worries, she also was a person who gave: time, energy, money when she had it, an ear, to others. I was recently at a wake for an eighty-year old great aunt, and my cousins, her daughters, talked about how Aunt Betty still talked about missing my mom, about how she was a “great lady.”
My mom died when I was twenty-two and just out of college, and in my teacher-training program. She had cancer, and lived for nine months after her diagnosis. At the wake, which was held in the old Irish style of two days and nights, the funeral parlor was so crowded that we spilled out in the vestibule and street. It was like a celebration of a life that we all couldn’t bear to say goodbye to yet. We do have a big extended family, but there were so many friends from the neighborhood and elsewhere there that I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief.
When I was in high school, my mom got a job as a crossing guard. It was a city job, and it was important to her to get such a secure job. She had waited tables on and off before this. The city job came with benefits, like health insurance, which came in handy when she got cancer.
Mom was assigned a corner for a whole school year. On her corner, she invariably became friends with the CTA bus drivers, the trash collectors, the walkers, schoolteachers, kids, and whoever else frequented her spot. She even befriended one of my girlfriend’s high school boyfriend when he was a patrol boy assigned to her corner. She had a quality about her that made people tell her their life stories. She was a good listener. She was empathic and kind.
At her wake, many of the CTA drivers who had driven by her corners showed up, and I was reminded of her quiet but powerful personality.
My connections to extended family have thinned since her death. She was the glue that held us all together. I often spent time sitting in kitchens with her cousins, drinking endless pots of tea, listening to the family gossip. It was in these kitchens that I learned about the struggles of families, husbands and wives, children. To this day, I am not sure why they let me be the fly on the wall during the long smoke and caffeine filled talks. Maybe they knew I had a lot to learn.