Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Although my mother died in November of 2005 -- and it is hard to believe it's been that long -- I thought I'd pay her a little tribute here, since so much of who I am is the result of who she was.

She was born in New Bedford, MA on December 16, 1908, to Severino Pina and Maria Fraga, Portuguese immigrants. But her father returned to Portugal when she was a child, and she was raised by an aunt on a farm on Cape Cod. The aunt spoke no English, but raised her and her two sisters -- Carrie and Eva -- with what I understand from the occasional stories she told about this period of her life, was an iron hand. Her given name was the Portuguese Isaura, derived from the ancient Greek: Isauria was a region in South Asia Minor, in ancient geography, and derives its name from contentious Isaurian tribes, fiercely independent mountain people who only submitted to the Roman Empire around 70 B.C. Which explains a lot.  The nickname for Isaura is Kay, and that's how my father and her friends here knew her.

She was married three times and never mentioned her first two husbands. For good reason, as I later learned. Let's just say they were apparently not nice men. My half sisters from the first marriage never spoke of their father, either. But it's safe to say that she married very young the first time (at 16) to escape the drudgery of that farm, but wound up in a worse situation. Among the family papers I recovered from my parent's house is the divorce decree.

By the time she met my father, she had four children, including the aforementioned half-sisters, and two half-brothers. They met at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod just as World War II was ending and the third time, as they say, was the charm. My father was a kind and generous man who accepted the fact that his bride-to-be had several -- older -- children, and brought them all (except for one brother who stayed behind on Cape Cod, where he still lives) down to the Philadelphia suburbs, where he opened an antique and furniture restoration store in Ardmore, PA. I came along somewhere along the line and there were times when they would have to take me to work, where they bedded me down in one of the drawers of a Chippendale dresser.

Eventually they moved across the river to southern New Jersey where, after some years, they wound up taking over the operation of the Homestead Restaurant in Haddonfield. It had been owned and operated by my father's parents, and when my grandfather (for whom I was named) became too ill to work, my parents stepped in.

It was hard work. I always smile when I hear people who like to cook and entertain talk about how much they'd like to open "a little restaurant somewhere...". My father ran the kitchen (more on him in another post), and Mom ran the dining room, overseeing the staff of waitresses, keeping the books, making the place look nice and greeting the guests. They worked long hours -- 12, 14 hour days -- very often seven days a week. The Homestead became an institution in Haddonfield and when my parents finally had had enough and closed the place, it was a big deal.

All along the way my mother, who could be something of a taskmaster, raised me with a firm hand and instilled in me a serious work ethic (we were expected to do chores at home and help out at the restaurant) and an appreciation of what used to be called "nice things". A year and a half after I was born, my brother Robert was born with Down Syndrome. My parents were told that he probably wouldn't live out his teen years and urged them to put him away somewhere and just wait. Thankfully, Mom and Dad did not take this advice and managed to find places for Robert to live where he could learn and thrive. He's still alive, in a wonderful group home setting not far from where I live now. They didn't give up. And along the way there were other heartaches she had to deal with, which for reasons of privacy I'll not go into in any detail. Suffice to say that my mother had to deal with many of the illnesses and emotional and mental problems many families have to endure, and she suffered a number of losses along the way, including her sister Eva and her son, my older half-brother Jimmy, both to cancer.

She worked hard all her life, even after her retirement from the restaurant. She was active in the local woman's club, The Fortnightly, year after year winning blue ribbons for her flower arrangements and table settings. She cooked up huge, delicious pots of Portuguese soups, rice and lima beans (which sounds simple enough, and the flavor of which I've never been able to duplicate), chicken and rice, and New England clam chowder. The best New England clam chowder I've ever eaten, even on Cape Cod. (Well, once or twice some restaurant somewhere comes close, but for the most part what passes for New England clam chowder is basically wallpaper paste with minced rubber bands in it.)

She had a beautiful smile and a lilting laugh, and she loved to laugh. God knows, she deserved to. In 1955 they went to Europe. The pictures from that trip show a stylish, happy woman enjoying herself, laughing and enjoying herself in a way she probably never thought she would.

London, 1955

Every year in late spring, when I was in elementary school, and a few years after, we would drive to Cape Cod, the two of us in the big, black and white Buick. We'd stop in New Bedford overnight to visit her best friend in the world, Alice Mendes, who had been married to a prizefighter. They would stay up into the late hours, talking and laughing like schoolgirls. Occasionally they'd go out to a club where jazz was played. We'd stay on the Cape in boarding houses (this was long before Bed and Breakfasts), usually owned by widows who charged two dollars a night, and visit Mom's relatives. On the drive home, somewhere around southern Connecticut, I would be asked to help steer the car from the passenger seat while my mother deftly removed the girdle most women still wore in those days, one hand on the wheel, her foot still firmly on the accelerator.

Later on there were the dances at the Portuguese social club in Brooklyn, where her two sisters had moved. We would drive up early on a Saturday and land at my Aunt Carrie's apartment on Atlantic Avenue, a walkup, where "the girls" would catch up, my aunt would feed us, and everyone would take a nap. Then, later in afternoon, they'd start dressing -- this was in the days when people still dressed to go out -- and that night we'd go to the club, a few blocks away, also on Atlantic Avenue, down a few steps from street level: it was a long, low room, where there was a small bar, if I remember correctly, and a kitchen where the women would bring the food they'd cooked. There was live music, guitar and fiddle and vocal music from the Cape Verde Islands. And the people would dance. I would dance. Often my father took time off from work to join us and I can still see them: my 6'2 father and my 5'2 mother moving gracefully and happily around the floor. I used to love to watch them dance. It made me happy to see her happy.

These socials would go all night and I can still remember leaving the club, stepping up to the sidewalk and looking down Atlantic Avenue toward Brooklyn City Hall as the sun came up.

She enjoyed good health, pretty much until the last few years of her life when she slowly became crippled with spinal stenosis, eventually bed-bound. My father's health began to decline as well, and they had long since started sleeping in separate rooms. But he took care of her to the end, refusing to send her to a home or a hospice. Many nights she would try to get out of bed, unaided, and would fall. My father would wake up and try to get her back into bed but, too weak to manage it on his own, he would simply put his arms around her and they would sleep sitting up on the floor, until my sister Pat showed up the next morning to help around the house.

I don't know that my mother ever entirely accepted me as a gay man, and she was never shy about sharing her opinions about some of my companions. The one she always liked and asked for was Jim, an ex who lives in Los Angeles. She (and my whole family, for that matter) very much loved Chris, who volunteered many hours of his time to sit with them, even staying over night from time to time, to watch them. She was always interested in my theatrical ambitions, but not-so-secretly always hoped that I'd settle down into some kind of regular job. It took her a long time, I think, to give up on the idea that I might suddenly wake up straight, marry and give her grandchildren.

But as tough as she could be, as much as she demanded of us (the sense of responsibility she instilled in me has taken on a life of its own and I am now what I'd call hyper-responsible), her love for me and all my siblings was never in doubt. I think she's had a hand in many of the recent events in my life, helping to make me a little more secure. I like to think that, wherever she is, she now understands me better and can see what all the sadness and loss and hard work were for. To this day something good will happen and I think "I'll have to tell Mom-- oh, yeah..."

So, Isaura, Happy Mother's Day. I hope I've honored you appropriately (although I'm pretty sure you're not so happy about the girdle story being out there on the Internet). They don't make them like you any more.


  1. I simply adored your tribute to your Mom. We both have lost ours. I was not able to do a full tribute (although I have done it before) this year. I was "missing Mom too much". Still...your tribute was very eloquent and I enjoyed it.

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