Some day, when my memories are more distilled by the streams of time, I will write another memoir for my mum, but I woke up this morning and found these words I wrote when we and Mum said our final goodbyes.
I ran into an old friend one day after visiting mom. Struggling for words to express his sympathy for both myself and my mom’s condition, he said, “Mary is not the mother you knew.” I guess in a way, none of us are ever that person whom we knew. Every day is a new contract with a life that simply—and often painfully and poignantly—comes with new terms and conditions that we have no choice but to accept and embrace with dignity, grace, and wisdom. No matter what life threw at mom, she accepted the terms; and the world—and especially our world—was always a better, more loving, and infinitely richer place because of her; and though at the end she was not the person we remembered, she was always the mother we had, and she somehow managed to make everyone around her feel “mothered” right up until the very end.
She hated whenever I called her “Ma,” but, still, she was always “Ma Fitz” to anyone whose own mother was displaced by time, fate or distance. Even the toughest kids in town knew that as soon as any one of them placed a foot on Fitz territory, the rules of Ma Fitz were all that mattered. But, along with those rules came a woman who accepted anyone, anytime into a house already crammed with kids. We learned early and often that it is not the size of the house that matters, but rather, the size of the door—and like loading a dishwasher—there’s always room for one more.
On a Sunday night some months ago I walked into my mother’s room at Concord Park, and without thinking, I went straight to the refrigerator. It’s the same mechanical motion I’ve made every day that I’ve walked into her kitchen since I was a little kid—no matter where she lived. I didn’t even know what it was I was looking for, but I knew that mom had to have something in there for me.
Maybe I am hungry to know that ma will still feed me. The refrigerator from my childhood—bursting with unending trips to Stop and Shop, Triple A, and Star Market is now a small countertop square in the corner of an uncluttered kitchenette. I open it and stare at the small bottle of ginger-ale, the pint of milk, the dainty plate of cookies and the half a sandwich, and drift back into the memories that persist and gnaw and flow out of that small space.
I still expect to see gobs of grapes, oranges, and apples; chocolate pudding, leftover tuna casseroles and Shepard’s pie, Appian way pizza, kool-aid, custard, baloney; and eggs: pickled, deviled, scrambled, and boiled; and potatoes: fried, mashed, hashed and rehashed in the unending evolution of necessity. But sometimes, when times were harder—those times that were never actually mentioned but were full of green stamps and coupons—mom made potato buds: dry flakes with carnation instant milk and two tablespoons of butter, mixed into a pudding like potato that was a perfect place to hide the peas, beets, boiled onions, liver, cod and other scourges of an Irish Catholic childhood that kept us at the table long after dinner, stubbornly poking and dabbing the edges with tears and a fork until someone—and rarely mum—relented in their stubbornness. And when we were really young and the milkman came everyday, we pulled out the whole milk with cream tops in glass bottles with paper caps; EJ, our almost epic father, would paw the top shut and shake the heavy cream back into the milk itself, exhorting us to imitate his practiced perfection—which none of us could do—and someone always spilled the milk on the cracked formica table and vinyl chairs, and he always screamed, “Every night! Somebody has to spill the milk every single night!”
And then after the mopping rags, dinner resumed in the chaotic recollections of the day; fights about whose night it was to do the dishes and who didn’t mow around the trees, who got seconds last night, and who got a C in penmanship, and who shouldn’t get two hydrox cookies for dessert because they weren’t smart enough to hide their peas in the potato buds!
And we sat in the same seats: I had little sister Annie on my right, always holding on to her waitress pad from Friendliest that she used to take our drink orders and would nod her head and say “thank you very much” and move on to the next of us; and little brother Tommy on my left who we could always get to laugh (and eventually spill his milk) even when he had no clue why he was laughing; and my big sisters staring across from me: Eileen, with her studious perfection and black and white perception of right and wrong, who for some reason Mum put in charge of making sure my bed was made and my room was clean—and who fined me a quarter when it wasn’t, but still I took her to Russo’s on my birthday when I could only bring my best friend; Mary Ellen with her CCHS sweatshirts and unending commentary on everything good, bad, cute or not under the sun—a gift she keeps to this day, and who came to every game I ever played and made the scrapbooks I would never make; and Patty, so old I hardly knew her, until she died so young that I can’t forget her…
And in the overstuffed kitchen, dad’s back was crunched almost against the basement door, and mom was pressed against the dining room wall—the room with the walnut table and eight matching chairs that we never seemed to use—like a museum stuffed with bone china and silverware that we polished every Christmas, bought, I’m sure with the green stamps and coupons. We could live without the dining room; but we lived and grew in the kitchen. We gathered in that kitchen everyday like chattering birds drawn to a stubbled and time-worn field—and out of that space we were reborn each day.
Every morning mom poured the wheaties, boiled the oatmeal and cut the grapefruit while we listened to Joe Green in the BZ copter mumbling unintelligible warnings about tie-ups at the Alewife circle and sang along to “Watch me wallabies feed, mates, watch me wallabies feed.” Dad would grab his briefcase and we’d all try to be the first one to scream “Bye dad!” in a cacophony of competition, and, as if on cue, mom would sneak behind me and hold my head while I jerked convulsively, and she’d rub a warm wet cloth across my face and straighten my clip on tie and try to force down my cowlick and pick at my ears until I was fit to be presented to Sister Jean Beatrice—and, by some sort of convoluted math, to God himself. And then she’d sit in her chair, quietly, and write her own mother a letter.
Every single day she’d write grandma a letter … One of us could get the letter paper; and one of could get the envelope; one of us would get to lick the stamp; one of us could put it on the letter; one of us could carry it to the mailbox, and the last one could lift up the metal flag. I never knew it was a ritual of perfection—a continual journey into the heart of the mystic love of family. You never know, but still, you remember.
Over the past few years, Alzheimer’s has slowly chipped away at the edges of her memory, but never to the point where she lost any of her true self. One day she’d remind me that it’s my childhood friend Danny Gannon’s birthday, and on the next day she’d ask me who my pretty children are…and like polite grandkids they would dutifully tell her their names once again, except for Tommy: “You know me Grandma, I’m Tommy!” and who’d crawl on her lap and ask for a kiss—“Not that kind of kiss—a chocolate kiss.” And she’d smile and say, “Of course, I know you. You’re Tommy.”
I’d go to see her and we’d look at ads for cars in the Boston Globe. She wanted a Toyota. “Your father loved his Toyota.” I smile to her, “That’s because Toyotas were cheap, and dad loved cheap.” It didn’t matter that she would never drive again. It didn’t matter that we would have the same conversation the next day. It didn’t matter that soon she might slip into a cloud of unknowing. It only mattered that she was there and in the magic and mysterious majesty of memory, and she will always be here.
We all remember mom, Mary, Mrs Fitz, and Ma Fitz in our own ways, and I know all of you remember her for what she did “for” you.
Maybe she knit you a sweater, or sewed a first communion dress for you, or showed you how to quilt or bake or fry or can, or freeze.
Maybe she made you dinner, washed your clothes, gave you a room for a few days, weeks, or months or a place to come on Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or any common night when you were hungry for love and acceptance.
Maybe she played bridge with you, or took you to White’s Pond, Stinson Lake, Tenney, Waterville or Cannon, or took you to dinner at Russo’s, Friendlies or Jimmies, or drove one or two or three hundred miles to be with you on a special day—or on any given day—when life was too special to go uncelebrated or too crushing to be alone.
Maybe she taught you how to be a mother, a friend, a wife, or simply a good person.
Maybe she let you marry one of her children and then loved you more than her own kids.
Maybe she taught you how to never yell, but just give you that look…..only Patty seemed to have mastered that look….The rest of us find it easier to yell.
It is easier to remember Mrs. Fitz than to be like Mrs. Fitz.
Sometimes God takes one to touch and teach many. Today is that day.
God has blessed us by putting mum into our lives. Our memories grow from different soils in different gardens. We live through memory. Nurture those memories.
Hold them. Cherish them.
Happy Mother's Day. Mum always loved a party.