I was 8 when my mother was 50, and sometimes, standing among the young moms in the schoolyard, she said she felt like our grandmother. For Cal, as everyone called her, had married late.
Because there was a Depression, she said, and no one had money. Because there was a war, she said, and all the men were gone. We had heard both reasons as she described her young life as one of five children of a widower.
They may not have had much money, but they sure had fun, to hear the tales: of evening dress at the Ritz and raccoon coats at the Harvard games. And yes, there were men on these occasions: young singles and the brothers of friends. “But to be honest,” she said of them all, “there was no yeast in the bread” – by which she meant they didn’t attract her.
Then she met our father, stationed during the war in Boston. They called him Hap, for his mild and cheery way. This time there was plenty of yeast in the bread so she married him. He had wavy hair and red cheeks and bright blue eyes. I know because I’ve seen snapshots; he left before I was born.
It was when I was 8 and my mother was 50. By then my slightly older sister Nan and understood how different was family ws from the norm.
“Where is our father?” we asked our mom.
“I don’t know,” she told us truthfully.
“Our dad’s dead,” I told the neighborhood kids. “He kicked the bucket,” an old friend tells me I said, though Nan and I plotted in secret to write “Queen For a Day, “the TV show that identified women with difficulties, measured their hardship by audience applause, then put the ‘winner’ in robes and a tiara and offered to make her Dream Come True.
Our Dream would be finding our dad – little realizing he preferred to stay lost.
So Mom raised us without him, in her childhood home that was our grandfather’s home that he shared with his older sisters. Each night she fed and bathed and tucked us in alone, the old folks being past all that. She crouched between our beds to stroke both our childish brows at once, and sang us to sleep.
Often, we were naughty. But often we sensed her sadness too: we turned down her bed for her and wrote notes raw with love and apology. She told jokes and drove fast and made great faces. She also had a temper, and was late for everything all her life.
I was 18 when she was 60. She sent me to college and listened on school breaks as I told her everything I was doing in those wide-open late ’60s years. It never occurred to me to lie to her.
But I did lie once: I said I was going south for spring break to see a friend. I saw the friend, all right. But I looked for the man with the blue eyes too. When I got back, I told her how I had found him. She listened, the tears running down her face.
One day toward the end of that week, the phone rang at home. I picked it up and said hello. It was my mother, calling from work. “Tell me again what he looks like,” was all she said.
I was 28 when she was 70. Nan had a baby and I had two, just when she was beginning to think we never would. Shortly before my third child came, she moved to a retirement home in my town, where she hosted sherry fests and ignored the fire drills and nearly drowned, in her sunny little room, in subscriptions to every magazine from Prevention to Mother Jones.
I was 38 when she died at 80, all unexpected. I felt wholly a kid at the time of her passing and no more equipped to do without her than in the days of the early bedtimes.
But I am better now.
And I hear from her in odd ways: Our daughter Carrie has her very smile; our boy Michael has her sense of humor. And our middle girl Annie, as wise practically from the cradle as any adult, heard this story at age 10 and said, in dead earnest and with shining eyes, “I will call my first boy Hap.”
Some cold thing in me melted then. And it causes me to say, as this fresh Mother’s Day approaches, “Here’s to you, Cal, who held out for love, and got it, however briefly, and two kids too, who loved you fiercely. And here’s to you too, our lost father Hap, redeemed from blame at last, as we all would wish to be redeemed, deserving it or not.
Francis John Sheehy left before I was born, when Nan was 16 months old, but according to all our mother said, he did love his little daughter during their short time together.