Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.
As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.
Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”
When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”
I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”
So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.
One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”
And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”
My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.
“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:
Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay
the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.
Its newness would certainly warn
the transporter being sent to take
my mother away
that she wasn’t ready yet!
Whose eyes would watch from the
second-floor window as the four-year-old
football hero ran for the touchdown pass?
Where would I find the approval she
gave me, in the midst of my own
chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?
In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”
My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.
But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.