The daughter of Italian immigrants, Mom grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Philadelphia. Her childhood was typical for a girl growing up in the 1930’s – a little too young to understand the economic reasons for the depression but very familiar with its hardships. Her family struggled, as most did in those neighborhoods, but they survived to see a new prosperity spring from the effort of their own tenacity.
Her father stressed education for his children since he was forced to interrupt his own education to labor in his father’s tailor shop with his five brothers. By the time she reached high school, this country had entered World War II. Mom graduated in 1945, just a few weeks after armistice had been declared in Europe and a few months before the end of the war in the Pacific.* Shortly after her graduation her family moved across the river to a large house in New Jersey using the money my Grandfather had earned as a machinist in the Philadelphia Navy Yards.
[* Aside: Mom never spoke about her experiences going to school during the war years, just as I rarely speak about going to school during the Viet Nam era. My son is in high school now and I wonder if he will discuss the Iraq war with his children.]
Mom was the first person in our family to attend college. My grandfather would have preferred her brother – my uncle – to further his education at a university, but he chose to expand his experiences in the Marine Corps. Every day for four years she took the bus from her house in suburban New Jersey across the bridge to Moore College of Art and Design. She graduated with a degree in fashion.
Before she was able to establish her career, she met a man who was the opposite of her dominant, opinionated and outgoing father. Mild and soft spoken, highly educated in both letters and etiquette, she fell in love with the civility of the relationship, if not the man himself. She was married against the wishes of her parents to my father while he was still attending Princeton University.
Mom worked at Sears Roebuck as a cashier during the Princeton years, where she occasionally had the privilege to check out one of the professors whose unkempt appearance – from his uncombed hair down to his perpetual lack of socks – was only slightly less noteworthy than his intellect. She never did say what Albert Einstein was buying at Sears in the 1950’s.
My father graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and was assigned as pastor of a small Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California – 3000 miles away from the only home she had ever known. When she became pregnant with my older brother, they relocated back to the east coast to be near family and friends. I was born three years later, immediately before my father was reassigned to a church in the center of a racially torn Philadelphia neighborhood in 1960. Those were the years of my youth and despite all of the upheaval and conflict from outside influences, mom kept us together and relatively happy.
Her best efforts, however, could not keep us safe from the internal strife that was slowly dissolving the fabric of our family. My father suffered from what today would be called manic depression or perhaps bipolar disorder. For twenty-five years she stood by his side through periods of severe depression, infidelity, alcoholism and multiple suicide attempts until finally, for her own safety and that of her children [us], she left my father.
Alone with three children, mom had to re-enter the workforce and found work in a factory making sports apparel. She started as a cutter and soon, with her design background, rose to the position of head patternmaker. Still, she was a single woman in the 1970’s with three children and a mortgage. Even her elevated position barely kept us above the poverty level. We survived. Some might even say we thrived.
Through the years, mom’s talents were recognized by her employers and they put her skills to good use in 1979 when they acquired the rights as sole supplier of warm-up suits to the U.S. Olympic team. She worked for a year on those designs and nothing would have made her happier, and her family more proud than to see world class athletes preparing for competition in her designs. As history recalls, because of political upheaval in the eastern block countries, the United States Chose to boycott the 1980 Olympics. It almost bankrupted my mother’s employer and, I believe, it almost bankrupted her spirit. But she continued working.
Mom worked in the factory during our high school years. She worked in the factory when my older brother left school to seek his fortune [he’s still looking, but I have no doubt one day he will find it.] She was working in the factory when I was living at home attending art school … and following in her footsteps. And, she was working in the factory when my youngest brother received his PhD. from Brown University.
Mom always looked forward. She looked forward to her retirement years, which she had to postpone to care for her elderly parents. She looked forward to traveling, which she never seemed to be able to schedule. She looked forward to starting her own company … tomorrow.
When all the restrictions that had kept her from fulfilling her future goals had passed, she passed away. November 2nd, 2001. My mother’s life was a rich and productive irony.
Today, I am no longer able to present her with a card or arrive on her doorstep with flowers. I will lay the flowers by her grave and shed a tear for her memory in place of the card. I hope she knows how much she was appreciated and how sorely she is missed.