First person

Bus rides and toboggan slides with mom


My mother never sat at the table.

The ostensible reason is that there wasn’t enough room. She and my father started our family shortly before he reported for duty as an anti-aircraft officer in WWII. They reunited after the armistice in 1945, and in 12 years had eight children.

Toward the end of that span, Charlie and Gert McGrath had set their sights on a two-story home.

But when he saw that the monthly payments would consume nearly all of his $105 per week salary as a tile salesman, they settled for a smaller three-bedroom brick ranch.

There was no dining room, and the cramped kitchen with the seven-piece Formica dinette set could not accommodate 10 people. So my mother half sat, half leaned on a step-stool near the sink, eating from her plate on the counter top, watching over us from afar.

I mean, she could have sat next to her husband and made “Little” Charlie, the oldest boy, or Rosemary, the elder of the two girls, move to the counter.

But that’s just the way she was.

So my father sat at the head, with Little Charlie at his left. Continuing clockwise, it was Jimmy and Pat, and then the foot of the table where the youngest, Kevin and Nancy, sat on phone books on a painted piano bench.

Then came Rosemary, Kenneth, and myself, finishing out the circle. That would remain my permanent place, to the right of my father. My mother assured me it was not because I was the troublemaker, though I knew better.

But that’s just the way she was.

As we passed platters of roasted chicken and creamed corn, we would answer dad’s questions about school, gossip about other kids on the block, and boast about exploits on St. Bernadette School’s playground.

But we were a happy herd, because how could we not be? We got to play long and hard, with seldom a lull, what with a permanent supply of friends and always enough kids for a game of running bases or hide and seek.

And because there was so little money left after Friday grocery shopping, we were always surprised when once or twice a year, my mother would don her long wool coat and red babushka, and she and the old man would drive to a store to buy something we all could share.

Like the polished wood toboggan that we slid down thousands of times on Piggy Toe Mountain, the steep alley behind our block. Or the big steel string guitar, which I thought exotic and confusing, until Jimmy learned to play Tom Dooley and Monster Mash, and Pat started doing Elvis, and music became the focal point of family gatherings.

Or the bumper pool table. And a real pinball machine.

Just once you’d think she might come back with something for herself, especially, we hoped, a new coat and a stylish hat.

But that’s just the way she was.

Summers could be brutal when all of us were home with no AC, and no money yet for membership at the community pool.

Kevin once junk-picked an old office fan, minus the wire mesh safety guard, and we sat around the kitchen table, close enough for the air to oscillate in our faces, yet far enough to keep from getting our noses sliced off.

The first day it hit 100, Gert had us roll our swimsuits in our towels for a trip to the beach. She packed a basket with a dozen liver sausage and mustard sandwiches, and a gallon jug of Kool Aid, and led us to the bus stop.

We stood in a line at the bus stop, with Little Charlie hauling the basket and jug, and caught the bus for the long and sweaty ride to Rainbow Beach.

The lake was an oasis. We crashed into the waves, soaking and swimming and playing Moby Dick through the afternoon, fortified by the sandwiches and Dixie cups of grape Kool Aid.

Nancy and Pat fell asleep on the bus ride back, and our mother, still young and pretty, sat sunburned and exhausted, a smile on her face.

When Kenneth asked if we could go next week, she bit her lower lip, doubtlessly ruminating over the preparation and packing and hiking involved in shepherding eight kids on a sweltering bus, 90 minutes each way.

“If you’re good,” she said.

Last week, I flew up to visit mother in her suburban condo. Her memory is sharp, and she still dispenses advice and voices opinions to her children, her neighbors, and especially to her grandchildren.

She’ll be 93 this year, however, and her health is slipping: She’s been hospitalized twice in the past several weeks.

But my six siblings who still live near make sure that one among them is always around to help with everything she needs.

The kind of love they learned from her.

That’s just the way she was.

Port Charlotte’s David McGrath teaches English at Edison State and is author of THE TERRITORY.

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