THE LOVELY APRIL OF HER PRIME

By Paul M. Lewis

If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.

No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.

Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.

Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.

I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.

The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.

Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.

Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.

Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.

Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.

I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?

TO FRANK AND KATHLEEN: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LATE THOUGH IT MAY SEEM

By Paul

Next week, my father, had he lived, would have turned 95, and the following week, my mother, had she lived, would have celebrated her 93rd birthday. Instead, they each died much younger, he at age 47, and she at age 50. A long time ago, obviously. But does anyone ever really forget, or somehow get over, the passing of their parents?

There’s something about that bond between parent and child that lasts, and that outlasts even death itself, it would seem. Of course, it would have been wonderful had they lived into old age, not only each for their own sake, but from my selfish (childishly so?) point of view. I would very much have liked to get to know them, not as Mom and Dad, but as Frank and Kathleen, or Kay, as my mother usually called herself.

Frank, first of all, was a complex and complicated man. Full of anger, of rage sometimes, and of disappointment. And, it has to be said, he had much to be disappointed about. A brilliant man, of that I was always convinced, although you would not have known it from the mere facts of his life. He finished high school and got married right after graduating. This was followed a few years later by a stint in the navy on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic during “the War,” as we all always simply called it in those years. As if there had been no other such wretched combat in all of human history. Returning home in late 1945 a young man in his mid-twenties, he was already burdened (and that is the word, I think) with two children. A third would come a few years later.

He had wanted to go to college, but circumstances were such that he had to get a job immediately and begin providing for the family. So, he did his duty, as many other men of his generation and social standing did in those years in upstate New York, and took a factory job. He worked a machine that somehow applied resin, and in the process it eventually turned out various grades of sandpaper. I believe he hated every minute of his workday and longed for something bigger, something greater, something grander than laboring on the factory floor, day in and day out. His dream, and it is almost too painful for me to say this so outlandish it seems, was to become the conductor of a symphony orchestra. How did an Irish-American kid from a gritty factory town in upstate New York have such aspirations? He didn’t even know how to play a musical instrument, but that seemed not to matter. He had somehow heard Mozart, and Brahms, and Beethoven, and Haydn on the radio, and he was hooked. I will never forget seeing him every Sunday afternoon, “conducting” orchestral pieces while seated at the kitchen table listening to the radio, with his ubiquitous glass of Ballantine Ale in front of him. I was never sure which he got more solace from, the alcohol, which he soaked himself in, or the music, which fed some part of him that nothing else could touch.

Although I was too young, too narcissistic, too engrossed in my own pain, my own aspirations and my own fears at the time, what I realize now is, how could he have been anything other than disappointed with his life? How could a great orchestral conductor live in the body of a man who trudged six blocks every morning to the factory, paper lunch bag in hand, condemned to stand for eight hours next to a dirty machine, clanking out an unholy din of pistons and gears, instead of the celestial melodies of Borodin or Tchaikovsky? No wonder he came home every evening, made dinner for the kids (while Kay was working nights), and sat and drank himself into a stupor of a dream of a life he could never live.

And Kathleen, dear Kay, long-suffering, loving, compassionate, ever supportive mother, and wife and companion to Frank that she was, did her best to help the family’s fortunes. But there was not a lot she could do, making $35.00 a week as a sales lady. Even in the early years of the 1950’s, that wasn’t a lot of money. But what dreams did she have for herself, that’s what I would like to know. That’s what I would ask her now, if I could talk with her today. I do not mean talking to Mom, or to someone I identify as “my mother” (as if you can ever get away from that, as if some dissociation were even possible), but if I could, I would speak to Kathleen, née Goyette, married at age 18 and never finished high school. What did you dream of, Kay, sitting on the bus each morning going to work, sloshing through the snow and the sleet of yet another northern winter, heading to the department store for one more day of folding and preparing ladies lingerie, of smiling and assisting and selling to snooty women who looked down on you, wishing that closing time would come an hour earlier?

Did you dream of another life, one of glamor and of class and of enough money to spend on a new dress? How could you not have? Who, after all, dreams of the drudgery of laboring day after day, only to come home to a house where poverty stood like a grim sentinel at the front door, to a disgruntled, disgraced, half-drunk husband, and to terrified children? Or at least I was terrified. I cannot actually speak for my siblings, but I know I was petrified whenever I found myself alone with my father. I knew the depth of his despair, and I knew that somehow he blamed me for something I was never quite sure of, and was jealous of the closeness his wife felt with me, and how she protected me from his blows and his curses, against the blinding rage of his deadening and disappointing life.

My mother was a beautiful woman, both inside and out. I remember her telling me once, with a degree of pride I’d never before noted, how a man whistled at her and said to her, as she walked to work one fine summer morning: “Hey lady, you don’t belong in this town. You belong down in New York City!” Was that your secret dream, to live the life of a glamorous woman in a city where such a woman could be appreciated?

But no one is one dimensional, and each of us has the chance to change, to grow and be more than what we were the day before. Only at death do we run the risk of being frozen forever in time, at least to those left behind. Obituaries have a way of solemnly characterizing “the dearly departed.” He or she was the devoted spouse, loving father or mother, beloved brother, sister, or cousin, or aunt, but in each case those who knew could always see through these simplistic epithets. Frank was surely both lover and hater, aspirer and disappointed drunkard, providing husband and father and raging marauder. And Kathleen was lover and beauty queen, glamorous dame and caring, compassionate mother and friend to all, a lady with longing, yearning ambitions, as well as the contented supporter of those for whom her only desire was to nurture and to sustain.

What would Kathleen and Frank have become, had they lived longer? And how would Paul have reacted or responded, accepting them or retreating from them? Would he have supported changes in each, emerging into a kind of adulthood in which we all might have seen the other as human beings, with the full range of emotions and desires entailed therein, with our own unique faults and failures, our hopes and aspirations, and all the energy and all the lassitude that we allow and expect in whatever strangers may cross our path? Would Paul have forgiven them, sustained them, loved them as they deserved, and still deserve, as both parents and people who are more than that?

It is one of the great mysteries of life that we will never know how we might have evolved and changed to accommodate or attempt to block the emergence of those who are forever gone. We are left only with hope, and a dim desire, haltingly expressed perhaps but deeply felt, that they, too, might have lived to change along with the rest of us, who change over time. For to stand still in time and to ossify is a kind of early death all its own, while still in the body. It is a repudiation of life, which is growth, which is the opportunity of becoming.

So, dead though they may be, I wish them life and fulfillment. I wish Frank and Kathleen all the happiness they did not find on the factory floor, or at the department store counter. I wish them beauty and heavenly music. I wish them all good things, all the kind thoughts and little mercies I might have provided for them because of who they were, with their faults and their glories, and everything that made them parents first of all (at least for me), but humans, too, above and beyond and before all else, human beings, in the end not so very different from you and me.