My “Black Irish” mother wore big hats and high heels she bought at B Altman’s in Manhattan. She was the prettiest, most stylish, most effervescent woman anyone had ever met. Jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, she looked like Jackie O, only prettier.
It was 1969, I was 7, and surrounded by siblings, and love, and a dog named Spot.
My parents threw elegant cocktail parties at our big house next to a babbling brook in Fairfield, an upscale commuter town that we moved TO, but could never be FROM.
We would all get ushered off to our bedrooms in our matching pajamas just as Grandma’s Silver would come out of the hutch. The linen napkins and fancy long stem goblets would make their appearances, and impressions. Tommy Dorsey and the Big Bands would show up as the guests arrived.
It was a privilege to polish Grandma’s Silver. A privilege bestowed on the well-behaved and trust-worthy. (I can’t imagine any of my 4 brothers being allowed the privilege, for instance :)).
The musty smells of the plush red felt and cold silver would waft out of the heavy wooden box and into my senses every time I was asked to polish it. The experience filled me with a quiet comfort….I was only ever able to suppress my adolescent impulses when I was shining Grandma’s Silver.
My parents had received the heirloom collection as a wedding present from my maternal grandparents.
My Grandmother told me they only used it during special occasions.
The sounds of happy times would sneak out like a music box melody as I carefully opened the hinged lid. I imagined my Grandfather playing his harmonica, people smiling to spite the Depression.
I remember being amazed by the weight of the dinner forks, and fascinated by the way the silver polish would magically wipe away the blemishes and bring the metal to a reflective shine!
Solid silver! Wow, I thought to myself, we must be rich if we own such a box of treasure.
When I was 8, our superstar yacht-brokering father bought a marina up the Connecticut coast, in Old Saybrook.
Next time you take Amtrak over the Connecticut River, peer DOWN at our old house, on the northwest corner. It hasn’t changed. It’s even the same dull grey. You have heard the saying “living on the other side of the tracks”? Well, we took that metaphor a step further, by living BENEATH the tracks.
Our Dad’s marina dreams died a quick death. Nobody was buying yachts in 1970, not even the banks.
Looking back on those days gives me pain; pain a clinically shy 8 year-old would not have been able to understand, or describe. I had the misfortune of contrast: I knew what a big warm house in a leafy suburb felt like. I knew what more than enough food felt like, but now I knew what NOT enough food felt like.
Old Saybrook is a beautiful New England shoreline town with stately homes and a quaint Main Street. I visited the town recently and noticed small plaques on many of our neighbors’ homes….merchant Captains and wealthy descendants of our Founding Fathers.
I had no idea, this was a very upscale neighborhood, we lived here? How could that be? We had NO money, how did we live in North Cove? I know WHY, no need to dwell on that, but the real question is: HOW did we live, there?
If 1970 was a “transition year”, 1971 was the year we arrived….in hell.
Imagine having 7 children , with one more on the way, and NO money. Phone turned off. No heating oil, we owed them money, so we used electric heaters, and lots of blankets.
My mother got on a bike and rode down to the Dock-n-Dine to get a job as a waitress. I will never forget how she worked 12 hours on Mothers’ Day. She assured us that she was grateful to have the opportunity to wait on our neighbors and friends from church.
My mother’s job quickly transformed my older sister Lia into a mother figure, at age 12. She did laundry, cooked, even scolded. My brothers and I changed our fishing competitions from catch-and release to catch-and-eat. Nobody I knew ate Snapper Blues and Catfish, but we did. We would get shad from the lobstermen and run home with smiles on our faces, not knowing or caring that it was actually a lowly bait fish.
In the winter my mother would pray for snow. A good snowstorm meant her 5 sons could shovel driveways and bring home cold cash that she could turn into hot calories. We delivered newspapers, raked leaves, cut lawns, anything in trade for money or fungible favors. I’m not complaining, just reporting, I loved my childhood. Mostly.
Our Dad was trying to sell boats during the day and doing odd jobs at night….emphasis on trying, and odd.
Our mother was, and is, a “Saint”, it has been told to me 1,000 times.
One of her skills was to package and market horrible jobs as privileges. (“Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Said Tom Sawyer, and my mom).
The “bundles job” was delivering newspapers to newspaper boys. We would drive to the local New Haven Register depot in the dead of the night, (3am I was told later) still in our hand-me-down pajamas and assemble all the sections of the newspapers and bundle them while our father would drive the old station wagon to the various newspaper boys’ homes…..neighborhood by neighborhood. Nobody else in the streets except us, and the occasional milk and bread trucks.
Our lack of food and heat during those lean years gnawed at me. I remember being afraid that a friend would come over and ask for a snack, or wonder why it was cold inside our house. I made up all sorts of excuses to keep my shame sheltered.
I kept an eye on the big burlap bag of potatoes in the kitchen. Like a canary in a coal mine, the bag was a leading indicator of our near-term prospects.
We endured. Mom distracted us with geography games on our wobbly globe. She held spelling bees, and impromptu grammar quizzes. We played sports, lots and lots of sports! Scrabble was big.
Our Mother’s Mother, (she of “Grandma’s Silver” fame) darned our socks, patched our dungaree knees, taught us the difference between your and you’re while using words like “chum” where I would have used “friend”. Grandma Kane…Estelle Buckley Kane. Giver of silver, and much more.
We wore plastic bread bags as insulators over our unmatched socks and inside our leaky boots as we wrestled siblings off our toboggans at full speed. Mom dragged us to Sturbridge Village, the Liberty Bell, the Bronx Zoo.
She knew life was moving fast so she made sure we were going, learning, doing, experiencing. We would fill up our tank with quarters and off we went, pinching and poking each other the whole way…..while minding the distance from our Dad’s long arm of “discipline”.
Gettysburg, the Empire State Building, Mystic Seaport. My mother put those waitress tips to good use. If we had gas and some PB&J’s , we were road tripping! Who needed a phone, we needed memories! And memories Mom gave us. My memories are rich, I treasure them all.
Well, maybe not ALL.
It was 1972. Midnight. A very dark night.
I thought I heard what sounded like weeping coming up from the kitchen below, so I crept down a few steps of stairs and looked through the railings.
The potato bag was laying empty, limp on the kitchen floor, at my Mother’s feet. She was crying softly.
The fear overwhelmed me, but I managed to beat it back as I saw how broken my mother was. I straightened up as tall as a 12 year-old could get.
I walked down into the kitchen and said “Mom, what’s the matter?”
She was startled to see me and quickly wiped away the tears. I looked over at the open refrigerator and saw a half-empty bottle of ketchup. I looked in the freezer and saw a few metal ice trays, and some frozen bait, and nothing else.
I turned to my mother, and we shared the dark moment very quietly. Her head was hanging, eyes fixed on the kitchen floor as she held my hand. This was the bottom I had always feared.
She spoke to me like I was an adult, like we were in it together. “I don’t know what to do. We don’t have anything to eat. I don’t have anything to feed my family when they wake up.”
Again, quiet. I don’t think I remember talking or moving. The fear had me in its clutches.
I am unclear on what happened next, except for the important detail that my Grandmother showed up with bags and bags of groceries that next morning.
(We have all learned not to ask Mom for details related to our troubles. I suspect she went next door and borrowed the neighbor’s phone and called her Mom.)
Whatever it was, Grandma was now in the boat with us, rowing and bailing. That gave me relief.
I’ll never forget the day Grandma’s Silver entered the drama. My mother called me into the living room; Grandma’s Silver was on the coffee table, lid open. She was pensive, determined.
She handed me a couple forks, knives and spoons.
“I need you to get on your bike and ride down to ////store name escapes me//// and hand these to the man behind the counter. He will weigh them and give you cash. Bring it straight home. Go”.
I remember that long bike ride down to the pawn shop, Vividly.
What could this mean? My Mom was selling our beloved silver?
My heart and soul were low, my heartbeat high, as my feet pedaled me forward. I was 10, but I was not a kid, not on that day.
I don’t remember tears, just adrenalin, and focus.
The pawnshop man weighed the silver while informing me that the knife blades would not be included since they are made from stainless steel not silver.
I pedaled straight home, wad of cash in my pocket, proud that I had successfully executed my Mom’s instructions. And happy we were going to get a new giant sack of potatoes. (And maybe even hamburgers!!)
That was 1972. Times got better, VERY slowly. We dishwashed and babysat and busboy’d our way through Xavier and Mercy. My mother scratched and clawed her way through all the college paperwork, the aid forms, the loan applications. All while typing our papers and making our lunches and doing our laundry.
Time went by, 8 college degrees later, we all became successful enough to ride on airplanes, eat in restaurants, enjoy heated and air conditioned homes, that we own.
We all have full refrigerators.
Now WE are the ones tipping the newspaper boy, the babysitter, the waitress, the snow shoveler. Mom had gotten us through college. Dad had taught us how to work hard.
We all knew better than to replace the silver as soon as we could afford it. Our mother eschewed material things right after that heavy lid slammed shut on an empty box of silver.
So, for the 40th anniversary of that horrible 1972 winter I found an antique solid silver pie server and we had it engraved: “Thank you God for Grandma’s Silver” We gave it to her at my sister’s farm with the babbling brook. On Thanksgiving. The room was crowded, with 21 grandchildren, but it was so quiet you could have heard an empty potato sack drop.
I can imagine my children will one day get me a silver pie server on account of all the pie I have consumed.
Perhaps they should engrave it: “Thank you God….for Grandma”