On All Hallows Eve – a Loving Remembrance
My mother was comparatively young when she died in 1974. Due to the very real risk (specifically threatened by her) of being haunted by her should I betray her actual age, I won’t reveal just HOW young since she was adamant that her age and her weight were her own business! Suffice it to say that I have already outlived her by quite a few years. And I continue to miss her every day of my life.
She was the 12th of 12 children of Hungarian immigrant parents (born at regular 2 year intervals) and was born in West Homestead, Pennsylvania (a part of Pittsburgh). Of the 12 children, 8 survived to adulthood, although my Aunt Rose died quite young as did my Aunt Mary (who was reputed to be the most beautiful young woman in all of Pittsburgh in her youth). Grandfather Savko was an accomplished and highly educated man and had served as a diplomat in my grandparents’ native Hungary. In this country, he worked at the Carnegie Steel Works to support his family. He died when my mother was 7 years old. My grandmother was a child of privilege, but particularly after she was widowed, she worked as a seamstress to support her children (her daughters Irene and Anne inherited her talents). My grandmother died when my mother was 14 years old and a SENIOR in high school.
My mother lived with her eldest brother long enough to graduate from high school and then, still age 14, she moved on her own from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Ohio where she moved in with an older sister, enrolled in beauty school and also lied about her age and got a job singing in a nightclub in downtown Cleveland! Lack of ambition was never one of my mother’s qualities.
In the following years my mother was fired from her singing job (she was too young and, I think too green, to drink with the customers because “I have to go to Mass in the morning”!), finished beauty school herself, then put 3 of her sisters through beauty school and her one brother through trade school. She trained with the famed Antoine in New York and then moved back to Pittsburgh where she became one of the premiere hairdressers in that city, styling the hair of society women through the region, as well as consulting on home hair color disasters around the country. If someone’s hair turned green in Iowa, my mother was usually on a plane within hours to repair the damage – for which she was well paid, even by depression standards.
In 1941, while visiting her family in Cleveland, she met my father. The story of how they met is hilarious, but will be withheld until I write about my late father. My mother was supposedly unable to have children, so I was QUITE the surprise, born 10 months and 2 days after their wedding.
My father’s next surprise for my mother was to move this relentlessly urban woman to a FARM in Twinsburg, Ohio. She coped – and with style - but many times her method of coping bordered on comedy! Her relationship with our chickens was a prime example. She was absolutely convinced that the chickens didn’t like her and no matter how often my father tried to convince her that chickens could not like or dislike – she was not able to be persuaded. Hence, I began gathering eggs at age 3-½! Those eggs (and eventually the chickens) were an essential component of our diet since it was, after all, during World War II and its immediate aftermath.
Both my father and my mother considered the lack of a sense of humor to be a fatal character flaw in any human. My earliest childhood memories are of laughter in our household, coupled with my parents’ habit of reading aloud to each other – and me – in those pre-television days.
Another of my early, early childhood memories is of my mother – city girl that she was, and true to her origins wearing a dress, hose and often heels – standing at the stove or the sink in our country kitchen, canning the bounty from our 1 acre of garden! And I vividly remember how much I enjoyed helping her in whatever limited capacity a small child is able. What I really enjoyed was just being with her and talking to her. She had that rare capacity to talk to a child without condescending and the even more rare quality of LISTENING.
She also had some rather specific ideas on the subject of child rearing. She would not permit “baby talk” around me. Nor would she allow ANYONE (including her own sisters) to pamper me or cater to me. When it became the craze in the first grade to exchange trading cards (who even remembers what was printed on those cards – certainly not me), my Aunt Marge (who doted on me, bless her heart) was horrified to find that I was making my own trading cards, rather than having them bought for me. My mother opined that it did me no harm to learn creativity and self-reliance, while at the same time keeping busy and out from under her feet. And my mother was correct in every respect.
The greatest pain of my mother’s life was my father’s alcoholism which began to manifest in a serious way during my early college years. By that time we had moved into the more urban Cleveland area, and my mother was again working full time. By the time I was 24, my mother had filed for divorce from my father. Not out of lack of love but rather from weariness and a realization that she couldn’t save him and he wasn’t willing or able to save himself! She did, however, make it a point to teach me to understand and forgive my father's problems. And for that gift of compassion and understanding, I will always be indebted to her.
In the years after the divorce, my mother and I continued to live together and over time I was able to coax and shock her out of the deep depression into which she had fallen over my father’s drinking. Then came the diagnosis that she had a very limited amount of time left to live. During the remaining 3 years of her life, neither one of her surviving sisters knew that she was dying, nor did her one surviving brother. That is the way she wanted it and I felt honor-bound to accede to her request. She said she didn’t want to have a damned wake for whatever time was left to her. So she didn’t.
When she died, she did it on her own terms and on her own schedule without any overt act on her part. Three weeks before she died she told me that she had accomplished everything that she’d ever wanted to accomplish and that she loved me and knew I was strong enough to be without her. When the final crisis arrived, I could see in her eyes that she was ready to leave me and it was with mixed terror, grief and joy that I watched that beautiful and loving light depart with my blessings.
In all the years since, she is never far from my thoughts. I loved her without reservation and yet I was aware of her flaws. They simply didn’t matter, except perhaps as a cautionary note to me.
One of my mother’s greatest legacies to me as the ability to think critically. My mother came from a family of Democrats and married into a family of serious Republicans. She didn’t become a Republican out of solidarity with her new family, but rather out of conviction. Many of her brothers and sisters found her choice of political party incomprehensible. She simply called it common sense. When the time came for me to become politically aware, she encouraged me to really examine the points of view of both political parties and then make up my mind. If I wanted or needed to discuss the matter with her, she was more than willing to do so. But she added that ultimately, this was a decision that I had to make on my own. And I did.
My mother loved mightily, as do I. Even when that love was betrayed or unrequited, she still loved with absolute fidelity. I learned that constancy from her. My mother looked at the world through a slightly skewed lens, and I certainly learned that from her. My mother believed that such a thing as right and wrong do exist, as do I. She was a devout Catholic, as am I. She thought that far too many politicians were ridiculous, an opinion I share. My mother was a compulsively meticulous housekeeper. I wish I could say the same about myself. But one thing I learned from my mother’s untimely death is that life is short and dust is patient. It WILL wait until you get around to it. Or you can hire someone to deal with it which is my choice!
All in all, this gloriously beautiful woman was and continues to be a vibrant influence on my life. And although I miss her greatly, I know that I will see her again one day. In the meantime, I am trying to live my life in such a way as to make her proud. I fail as often as I succeed, but at least I try. Except in the area of housework!
Rest in peace, my beloved mother. A lot of the good in me came from you!