abandonment, birthday, daughters, family life, Father McCaffrey, food pantry, Happy Birthday Mom, Hell's Kitchen, Holy Cross Church, holy cross roman catholic church, holy cross school, home, mother and daughter, motherhood, new york city, sons, St. George and the Dragon, The Great Depression
My Mom would be 89 years old today. We lost her in 2005, after a harrowing month-long stay in the hospital precipitated by spinal surgery. It was only at the very end of her life that my mother’s indomitable strength and will began to fail her.
She was born stubborn. She was named for St. George (slayer of dragons), whose feast day is the day after her birthday. She resented her name, Georgia; her parents wanted to name her Hariklia (Harriet), I believe to honor her father, whose name was Hercules. Her godfather overruled her parents (my mom never explained how that happened), and she was christened Georgia instead. I love the name; I think it suited her well, with its evocation of strength and a willingness to fight to protect the weak and fearful.
Her parents had come to America from Larissa, Greece when they were in their early twenties. We have a photograph of our maternal grandparents that was taken just before they left their home country; they are beautifully dressed (it may have been their wedding picture) and they look so young, and so full of promise and hope. They settled in Hell’s Kitchen, around the corner from Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan.
The Depression came. Promise turned to disappointment; my mother’s father abandoned his wife and daughters, leaving my grandmother to support my mother and aunt all on her own. My grandmother had only a fifth grade education and spoke very little English, and there was little work to be had. At one point, my grandmother was so desperate for food for her girls, she went to Holy Cross to ask the pastor, Father McCaffrey, for help. Even though they were Greek Orthodox and not parishioners of the church, Father McCaffrey saw to it that they never went hungry, and my mother and aunt attended Holy Cross school until they moved out of the neighborhood.
My mother always said that if it hadn’t been for Father McCaffrey’s kindness, they would have died of starvation in the streets. She thought that Father McCaffrey was a living saint. When he passed away in 1970, more than 20,000 people attended his funeral; my parents were two of those people.
After Mom, and then Dad, passed away, our family requested donations to the Holy Cross Food Pantry instead of flowers, to honor our parents’ memories.
What my mother wanted more than anything while she was growing up was to be married and raise a family. She wanted four boys; she and Dad got four girls, and then our brother, all in nine years.
I don’t know how she did it; our house was always clean, the wash was always done, and every night, there was a hot, home-cooked meal that we all shared–along with our stories of our day–around the kitchen table.
When I look at the pictures of all of us from my childhood, I am struck by how truly lovely she was. She kept herself, and all of us, beautifully.
She went to work part-time at Gertz Department Store in Flushing when I was in sixth grade; it was good for her to be out in the world, and there were huge benefits to us in the form of really nice clothes at a discount, and lessons in how to shop wisely. She kept working in retail–at Gertz, then Stern’s, then Bloomingdale’s–until she injured her back on the job. That injury was what eventually led to the last surgery that resulted in her dying of sepsis from an infected surgical wound. Her last month was heartbreaking for all of us, for my father most of all.
After she passed away, my father visited her grave every day, in every kind of weather. He told me not too long after she died that the very best thing he ever did was ask her to marry him. In the years after she died, he would often say that he just didn’t know how she was able to do everything she did for all of us.
My thought about my dad’s last walk, the day he disappeared into the woods of Union, is that he went off the path because he thought he heard her calling him.
I hope he found her, and that they are together now, smiling on the family they created.
Last year, I recorded this video of myself singing “Goodbye to My Mama”,
to honor my mother on her birthday.
Mom, this one is for you. I love you and miss you every day.