Mom loved telling stories. Born to immigrant parents in 1912, she grew up in Manhattan’s Irish-American culture and raised her seven children in the suburb of Upper Montclair, New Jersey. She had her last children, Justin and Catherine, when she was forty and forty-two, so in her late fifties she had two teenagers caught up in the tumult of “The Sixties.”
Mom, myself, and my three-years-younger brother Steve were on the house porch of our funky, loved summer home in Old Forge in New York’s Adirondacks. Mom, now in her seventies, remained as active as ever—rowing her aluminum rowboat three miles every evening, swimming regularly, riding her bike around town. I asked her what it had been like having two high schoolers in the 60s.
She laughed. “I was upstairs, changing Justin’s sheets. His desk was open and I saw a plastic bag—two bags—with green leaves inside them. I knew it must be marijuana. I thought—how dare he bring that home! So I took them to the bathroom and flushed all the leaves down the toilet. That will teach him a lesson, I thought.”
“That evening, Justin ran into the kitchen, hysterically asking if I had … if I had seen … any plastic bags on his desk. I told him that I found the marijuana while cleaning his room and flushed it down the toiled.”
“’Mom,’ he wailed. ‘I haven't paid for that... I ….’ He was shaking. "Now I haven't got it.’”
“’What?’ I demanded.”
“’I got it from two guys in Newark. If I don’t pay them, they’ll break my legs. Or kill me.’”
“Of course he didn’t have any money. So I wound up paying $150 for it. Some lesson," she laughed.
Mom had been frugal since she was a young girl, long before being imprinted by the Depression. Family members had told her, “You’re just like you’re Aunt Hattie,” well-known for being a penny-pincher. Her father, a civil servant in the New York Dock Department, had uncharacteristically speculated on Florida produce in the late 20s, and lost. Without warning, one Sunday he put up a “For Sale” sign in front of their house, and Mom lost the only home she ever loved as a child.
Dad was a modestly-paid math professor at Montclair State, supporting a growing family. We surely weren’t affluent. We only had the summer house in Old Forge because Grandpa bought it in 1947 for $4500. Yet somehow Mom and Dad managed to have a mortgage on their Montclair home for only three years. Mom economized on little things too. She regularly mixed powdered milk with fresh milk to cut down on our milk costs. In her old age, I learned that she had account books listing every single expenditure she’d made since being married in 1936. I laughed, “Ah, your skills were wasted. You should have been fiscal officer at the Pentagon.”
Steve, a graduate of Harvard Business School, became a Special Deputy Controller of the City of New York during its fiscal crisis of 1975. That July, several of us kids gathered in Old Forge. (Mom later told us that she’d had mixed feelings about that: “A number of adults who used to be my children are coming to live in my house.”) At a dinner, Mom served us dessert of ample raspberries and said: “This morning I was thinking about getting raspberries for dessert and wondering if I should buy one box or two. They’re expensive. Then I was walking through the living room and I heard Steve talking on the phone, saying, ‘No, not that $400 million. It’s the other $700 million,’ and I decided—if my son can talk about hundreds of millions of dollars, I’m going to buy TWO boxes of raspberries.”
Our family culture valued humor, wit, and good conversation, especially about politics, and above all, telling good stories. Perhaps I was ten when Mom and Dad returned from a dinner out and sighed, “Oh, are they DULL.” I wasn’t sure what dull was, but I knew it was something I must never be.
As a teenager, I was occasionally supposed to assist Mom with household chores. I rapidly learned that what she truly wanted was an audience, not help. I’d lounge as she worked and told her stories: How she and her neighbor Parnell learned to read at age five and were rewarded by being advanced two grades, from first to third, when they started school. Or how the nuns at the high school and then the college of Mt. Saint Vincent had mercilessly picked on her because she was a scholarship student, not from a wealthy Catholic family as most of the girls were. (Both Imelda Marcos and the Cory Aquino went there).
Whatever the miseries of her adolescence, Mom had astonishing energy as an adult. A small woman, five feet, two inches, she had a pretty Irish face, brown hair and eyes, and a lithe figure. Intensely athletic, she loved to hike and rode her bicycle through the tree-lined streets of Montclair. I recall being horribly embarrassed, hanging out with some high school buddies, as she whizzed by on her bike. Why didn't she drive around in a car, as other moms did?
Active in local Democratic Party politics, Mom once told me that she was twelve before she understood that it wasn’t a mortal sin to vote Republican. She was also active in the League of Women Voters. And a successful writer, publishing a column in the weekly Montclair Times and numerous articles in Parents’ Magazine, including one article not only reprinted in the Reader’s Digest, but featured on the Digest’s front cover, along with two other authors—Truman Capote and Jean Stafford. Mom’s article, published at the height of the ’50 hysteria that “violent” comic books were warping young children, argued that what mattered was that kids learned to love reading. Comic books were not a threat—If kids started with them, they’d soon move on to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, then further on to better books.
Our friends were always welcome at our house. Mom was not concerned with meticulous housecleaning nor interested in women who waged a ceaseless war against dust. On her wedding day, in 1936, her mother had told her, "Remember, dear, you never saw a statue of a great housekeeper.”
Mom didn’t preach self-reliance and was sympathetic when I told her of childhood miseries like not being chosen for a baseball team, but we were not coddled. My favorite among Mom’s many sayings was the words she’d often utter when one of her young children came sobbing to her after suffering a minor fall or slight bruise to the ego. “There, there,” she’d say soothingly, while giving the child a soft hug, “Nothing trivial, I hope.” While in high school, it was important to me that my chinos and shirt be freshly ironed. Which meant I learned to be a good ironer. Mom had made it clear she had no time for that.
When we were sick, we were generally left alone to heal, like a wounded animal. Being sick wasn’t exactly a disgrace, but it surely didn’t warrant coddling. The doctor was a very busy man, and not to be called unless we were seriously ill. Mom herself must have gotten sick sometimes, but I can’t remember one occasion. She was, quietly, very tough. She always refused to use Novocaine at the dentist’s. Why I never knew. Dad was equally stoic. Occasionally his back would “go out”—which was all he said about it. He’d go to his chiropractor who, I gathered, somehow snapped his back “back in” and Dad promptly returned to normal.
To say that Mom didn’t believe in being overprotective only hints at the freedom she allowed her young children. Steve was allowed to roam freely when quite young, at age five, six, or seven. Sometimes he’d walk several blocks to the closest shopping street. At times, a policeman would stop and question him there, and he’d respond, “I’m allowed to be here.” On rare occasions, a policeman would insist on taking him home, where my mother would tell the officer, “He’s allowed to be there.”
During our high school and college summers, I, my two-years-younger sister Joanne and Steve all worked at the Enchanted Forest, an woodsy amusement park on thirty-five acres in Old Forge. At various times during my summers there, Mom would drop off young Catherine, ages four to seven, at the Forest. Often dressed in a little princess costume, beautiful Catherine ranged freely through the Forest for hours. The employees knew her and loved her and, as far as I know, she had nothing but fun.
Sometimes, Mom’s nurturing was inspired. Believing that much could be accomplished by a good letter, she wrote a letter to the three New York major league baseball teams, requesting that Steve and I be permitted to meet some players. Amazingly, the Brooklyn Dodgers responded, saying they would be pleased to allow Steve and I to visit the dugout before the game. We did, met some players—Jackie Robinson! And Gil Hodges, Peewee Reese, Preacher Roe— and we each got an autographed baseball (I’ve long since lost mine), and memories that have lasted a lifetime.
Though Mom was, in her own fashion, a devout Catholic, her deepest religion, as I understood when older, was that her children go to Ivy League colleges. We were to become members of the elite. In high school, I understood, without ever being told, that whatever else I could do wrong, I could not get bad grades. I got one C in one marking period in 11th grade math. Neither Mom nor Dad castigated me, but their disappointment was so deep and genuine that I vowed I would never get another high school grade below B. I didn’t.
The first six of Mom’s children all went to Ivy League colleges. Only Catherine, achievement-indifferent in the rebellious ‘60s, went to a less prestigious college—where she got as good an education as any of the rest of us, in her opinion and mine.
Once Justin and Catherine were in junior high, Mom decided to get a job, wanting to be more engaged in the world and to earn her own money, although our family was no longer financially pressed. Dad, one of the pioneers of Quality Control (the application of statistics to testing assembly-line products) had become a highly successful consultant, though he always retained his teaching job—and took the summers off. Mom got a masters degree in library science, then a job as the librarian in a ghetto junior high school in Newark. She loved reading, loved teaching kids reading, and loved young children. Soon the library had six copies of a kids’ biography of Muhammad Ali and comic books about Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Mom happily reported that kids were starting to like coming to the library. A couple of years later she said that some teachers threatened unruly students that they would not be allowed to go to the library if they continued to make trouble.
In the late ‘70s, the entire family, all nine of us together, by then a rare event, were at a pre-Christmas dinner. Conversation was flowing when one of us kids blurted out, ”Oh shit.” Dad, looking stern, exclaimed, “Please—your mother is present.” Mom glanced wryly at him and said, “If you knew how often I hear the word ‘motherfucker.’”
During her first years in Montclair, Mom told me, she’d been so shy that she’d walked across the street to avoid saying hello to a woman she’d met. But she developed her social skills and facade, pursued her own societal ambitions, and eventually rose to top of the still-dominantly-WASP Montclair women’s social ladder, becoming a member of the Art Museum Board—which provided her with new stories. At a Board meeting, an old-line dowager was deriding the Italians, who lived in the poorer Fourth Ward. “They breed like rabbits. That woman has eight children.” Then, realizing that my mother was at the meeting, she said, “I mean seven is fine, but eight?”
As she aged, Mom became more relaxed and spoke more freely. She was interested in and followed the Women’s Movement. She became overtly dubious of the Catholic (male-celibate) hierarchy. She once said about Pope John-Paul II, “Who does he think is listening to him?” In my forties, she and Dad joined a few friends in my Berkeley apartment for my birthday celebration. Near the end of dinner, my friend Hayden, who was gay, learned over to her and asked, “Did you have seven children because your are a Catholic?” Mom answered, “No, I’m the kind of Catholic who would have had one child if that’s what I wanted.” Hayden followed with, “What is it like to have seven children?’ Mom smiled at him and said, “What is it like to be gay?” Hayden replied, “Do you want to talk?” Mom nodded yes. The two adjourned to the living room and talked with engaged intensity for over twenty minutes.
Mom also became more adventurous. With money from her librarian’s job, she, stunningly, purchased a new car—a white Ford Galaxy 500 convertible, with red leather upholstery. Other adventures were more active, including mountain climbing, which she’d loved reading about for decades. Hillary and Tenzing, the first conquerors of Mt. Everest, were among her heroes. In her seventies, she attended a daylong mountain-climbing class on one of the high peaks of the Adirondacks. She returned thrilled—she’d actually climbed—though once seemed to satisfy her.
Mom did not discourage her kids’ rebel streaks. During seventh grade I came home and proudly announced that our homeroom teacher had angrily put it to a class vote: either I and my buddy Timmy went, or the teacher did. Of course, the class voted that he went. Mom, more pleased at my defiance than bothered by my innocence in believing I'd prevailed, shook her head, saying that now she'd have to call the Principal and help straighten things out. Smiling, she reaffirmed the message: Stand up to them, rebel.
But her message of “rebel” was complicated. We were not only to rebel, but to succeed. Become an aristocrat, but not a WASP. Steve, who chose a straighter path than me, graduated from Harvard Business School. [Joanne had graduated from Harvard Law School, where she’d been the first woman Notes Editor of the Harvard Law Review.] Steve eventually became CEO of a major TV/radio/communications corporation. He enjoyed dressing the part and wore Saville Row suits elegantly. "You should have seen how proud Mom was when she saw me in one of those suits,” he told me. “Finally, her son was a Duke. We'd bested the English at last."
Mom’s message to rebel was never stated explicitly. Only as an adult did I comprehend that Mom grew up in a family mistrustful of authority, particularly British authority. An old picture of Mom as a child with her brothers in a donkey cart, taken at some Democratic Party rally in the Bronx, included a large Sinn Fein sign that Grandpa had taped on the cart. An uncle of Grandpa's had been executed by the British in the l880s. Grandpa himself, I learned only after he died, would never allow an Englishman inside his home.
Mom professed to worship Grandpa. He was a strong, dominant man—a great athlete, champion rower, and swimmer—and (according to Mom) well-respected for his integrity as a high-level civil servant in the New York City Dock Department; during his tenure there, integrity was far from what the Department was commonly known for. As one encouragement to developing Mom’s swimming prowess, Grandpa once had her swim across the Hudson River, with a canoe tied to her waist.
Grandpa and Grandma, raised Manhattan's Irish-Immigrant Hell's Kitchen, now lived in respectable Riverdale. Every Christmas day we crossed the Hudson to visit them for a family gathering. Each year, Mom spent considerable energy and thought trying to find Grandpa a present he'd love. Whatever she gave him, he'd open it, at best barely nod, then ignore it, saying nothing. One Christmas when I was in my teens Mom believed she'd finally done it. Grandpa, now retired and suffering from serious arthritis, had transferred much of his intensity to bird watching. Mom researched and searched until she found the perfect birdhouse—just right for the birds that flew by his house, for the weather, and for attaching it to his back window.
Grandpa unwrapped the birdhouse and held it out, eyeing it skeptically as his lip curled. "That's silly,” he snapped. “What would I want that for?" and dropped it down. Mom erupted in tears, sobbing that he'd never loved her. Dad, standing beside me, said quietly, "I don't understand how two people who love each other so much can hurt each other so much." Adults quickly bustled us kids upstairs. When we were called back down, the grownups presented themselves cheerfully, and it was Christmas again.
When my grandfather died, every present my mother had ever given him was found hidden away in his attic. Each present was carefully preserved and dated with the year he'd received it.
Though I’m fifteen years older than my sister Catherine, we became very close over three decades ago. Through Catherine, I learned much about Mom I wouldn’t otherwise have known. Mom had been molested as a child, by an older male cousin. (God knows what that did to her.) She told Catherine and Joanne that if any boy or man ever touched her or bothered her she’d done absolutely nothing wrong, but be sure and tell Mom immediately. (I didn’t press Catherine for details, but I understood that Mom had been sufficiently explicit so that Catherine knew what she was talking about. )
Catherine also reported that Mom had told her, early during Catherine’s puberty, that sex was wonderful—but of course you waited until you were married.
Mom, Catherine told me, was sympathetic to the Women’s Movement, though she disliked Betty Freidan, because of her dismissive view of housewives. Mom identified as a housewife, which included leading an active, involved life, as she and most all of her housewife friends did. Subservience, in Mom’s view, was not part of being a housewife, although simultaneously she made it clear to Catherine that part of a woman’s job was to support men’s “fragile egos.” Mom also didn’t like that Freidan was homely. Mom much preferred the glamorous Gloria Steinem. Catherine observed that much as much as Mom agreed with the essence of the Women’s movement, and loved earning her own money as a school librarian, she retained her rootedness in the value of being popular, which included being pretty.
Another Catherine story: She and Mom were discussing therapy, which Catherine had resumed in her late twenties. Mom said, “I know many of my children have been in therapy, and it seems to help, but I never saw any reason for therapy … Well, there were those two years I was depressed all the time, but I knew I was happy, and... besides, they’d just say something like I hated your grandfather, Ha Ha Ha.”
When Catherine was fifteen, she went to Mom and told her that she was going to ask her something, “I know it will upset you, but I want you to think it over and let me know.” Mom said, “Oh Catherine, I’m sure whatever it is will be fine.” Catherine replied, “I’m going to get birth control, and I’d like your help and take me to Dr. N. (our family doctor).” Mom was distressed and shocked to her Irish-Catholic core. Catherine calmly responded, "Mom, I am going to get birth control. If you can, I'd like you to help. If you can’t, I’ll understand and I will go elsewhere." Three days later, Mom told Catherine that she would take her to Dr. N.
I could benefit from Catherine’s family courage. Throughout my twenties, when I returned home, I went to Mass on Sunday, or at least pretended to, sometimes instead driving to a nearby diner during Mass time. Then, a couple of days before I was to go to another Sunday Mass, Mom announced that I didn’t have to go. Stunned, I asked why. She said, “Catherine told me that she no longer believes in Catholicism, and she does not want to go to a church she doesn’t believe in. So she isn’t …. And I know that none of you (her older six children) have believed in it for years.”
I also learned from Catherine that Mom come to understand the depth of Dad’s ambition. By the start of World War II, Dad had become frustrated at the limits of his teaching job at Montclair State. Bright-side Mom reassured him that they were happy together, had two healthy children, a nice home and enough money, which was enough for her. Dad replied, “Well, It’s not enough for me.”
Mom and Dad were generally happy together. Many Sunday afternoons while I was growing up, they’d go for as long walk together. They’d return talking animatedly, alive with energy. Mom admired Dad’s keen mind, and she loved to tell stories of his irreverent side. At a boring Montclair dinner Dad drank two full cups of coffee, and the man next to him asked, “Paul, doesn’t that keep you awake?” “Well,” Dad replied, “it helps.”
They’d met at a Catholic Newman Club dance in the early 30s. Both were studying at Columbia—Dad working on his Ph.D. in math, and Mom getting a Master’s Degree in Economics. They went out for three years, until as Mom told it, her parents were going on a long trip and her father told Dad that he couldn’t come to her house while her parents were gone—unless the two were engaged. So engaged they became.
Late in her life, while Mom and I were waiting in a hospital for Dad to be brought out of surgery, she talked of the initial years of their marriage. She had often been tearful, even hysterical, fearing that the marriage was doomed, that something was dreadfully wrong. Dad, she said, had been a rock, always patient and loving, always assuring her that she was fine and they would be fine. And he remained patient, loving and positive during those first three years when she’d been unable to get pregnant, while she was bring treated by a fertility specialist in Manhattan, Dr. Berry.
Several times while I was growing up, I accompanied Mom to Dr. Berry’s office. I don’t recall Mom ever telling me what Dr. Berry did or why we were visiting him, but I definitely recall entering his waiting room, with a few to several women sitting there with tension so powerful even I could sense it. Then Dr. Berry would emerge and exclaim, “Ah, Mrs. Clifford, my most successful patient!” I can’t recall if I sensed tension dissipating then or if I simply much later understood that Mom and Dr. Berry were participating in a ritual of gratitude and hope.
Dad was often annoyed with his kids, though invariably compassionate if any were in serious trouble. Mom was generally cheerful, with occasional explosions; she’d become furious that her kids did little or nothing to help around the house. “There’s going to be a New Regime around here!” Mom’s New Regime phase usually lasted no more than a day or two. During that phase Dad made sure that no kid risked further offending Mom and that we volunteered to help with chores.
Mom was a myth-maker, and Dad was an important subject for her myths. During the rise of the Women’s Movement, she told me, “Your father was always ahead of his time. Remember that article I wrote called ‘Mom’s Weekend Off’ when you three oldest kids were little, and he took over.” Actually, he took over for a weekend once. Though, to give him credit, he regularly washed the dinner dishes and cooked Sunday breakfast.
Mom could also be clear-eyed about Dad. In our summer home, he loved being in his workshop, making repairs and using tools (never motorized tools). He once told Mom, “You know, what I’d really like to do is run a junk shop.” “For about two years,” she replied.
Mom seemed to accept their differences without complaint. Dad was a heavy smoker, three packs a day from the time he was sixteen. Mom never smoked a single cigarette. I once asked her why, “It always seemed stupid,” she replied. In her seventies, Mom said lightly to me, “Of course, your father is an unreconstructed chauvinist, but it’s too late to change him.”
As I grew older, I began to realize that Mom was more complex than I’d understood when younger. I’d moved to California in 1967, working as a lawyer for the poor in Oakland. During a return to Old Forge in the mid-70s I spoke enthusiastically with Mom about my Bay Area culture, especially my learning that I could be honest and intimate with truly close friends. Mom, looking at me as if I were distressingly naēve, pronounced, “Denis, everyone’s always wearing a mask.”
Her myth-making was more extensive and mysterious than I’d realized. I doubted that the Upper Montclair she spoke of—a sort of suburban Bloomsbury, full of brilliant, fascinating and yet untroubled adults—really existed. Deeper, several years after my divorce, Dad revealed that Mom was maintaining secret communications with my ex-wife. Mom, unhappy that there’d been a divorce in our family, hoped to restore it (ie, me) to her myth of what a Catholic family should be.
Late in Mom’s life, I learned from Catherine that while at Columbia, Mom was one of the few female graduate students and had been a belle-of-the-ball, for the first time in her life. She was in no rush to become engaged, but Dad had insisted on it. I never learned why Mom chose to create the myth that it was Dad who’d been trapped—well at least pressured—into getting married.
As I grew my forties and beyond, I’d sometimes feel sad that Mom didn’t like me to touch her. Even after she’d relaxed in many other ways, when I’d give her even a gentle shoulder hug she’d freeze, her body tense. Finally, I stopped trying.
Over many years, I slowly realized that Mom told many different stories that all had the same core: “They thought I was nobody, but found out I was somebody.” One form of this was the Frank Lautenberg story. Mom had been one of Lautenberg’s first Democratic Party backers, from his initial entry to elective politics as a candidate for the Senate. Elected, he went on to serve as the long-time U. S. Senator from New Jersey. He retained a fondness for Mom. At various major Democratic Party functions over many years, Mom reported that she was generally being ignored, until Lautenberg came to her, hugged her and exclaimed, “Kay Clifford! I’m one of your biggest fans.” And all around her were impressed—she was Somebody.
As she retold me that story once again, I felt almost embarrassed for her. Why her need to repeat, “They thought I was nobody, but found out I was somebody”? Then, in an atypical flash of intuition, I knew that need was from her childhood, and asked, “Mom, what was it like when you and Parnell skipped two grades?” She explained that Parnell’s mother had taught him and her how to read before they started school, so, when Mom was just not quite seven, they were shot from first grade to third grade (back then, considered an honor). Third-grade math had been difficult for her. Making no school friends, beyond Parnell, had been much worse. “I was always the littlest and the smallest, always left out, never got chosen." I saw how wounded she’d been, and that part of her soul remained traumatized and continued to hunger for acceptance by the In-Group. I said, “That sounds horrible.” She said it definitely had been, then became quiet. So I asked what Parnell had been like and she beamed, and began to tell me Parnell stories.