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Mom never tried to cash in her chips for anything

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POSTED April 5, 2013 2:15 a.m.

“Dancing With the Stars” has lost one its biggest fans. Late last month at the age of 96 my mother passed away.

 Born in 1916 – the second of four daughters of illiterate Polish immigrants – my mother was a child of the Depression. Her father died as the result of a coal-mining accident when the youngest daughter was still an infant. My grandmother raised the four girls by taking in boarders and doing laundry. There were no survivors’ pensions or welfare in those days – the only assistance my grandmother received was a pittance from the Church.

 Mom graduated from high school at 16 and went to nurses’ training in Brooklyn at a Catholic hospital. Prior to starting training, my mother had never been any further than 30 miles from her house in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

 Mom joined the war effort in WWII as a nurse and rose to the rank of captain. Her specialty was neuro-psychiatric patients and she had many stories to tell. Her favorite one was about when she was calling roll one day and an enlisted man popped off with, “I’m Joe Banana ma’am, one of the bunch.”

Although my mom was a by-the-books no-nonsense kind of lady, from what I could gather of her time in post-Pennsylvania and prior to marrying my dad she was somewhat of a free spirit. On a New Year’s Eve before she joined the military and after graduating from training, she was on ambulance duty in Manhattan and she redirected the ambulance to Times Square. They drove through Times Square at the ball drop. She always told that story with kind of a mischievous laugh.

 One of the stories which she never chuckled at was the story of how my parents met. During the war, my mother was a nurse on-board ships and my father was in the Merchant Marines as an electrician. They ended up together on a ship and my mom wanted a phone installed in her stateroom.

 My father – God bless his soul – saw this as an opportunity to get to know my mother, so he strung out the process making it seem extremely complicated. When he thought he had pushed the envelope as far as he could, he finally installed the phone. It was only a 45-minute process – if that. My mother was infuriated at the mountain my father had made out of a mole hill, and didn’t talk to him for quite a while. But I reckon eventually they kissed and made up.

 My siblings are eight and 10 years older than I am, so my entrance into this world was quite a surprise. When my mother was pregnant with me, her mother was visiting from Pennsylvania and my mother knew something was up. She assumed she had a tumor and waited until her mom went home to go get it checked out. Well, here that tumor 55 years later, typing this tribute to her.

In 1966 when we moved to Redding from Eureka, my dad received a promotion so my mom decided to retire from nursing. That only lasted a matter of months until the Nuns from the local Mercy Hospital came to my classroom asking if any of our moms at home were nurses because they needed nurses at the hospital. I caught hell at home for raising my hand, but that was the beginning of nearly 30 years at Mercy-Redding as a night nurse and eventually night supervisor.

 I played football for eight years, and my mother made every game – from Eureka to Yreka to Chico to Paradise. Rain, cold, wind, heat or fog, it didn’t matter. She would try to make it to most of my other athletic events as well. One day I was running an 880 – coming into the home stretch and winning by a considerable margin – when my mom was walking into the bleachers. I hollered “Hi mom,” and she responded with “What the hell are you doing?” I told her, “Gotta go.” She later said she thought I was losing by a wide margin, not winning.

When my dad died in 1984, my mom went into a slump that lasted a few years. I did what I could during that time to minimize her pain, but it just didn’t work. When she finally emerged from her funk a few years later, she emerged stronger than ever. She eventually retired from nursing and volunteered at a Catholic thrift store, joined the Red Hat Society, the Friendship Club and played canasta once a week. She maintained this schedule up until about three weeks before her death. And I can’t write about her without mentioning her love of casinos. I will never be able to go into the Indian casino in Redding again, that’s for sure.

 A long-time garage sale aficionado, putting my mother in a thrift store was like the fox guarding the hen house. She eventually became “The Lady of the Buttons.” She would bring home clothes that did not sell and remove the buttons which would be sold at the thrift store – either in small packets for use or large glass bottles for decoration. I cannot count the number of times she would tell me on the phone, “You would not believe what they gave me to take the buttons off of! Do you know anybody that wears a (insert size here) shirt? I just can’t bring myself to throw this away.”

 My mother was hospitalized for nearly two weeks before her death. A few days into her stay, a mistake was made and I chose not to make a stink – I would do that after her discharge. However, when her surgeon saw what had happened he came unglued and before I knew it I had multiple administrators trying to rectify the wrong. My request was simple – when a private room became available, move my mom into it. They assured me that would happen.

 Assurances are not guarantees, and that night a room opened up and the staff was reticent to move her. Well, eventually she was moved – and it was done with a little bit of commotion. As the dust settled, she looked up at me and asked, “You didn’t pull rank to get me in here, did you? I don’t want to get in any trouble.” I assured her that would not happen, and that all would be fine.

 That is how she was. She never tried to cash in her chips for anything – she just wanted to make sure that everyone around her was taken care of. She kept trying to get me to leave the hospital in her final days because I had to be tired. Well, I could never be too tired for her.

 If there is a heaven, I am sure she is there, playing cards and drinking her “special coffee” (code for a little coffee and a lot of Kahlua!) Enjoy yourself mom- you deserve it.  


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