It’s been just over 14 years since my mother, Buzzy (nee Florence) shuffled off to Valhalla, in her case, a perpetual day at the races where the long shots (gray horses of course) always come out ahead, the trifectas pay out five figures, and the beer is always frosty. To be honest, I don’t think of her much these days but I was sorting through my bookcase when I happened on a photo of us taken a few years before she slid away. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and it got me thinking about all the things I blame her for.
~ ~ ~
A child of the Great Depression whose fireman father died in the line of duty, she left home at fourteen when her mother’s new husband grew too “interested” in her and her younger sister. Armed with only a grade school education she talked her way into a waitress gig at New York’s then-swanky Hotel Pennsylvania. She used her meager wages to support them both, making “poor man’s eggs” (an egg stretched with corn starch and flavored with bacon grease, served with stale bread) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she married my father, a handsome, hotheaded restaurateur, she thought she’d found her fairy tale ending. For a short time they were deliriously happy. Then came four kids, and his passion shifted to gambling, and girlfriends. We lived with the “enemy”, my immigrant grandparents who blamed her for my father’s failings. Since her siblings were either struggling or dead, leaving was out of the question. Pinned down in domestic trench warfare, she still found time to teach me baseball and to instill in me her love books. No Winnie the Pooh in our house; I cut my teeth on Kidnapped and Perry Mason, which explains my fondness for Michael Connelly novels, and gritty crime dramas like Oz, The Shield, and Justified.
|Florence ‘Buzzy’ Spirito|
She ran her house with an iron fist; clean dishes and made beds were mandatory, fast food unheard of. To this day, the only blemish on my record, a single Egg McMuffin consumed in a seriously altered state. If I’m a food snob, it’s all her fault. She taught her four kids to speak their minds, even if it meant upsetting the powers that be, like the time she challenged a school tuition hike by asking the stately Parish Monsignor how many “god damn kids” he was struggling to raise. And she taught me to fight, forcing me to trade blows with the neighborhood bully while she refereed. I was terrified and she knew it but that didn’t matter. That I took up karate instead of golf, I lay on her. She took the holidays seriously, insisting that we scour the Sear’s Catalog before submitting our Christmas lists, and dressing like a swarthy Arab sheik or a crazed Buccaneer for her annual Halloween visit to our classrooms. Her home, a scant half-block from the schoolyard, was a haven for friends and classmates. Everyone was welcome with no exception and only one caveat: her house, her rules, which meant a smack on the ass if you got out of line. She made it her mission to mend torn pants, scraped elbows and broken hearts. She took in stray dogs, wounded birds, lost turtles and even a stolen monkey. She’s have loved Tanner.
When our grandparents banished us from the yard during sweltering NJ summers, she borrowed from strangers to rent a cottage on Barnegat Bay where we could swim and fish in safety. When I started playing basketball she never missed a game, even when if meant a 2-hour bus ride with a team of sweaty boys. We scuffled plenty – mostly over girls and her fear that I might ‘get them into trouble’ – but I loved her to bits and considered her a mentor and friend. By example she taught me to love and respect all women, especially my wife of 25 years, Eugenie, who she adored. After a stroke forced Buzzy (I called her an Old Buzzard and the shortened version stuck) into riding a wheelchair, we’d make a weekly pilgrimage from our Greenwich Village studio to to give her a shower, a beauty treatment and game of gin rummy, or just to sit on her bed holding hands while she watched her favorite cop show.
|with Buzzy and ‘Victory’ circa 1952|