Right across from Riverside Church and at the crest of a hill that slopes down to the river is a small stone monument surrounded by an iron-spike fence. It dates to 1797 and is inscribed to the memory of “An Amiable Child,” who died in that year at the age of four. Perhaps he had lived —- and too soon died —- in what had been a gloriously rolling and sylvan setting overlooking the Hudson. That was my neighborhood, too, though now it is building-crowned and scant green except for that exciting hill.
I first came across the monument more than 70 years ago on a walk with my mother. When I inquired as to what was written, she told me that a small child, slightly younger than I, was buried there. She went on to add that the child had been killed playing on the railroad tracks down by the river. The devious editorializing on her part must have risen from her knowledge — or uncanny sense — that I had sometimes joined some friends down along the Hudson. To get to the rocky embankment, we would tear down the hill and dash across a couple of lines of railroad tracks; once we got to river’s edge we would allow our feet to get wet or throw rocks at the rats or simply sit and watch the filth and the deflated white balloons float away in random swirls.
The monument took on new meaning, and I think we became more careful when crossing the tracks. In recent years on infrequent visits to the old neighborhood, I have looked upon it with whimsy and, I suppose, a bit of gratitude. The kids and I were spared that awful fate.
And right about that same age when I had yet to learn to read, there was a parish bazaar. When the major drawings of the event were to occur, I had sidled up to the stage/dais. Perhaps because my mom was a widow or even because there was something cute about the young brat that lived in the building next to the church, I was asked by a parish priest to pull the winning ticket for a turkey dinner from a basket. I recall loving the singularity and the excitement and the reaching in and the pulling out of a slip of paper —- and my confusion when I looked at it because I could not read what it said! That big, burly, cigar-smoking, lumber jacket-clad priest, Father Byrne (“Beefy” was our nickname for him), took the ticket from my hand and read aloud to the waiting crowd: Mrs. Murphy is the winner!
My mother was a round and wonderfully maternal woman who, I would learn later in life, was the envy of some friends of mine because she was “so motherly.” A Brooklyn girl with scant education, she had “the voice of a lark” (so said an elderly beau) and a flair for writing (this in spite of being a grade school dropout). She didn’t actually write stories, she told them. I was born at the end of the Depression as a result of a surprise pregnancy. What stories she had about that! She once told me that her kindly doctor had offered advice on abortion when her late-in-life pregnancy was discovered. It was feared that the family troubles of the time and the disparity in age between the elder three siblings would create insurmountable troubles. Stories about those days and that decision would come in much later years.
She was the one, however, who had told me about the trumpet-bearing angel that stood atop the northern apse of Riverside Church —- the angel that would sound its horn on Judgment Day. I have since learned that very few parents mentioned things like “Judgment Day” to wee ones, but I grew up thinking everybody knew about Judgment Day. Maybe it was used like the railroad track story — to create fear. I can even remember a conversation where a brother described it and said that we’d be in the fifty-thousandth row and when God mentioned what I had done my mother would turn around and slap me. They all laughed, but the idea stoked a little flame of fear in me.
We lived in a railroad flat with rooms that opened along a long hall. My brothers had the back room, the next two bedrooms were for renters, and there was a larger bedroom that my mother, sister, and I shared between the kitchen and the living room. There was one bathroom.
My brothers, much older than I, actually grown men as far as I was concerned, were always respectful but could swear once in a while. In such crowded circumstances one could understand this, I suppose. My mother had warned them, though, that any son who swore at his mother would be struck dead. She even added the strange story of a boy who raised his hand to strike his mother, who was also struck dead. And when he was buried the damning arm kept rising from the grave.
On one occasion she came home from work and found that nothing had been done for dinner. Sadly, my much older sister was a role model for laziness for me, and she and I had done the nothing; the brothers, having worked all day, were in the back room studying (both were on the G.I. Bill). With weariness and a touch of drama, my mother commenced a lament that I can hear to this day. I go to work and I go to the stores and the table’s not set and the dinner’s not started and, and, and. . . . And then she repeated the lament, adding even more drama. And, and, and. . . . Just as the drama pitched higher, there was a shout from the back room. For God’s sake, will you drop dead.
And then there was the sound of a loud thud. Leaping from the books or our idle backsides, all ran to their respective doors along that long hall and looked in the direction of that thud. There lying on the floor in the light spilling from the kitchen was my mother’s large and loving form. A mound of quivering, laughter-shaking flesh. She’d show us. . . . But she was holding her nose to keep the giggles contained.
So many mother-spawned stories from those years. She told them — or generated them. That last one was told so often that later listeners actually placed themselves in the doorways in the retelling! There were people she took in, boarders or roomers; the extra meals that she’d set out for someone in need and her whispered “F.H.B.” (family hold back) as we sat down to eat; the blanket (mine) that she gave away; the clenched fist with the “You’re gonna get it” look (at me), the songs. These are Mother’s Day memories and thoughts. To name but one more, she told me to use cold cream every day and wrinkles will not come.
That “amiable child” died of influenza; there were no trains that century. I had always meant to ask that priest if Maggie Murphy’s name was really on that ticket. I still don’t know what’s going to happen on “Judgment Day.” (Maybe I can ask Father Byrne about the ticket then.) I inherited her wrinkles.
Gert Murphy, a member of Montauk Writers and the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, is a retired public school teacher who lives in Montauk.