My mother didn’t have a long childhood. The Great Depression didn’t allow it. Her father, a bricklayer, couldn’t find steady work. Her mother couldn’t either; but her biggest financial contribution made up for her not working.
My grandmother would find some desperate Brooklyn landlord and sign a one-year lease with the understanding that the first and last month’s rent would be free. They would get in, then pack up and move out in seven weeks. My mother became used to seeing her family’s furniture on the curb. Ralph, the tired bricklayer, would leave for work from one address and would never be quite sure where his home would be that night. My mother was only seven and her mother would leave her on the stoop of some old brownstone, leave her sitting for hours on the boxes, talking to kids and the cop-on-the-beat. And finally as the shadows lengthened, “Daddy, we’ve moved! Come, I’ll show you.”
She was pretty and she would sing to the cop and the landlord’s agent while my grandfather took his bicycle out of the pile. She danced and was the perfect diversion as he wheeled his ancient track bicycle toward their next seven-week stayover.
One thing that did remain constant for my mom was her love for baseball. She had an empty cigar box that she turned into a treasure chest for anything Brooklyn Dodger-related that crossed her path. The Dodgers were the home team for the girl whose home kept moving.
World War II made it easier for her father to find work, and the small family was able to live at one address for an amazing three-year stretch. During the entire time they lived at that apartment, the electric company got her dad’s first name wrong, never once calling him “Ralph.” But she liked the way the wrong name looked typed out on the bill and my mother kept several of the envelopes in her cigar/treasure box. It was one of the few non-Brooklyn Dodger items in the box.
My mother got married a month after she turned 16 and remained a Dodger fan through two miscarriages. She continued to love the Dodgers despite the annoying realization that the skinny kid she married had more interest in the Yankees, his spot on the rooftop of Belmont Racetrack, and his standing among the other number runners and entry-level-mob-kids than he did for her Dodgers.
The calendar says my mother was 19 on that October day in 1951 when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants destroyed the Dodgers with the “the shot heard ’round the world.” It was, of course, the home run that defeated the Dodger — her Dodgers! — in game three of the first playoff series ever played. What the calendar doesn’t know was that she was six months pregnant with me.
And as the New York Giants celebrated the defeat of the Dodgers, the skinny, horse-playing Yankee fan turned the radio off and said to his young pregnant wife, “Got any ideas of a name if it’s a boy?” And she said she’d like to name me after her father.
“No, we’ll call him ‘Gary’.” And she showed my father the old electric bill envelopes.
Experts call this “children having children.” And some experts would write dissertations that used statistics and observations (both clinical and in the field) to support their theories on what this means to parents, children, and society.
But no one observed my mom teaching me how to cross a busy city street. What would experts say if they saw us trapped and scared on a traffic island?
Are there statistics and theories covering the situation of a 5-year-old boy trying to console his crying mother in 1957 when they got the word that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn?
Could any expert predict or form a theory about my mom’s final rooting-interest?
From their birth, the New York Mets had become her new passion. My father was traveling more and more for business. She needed a partner to add to her pleasure of following the new team. Nothing needed to be said. I got the unspoken message. I began hoarding Met baseball cards.
The Mets were having trouble drawing crowds during their first years at the Polo Grounds. There were tie-ins with various products that sponsored the team: Boxtops, wrappers, and bottle caps could be redeemed for free tickets.
I drank gallons of a watery, tasteless, brown soft drink. My mother’s eyes glowed when she found a market that sold a disgustingly sweet gelatin dessert. I got it every night. She cut the coupons, mailed it all in, and we saw the games. Together.
We moved to a new neighborhood and the men she found to play poker with said the local Scout troops made regular trips to Met games; parents invited. She wanted
me to join the Scouts. I drew the line.
After my father died I stopped drawing lines when it came to the girl who had the shortened childhood. I never lived more than five miles from her oceanfront condominium. Her calendar was my calendar. She’d call me with little shopping lists and errands. “Gary, I have a taste for Halvah and pepperoni today.” My days were hers. My wife was surprised when she got a call from my mother wanting details about her childhood and high school days. She was more comfortable when I explained that my mother wasn’t judging her, but experiencing her. After a while my wife opened up and on one visit I heard them laughing — loud! Of course, they were pointing at me.
My wife began going with me on errands to get little treats for my mom. Sometimes we delivered them together, sometimes I went alone.
And then my mother sent me on my final errand, of course it had to do with baseball.
We owned some property in Florida near the Mets’ spring training complex. One year we had a famous player as a tenant. When the team moved north the ballplayer left behind his address book and a few pairs of his underwear. I cleaned the apartment up. I gave the address book to the real estate lady to forward to the ballplayer. And I agreed with the broker that I should just throw out the ratty briefs. I had more important things to think about.
The girl who was never really allowed a full childhood was in a hospital back in New York, suffering from cancer.
Driving north, I felt I had made a mistake with the ballplayer’s briefs. When I got to her hospital I told my mother what I did with the famous underwear.
“You did what?” she hissed through the pain. “There are morons who will pay a fortune for that kind of crap, if they think it’s real. Damn it to hell, he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. . . .”
My mother sent me to the mall to buy a three-pack of underwear. As instructed I went home and washed them several times to ratty them up a little. I stretched them and gave one a little tear. When I got back to her hospital room, her plan was in motion.
By then she had her radiologist hooked pretty good. She knew his office looked like a mini Dodger/Met museum: signed baseballs, placards, gloves, jerseys, bats. Every item had a little tag of authenticity.
My mother eyed her radiologist the same way her own mother must have sized up gullible landlords and utility company employees 65 years earlier. That doctor may have been her torturer. He may have had the benefit of years of college, med school, and years of feeling that this somehow made him special. But on that day he was grossly outmatched by my mother, her 10th-grade education, and, to a certain extent, me.
“How do I know these are authentic?” He said this while handling the counterfeit underwear.
We showed him the Florida lease signed by the future Hall-of-Famer. We showed him my letter to the real estate lady with the inventory of what the ballplayer left behind. My mother offered to sign a certificate of authenticity as a dying declaration. I offered to take her signature and reached for my notary seal.
“No, I can’t stamp this; conflict of interest.” I used my lawyer voice. “Let me get someone from social services to notarize it.”
We had him. When I got back to the room she had his check for $750.
She gave me the check and sent me out for a container of cherry Italian ice. My mother reminded me to get a wooden spoon. She didn’t have to; I knew she didn’t like metal spoons with an ice.
I think she died while I was in the elevator.
Gary F. Iorio has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. He resides in Montauk and Islip and currently works as a real estate attorney. His fiction, memoirs, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The East Hampton Star.