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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The many names of ‘Mother’

There was only one Mom, but others willingly stood in her place in times of need, J.P. Devine writes.

My real mother was as good a mother as one could hope for. Addicted to shopping, card parties and lengthy phone conversations with her friends, she was the hit of every gathering. “Here comes Vern,” they would say. “Now we’ll have some laughs.” The daughter of a successful Irish immigrant father, she had the gift of gab. Listening was another matter.

Having for 30 years written ad nauseam of my crazy, wonderful birth mother, I thought perhaps this Mother’s Day, I should give some space to those women who came in times of need to fill the empty gaps, when she wasn’t available. I’m sure many of you had one or two. It’s time to remember them. They also serve who simply stand and listen.


At the convent across the street from my house, I discovered my first surrogate mothers. After school and all summer long, a failure at sports, I raked leaves with them in the convent yard, planted flowers and helped them hang their laundry out on the lines. I don’t remember all of their names, but for one.

Rosanna, a tall woman with a Gioconda smile.

At morning Mass and at Friday confessions, Sister Rosanna, who helped me with altar boy Latin, would pluck me out of the line to straighten my tie, fix my collar and most annoyingly, brush my unruly hair out of my eyes.

“Now,” Sister would say, pushing me back in line, “You’re a young gentleman.” I miss Rosanna.

After Mom walked into the brick wall of widowhood and menopause at the same time, followed by the war that emptied her life of five other sons, the gaiety that she was famous for, faded.

Life after that was a grand tour of small apartments. I went to three schools in that time, and there was at each, a loving, receptive teacher to fuss over the little boy with hair in his eyes.


Miss Gorman of the Virginia Avenue School. Young and single, with curly red hair, bright green eyes, horn-rimmed glasses and knee-length stockings. I suspect that after a few years, Miss Gorman went into the convent, because during the schoolyard recess periods, she immediately took to straightening my collar, tying my loose shoelaces, and yes, brushing the hair out of my eyes.

She was my first redhead and set that template forever.


Rita was my favorite sister. She married young to get out of the house and away from fights with my father, who called her “a bird in a gilded cage.”

She was so like my mother. Rita married Arthur, who owned three gas stations. It was an unhappy marriage. I didn’t find out until after her death that she had been a lifelong alcoholic, just like our father.

On hot summer days, I’d sit in her air-cooled basement drinking Pepsi-Cola and telling her stories while she listened to Peggy Lee records and sipped something silvery that I thought was ice water.


Eileen was my oldest sister, a champion swimmer and gifted painter who developed crippling arthritis at age 40 and had to rubber-band the brush to her hand. “Renoir had to do that, you know,” she said. She was right.

I’d visit her often after school and share the family gossip while she painted. Eileen was the very best listener and giver of sage and priceless advice. She died at 55 of breast cancer. Eileen, I miss her.


Mary wasn’t very good at agenting, but she liked the business and she loved actors. She made me come to her office before I met with casting people, and checked me out, brushed my jacket, inspected my fingernails and handed me a comb.

“You have so much hair; keep it combed.” When she discovered I could write, she set me up with a typewriter and desk in her office. I sold my first script option through her. Thank you, Mary.


“When I saw you, I fell in love and you smiled, because you knew,” Arrigo Boito wrote.

And so it came to be that I met She who I thought would be my lover and confidant, partner and co-star. One day, backstage before we went on, she straightened my tie, adjusted my collar, wiped the lipstick from my cheek and yes, brushed my hair back from my eyes.

And the beat goes on.

Happy Mother’s Day to you all.


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