Behind every good man, there's a better woman. But what if the good man is a better woman? Before you jump to any inane conclusions, allow me to explain...
Before you and I, there was Mom. She loves, protects, nurtures and educates us on the rudimentary issues of life; eating, walking, talking, burping, pooping, caring and dying. Oh, and taxes, there's no avoiding that. Some mothers are more involved in those things than others, but for the most part the instincts are there. But when you're a single mother, it becomes an issue of working two jobs, both demanding double overtime.
With Mom, she had to do those jobs for four, plus one more. I was number four, "the baby." I was the baby because I came late in my parents' life, when most parents are eligible to become grandparents. I was the baby because my closest sibling was nine years older than me. I was the baby because everyone got to parade around with me on their hip, or lead me around by the hand as we walked for miles on end.
I was always the baby, because in Mom's eyes I never changed past a certain age. And though that was certainly restricting after I got past a certain age, I see now why she stayed at the same spot with me for so long.
Naturally, being a a single parent implied that one would have to work. Mom had been working since she was nine years old, even while attending school. She did housework and scubbed floors for richer folk until she was encouraged to apply for a job in the cushion room at the Fisher Body plant at General Motors. She became one of the first women to work at General Motors permenently, eventually moving to the assembly line and becoming an inspector. Later she would repeat the first trick by becoming one of the first female plumber-pipefitter-steamfitters at GMAD Tarrytown. She worked for thirty-five years at the plant before it was finally closed for good.
During that time, Mom moved her four children around, from North Tarrytown to Ossining, then Croton-on-Hudson and back to Tarrytown before settling in Wappingers Falls, NY. While North Tarrytown represented a walk down the block to work, Wappingers was a fifty-mile commute one-way. As a young child, I often slipped away to walk down to the plant, landing at the security desk to "pick up my Mom."
As I grew older, I memorized the long trips up and down Route 9 she routinely made to work at any given time, day or night depending on what shift she was working. If it were first shift, Mom would come home in the early evening, ready to either relax and watch TV or cook dinner. If it were second, my youngest sister would wait up late until she came home and they would share some brownies and coffee or milk while catching up on events of the day. If it were overnight, I would sit in her room as she prepared herself for work, then kiss her goodbye on the way out. I was often on my way to school when she got back home, so I wouldn't see her again until after school for maybe a few hours a day.
This went on for all of my life as I knew her, as she did what many single parents have to do. Yet, there always seemd to be an abundance of time...
My older siblings each had a turn in being responsible for "the baby", which later on became "the munchkins" as I was joined by my oldest sister's newborn daughter. My oldest sister Terry was born on March 2, the same birthday as Mom. For this, she was named Terry Jr. Similarities appeared to stop there, however, as Terry Jr. was not as slight as Terry Sr. Not even close. Terry played the big sister in many ways, and certainly fit the part. Terry played bigger than life in everything; loud, boisterous and sometimes perhaps obnoxious. She could be crass and I often wondered if she'd invented foul language. She had as bad a temper as you can imagine for a woman her size, and she ruled with an iron hand... but a gentle heart. Terry contained much of the same sense of style and grace as Mom did, and she commanded attention to the same effect as her mother. Their styles were a generation apart and perhaps the flip notions of each other, but their impact was equally devastating, and equally exhilarating. One of my earliest memories was of me crawling all over my sister as she sat in an easy chair, cradling me in her arms, much like a grizzley bear with a very young cub.
Terry often played the substitute Mom, as it was very easy since both of their names were the same. People hardly ever asked whether Terry were my mother or my sister; whatever paper needed to be signed or chaperoning that Mom herself couldn't do, Terry was Mom Jr. People who did know winked along with us, as they knew what the deal was. My brother, a former body-builder out of the Air Force and the Enforcer of our siblings, often said that Terry was his protector growing up. Terry inherited Mom's dancing skills as she and my big brother often tore up the local parties and discos. And Terry certainly exhibited her protective nature, as alluded to earlier. they amassed a huge collection of records between the two of them. Terry often listened to or quoted specific names, album and song titles or even lyrics. In fact, she amassed a massive quantity of stories and history about our family, our people and our culture. And when she had her first and only child, she nicknamed her after her favorite poet, Nikki Giovanni.
Women ruled the house in my family. From my grandmother, herself an owner and operator of a country inn (The Dew Drop Inn, really!) and a bar & grill, to Mom; full-time mother/plumber/pipefitter/steamfitter and later woman's empowerment activist, to my oldest sister; griot, civil rights activist and advocate for the mentally ill, they all exhibited a strong, full-charge personality that was driven by a purpose only another woman in their circumstance could really understand. But what was absolutely without a doubt evident was the love and devotion they had to their family, especially their children...
(Continued with Mom & Pop Story, Part IV...)