by Julie Penny
My mother’s name is Grace. She is our “Amazing Grace.” Still as sharp as a tack.
This July we celebrated her 90th birthday. Along with those near and dear to her, we took her to her favorite restaurant, the Dockside, across from the Marina. Her other favorite place is Conca D’Oro because the tomato sauce there tastes like her own and her mother’s who came from Sicily—from the same area that the owners of the restaurant do.
The two women who run the Dockside said they hardly ever get people coming in to celebrate their 90th birthday, the only other having been former NY Governor Hugh Carey. So my mother is in good company. I don’t know how youthful Governor Carey looks, but my mother sure doesn’t look her age, more like 80, so the waitresses teased her about showing her I.D.
After seating her at the head of the table I slipped a necklace over her head adding it to the two sentimental favorites she was wearing. It was a Fourth of July necklace made of red, white and blue plastic stars that lit up. I bought it at our five and dime store. The instant I saw it I knew she would love it. When I got its red stars blinking we laughed uproariously; everyone at the table did. Knowing my mother’s sense of humor and whimsy, it was the perfectly silly, yet wonderful gift for making it to 90. Especially for someone born so close to Independence Day.
Earlier in the day our friend, Jean Held, had been talking to me about a scene she had come upon in the city a few years ago, a crew from some TV network randomly stopping “gray-haired” people on the street and asking them questions like: “What’s surprised you the most in your life?” “What was your biggest disappointment?” “Do you remember your first job?” “Your first airplane flight?” Given my mother’s age, Jean was curious as to how my mother would respond to such questions. I told her my mother would certainly remember her first job because that was the night she met my father.
I didn’t realize that Jean had gotten around to asking my mom one of those questions. It was during a quiet moment on the porch while people were still coming back to the house from the restaurant for the birthday cake and further celebration; it was just she and my mother at the time.
I would not have known about their conversation if my mother hadn’t brought it up the following day over morning coffee. She told me that Jean had asked her what had “surprised” her most in her life. The incident she related to Jean was about a hot summer night in the 1940’s when she was quite pregnant with me. My parents were living on “Pleasant Avenue” between East 119th and 118th streets one block in from the East River. It was a close-knit Italian neighborhood that spanned ten blocks. A place that was safe, where everyone looked out for one another and you could leave your doors unlocked.
When she began re-telling her story I could visualize it well because we lived on the top floor of that same building, a 4-story walk-up, until I was nine years old. I have a vivid recollection of that apartment and the very wide avenue it overlooked.
“It was a hot August night. So hot I couldn’t sleep. I got up with my big belly—I was pregnant with you—and went over to the window by the fire escape and stuck my head out. It was so still there wasn’t a breeze in the air. I stared out over the street and all the windows were dark. The neighborhood was so still; nothing was moving; very, very quiet.
Windows were open because we didn’t have air conditioning in those days, and I’m just looking out there enjoying the quiet. The stillness is what really affected me”
She paused, “And all of a sudden, I saw a person across from me, down below, and her head stuck out the window and she said—not very loudly—She said it like this,” and here my mother’s voice grew hushed in imitation, “ ‘Hey, did you hear? The war is over.’ ” My mother’s voice broke and she paused again, her eyes filling with tears in the telling, as did mine in the listening. She composed herself and went on—“Well, the moment that voice sounded, pandemonium broke out. All the windows were open and you could hear the news spreading from one apartment to the next, ‘Hey, did you hear, the war is over.’
“You don’t know what it was like, those years” she said emphatically with a new flush of emotion, “so many boys from our neighborhood were in the war, so many had been killed…” She choked up again. At the time of the event she was talking about, even her own brother, Jack, was still away in the Pacific Theatre.
“Then everyone started coming out of their houses, they went out into the streets. Everyone was happy and singing—” She started to cry—“I can’t even talk about it—“ but she continued anyway—“and hugging one another, dancing; it was such a revelation; it was a scene I’ll take to my grave…It was just wonderful…” She blew her nose with a tissue, and so did I. She had told me that story once before. It gave me goose bumps then. It was giving me goose bumps now. When I spoke to Jean the following day, she’d reacted the same way—it had given her chills.
In the family constellation and as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to consider the timing of my sister’s birth and of my birth as a kind of parenthesis enclosing the span of World War II. My sister was born at the beginning of the war and I was born at its close. We bracketed its duration. I am glad I was the child closest to my mother’s beating heart the moment that she learned the war had ended.
I’m glad that Jean asked her that question, so that my mother retold it to me. It prompted me get my video camera and start filming what I hope will be a series of oral histories of her experiences and the world events she’s lived through. We’ll sit and watch them all together for her 100th birthday.
Julie Penny is a writer and editor living in Noyac.