One of the best things I discovered in my 50’s was acceptance for my mom. Growing up Rita challenged my sensibilities and sanity on a regular basis. She was the most unconventional mom in my circle by light years. Finding acceptance took compassion and time.
Rita was a single mom who’d lost a few of her marbles in childhood. She had a chronic habit of losing jobs. These facts may have fueled her carefree attitude toward theft. Rita had a variety of targets. Her favorite was my father’s brother Tony because he managed my dad’s money. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, you could charge things without a credit card if you, or someone with the same last name, were a regular customer. She took full advantage of this perk when she bought me clothing. I have an icy memory of standing too close to the walnut trimmed glass display case in the children’s department at Saks Fifth Avenue. I could hear my mom saying, “Charge it to Anthony Math” as if she was asking for eggs.
I usually hid from these exchanges by walking inside one of the circular clothing racks and taking a seat on the base. They made me very nervous because I’d had my First Communion the year before, and “Thou shall not steal” was fresh in my mind. Also, we were caught once or twice and I was branded with humiliation. The sales ladies loved waving the-upper-hand on my mom who was stylish and beautiful. They’d give us the news with a tone of voice meant to cut us down. If my mom was upset, she never showed it. You could have dragged me like a wet mop all the way to the elevator.
I’m a little proud of this next deception because it nearly almost a year. Rita opened a charge account at the dry cleaners across the street, using a relative’s name. She sent EVERYTHING there, including our jeans. They came back stiff, with perfect creases down the front and back of the legs. They looked like robots.
This next crime tops my list of childhood humiliations because it was so public and my mom was caught. My best friend Leslie and I had summer jobs at her uncle’s amusement park in Lake Placid NY. My parents decided to visit us. We lived in a one-room basement apartment furnished with single beds, a night stand, and a trunk for our turntable. When Rita looked around, her only concern was our lack of utensils.
We all had dinner that night in a small Italian restaurant. As soon as the host sat us, my mom swept all four sets of flat ware into her purse. My father made a mild attempt to stop her by offering, “Rita, what are you doing?” Nothing more. Leslie thought that snatching the flatware was funny. Our First Communion didn’t have the same impact on her.
I sat with an anxious stomach and let my chicken parmigiana chill, certain the manager would catch her. Everyone else dug in happy and carefree. My dad asked me why I wasn’t eating. My mom was considering swiping the salt and pepper shakers. I wasn’t sure who to address first, so I gave them both my fiercest dirty look. From my dad, “Alright, alright.” and from my mom, a hand in the air, “Ok, Ok.”
As we walked out of the restaurant, the manager asked my mom to give the flat ware back. She did. Mortified isn’t a word people use much these days, but it is the best word to describe how I felt.
The list of my mom’s petty crimes is long. These days my aunts and I laugh about her escapades because they were so outrageous. Now, I like to think she was a wacky Robin Hood and not a petty thief because she gave things away as easily as she took them, and she always championed the underdog. Two of her brothers and one of her sisters lived with us when they were struggling teenagers. This is significant because she was a single mother in her twenties, always strapped for cash. As adults we try to make sense of our parents so we can right the wrongs in our minds, but my mom doesn’t need a new narrative only my acceptance and willingness to find the crumbs of humanity in her misdeeds.