One of the best things I discovered in my 50’s was acceptance. Growing up, my mom challenged my sensibilities and my sanity on a regular basis. She was the most unconventional mom in my circle, by light years. Finding acceptance took creative thinking (thank you mom), compassion, and time.
Let’s start with the fact that she was a real life petty thief. She regularly charged things to other people. Her favorite targets were my father’s brother Tony and random uncles in her family. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, you could charge things at certain stores with the mere mention of a name. My mom bought me outfits at Saks Fifth Avenue and charged them to my Uncle Tony. No questions asked. One day she summoned the name Henry Ford at Bergdorf Goodman, and I froze. Even at the age of eight, I knew this was risky. Henry Ford was her great-uncle, and we never saw him so I didn’t think it would work. I wondered if he was even alive. It worked.
I’m kind of proud of this next crime. In high school, my mom opened up an account at the dry cleaners across the street, using a relative’s name. She sent EVERYTHING there to be cleaned. I am surprised our jeans never cracked. They came back with perfect lines down the front and back of our legs. She got away with this for a year. That’s a pretty good run.
Her most brazen theft took place at a small Italian restaurant in upstate New York. I had a summer job with two friends at their uncle’s amusement park. We lived in a one-room basement apartment furnished with two single beds, a night stand, and a trunk for our turntable. When my mom saw the place, her only concern was our lack of utensils.
As soon as the host sat us at a table in the center of the room, my mom swept four sets of flat ware into her purse. My friend thought it was funny. Me, not so much. The best my dad had to offer was, “Rita, what are you doing?” 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. After a few hearty bites of his veal piccata, my dad asked me, “Why aren’t you eating?” My mom was considering 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 of 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.