Memories of Mom – Chicken Soup Days

Most people remember my mother as a sometimes intimidating corporate director figure who was also generous to a fault. She worked many years to get to that point though and she showered her family with lavish Christmas and birthday gifts. But before she ‘made it’ in the corporate world, back in 1983-1984, she was a struggling single mom working long, long hours to try to support two kids without any child support from my deadbeat alcoholic father. I loved my dad, but that is how things were and how he was.

Circa 1980 or 81 before the split

1980? Before we moved to Ohio.  My mom, her mom, my sister and I before the split.

My middle school years were punctuated with memories of cold dark holidays and barely getting by. My mom kicked my dad out of the house when I was 13. She came home from a business trip to find my dad passed out at the kitchen table of our small rental house in a pile of beer cans and a rifle pointed at me and my sister. That was it for her. Done, fini, terminado.. whatever. Eventually my dad retreated back to his home state of Missouri and my mom was left with one less ‘kid’ to take care of but also one income. Though if my memory serves me correctly my dad had by then quit or gotten fired from his job as an alcoholic (I know ironic right?) counselor from the County Health Department.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after my father parted, my mom couldn’t afford to take us up to Youngstown to spend the holidays with her parents and siblings so we stayed at the dark, depressing rental house but she had found enough money to buy an off brand turkey and the fixings. She was humming as she fixed up the turkey and slid it into the oven announcing that we would soon be eating our fill of delicious turkey. We started waiting for the roasted aroma to waft to our anxious noses but we never smelled anything. She went into the kitchen and opened the oven door.

“Oh No!” She exclaimed. “The oven isn’t heating right.” Not knowing what else to do, she literally cooked the turkey for hours at the lukewarm temp since a call to the landlord who briskly told her it wouldn’t be until tomorrow before he could fix the oven. Basically we pretended the half raw turkey was great only eating the most cooked parts while praying we didn’t get sick. I think it was one of the saddest holidays I’d had other than the ones after her death.

At this time, designer labels were all the rage and I had none really. I got made fun of at school for having ‘bobo’ or non-designer label clothes. We simply couldn’t afford them. My grandparents had tried to help out but there was no way my penny-pinching grandmother thought it was worth the money to have a pony on my jeans’ pocket. These jeans at Kmart are just as nice. I just smiled and agreed because otherwise, I would have no new school clothes at all. My grandparents sent me home from summer break with some new clothes and a pair of Nike’s with a baby blue swoosh. I was so proud of those tennis shoes that I probably used several bottles of white shoe polish trying to keep them looking almost new. I only had 3-4 pairs of jeans to my name so on Wednesdays, I had to wash a load of dark clothes so I had enough clean clothes to make it through the week. The re-wearing of the same jeans in one week also brought down the fashion police on me and I was tormented over that as well but again, I couldn’t help it.

My grandparents also sent home several cases of Campbells Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup cans. I often wondered why they didn’t send us home with different kinds but it seemed like we were living on this soup that one year. My grandmother wanted to make sure her grandchildren didn’t starve to death and I guess as long as we had soup, we would live. We were old enough to use a can opener, add a can of water, stir and heat. There were also a lot of TV dinners as well. Though I still love TV dinners once in awhile though their appeal isn’t as great as when you’re 13 and you’re digging into half-cooked chocolate cake ensconced in its own square of your disposable tray.

Once my parents’ divorce was finalized in early 1984, when I was 14, (stop counting to see how old I am- stop it!) the darkness started to lift from our lives. My mom traded in her 1979 Ford Pinto on a brand new Ford Fairmont which we thought was just the shit. Though it was rear wheel drive and mom had a hell of a time getting to work and back in the winter. I think about her on those cold freezing winter mornings and evenings because she would work incredibly long hours, driving alone praying she stayed on the road and the car made it in the frigid temperatures. We had no family close. But we did have some friends through her workplace, now my workplace as well, and some of those friends still work with me. So we were blessed to have a support system.

The Ford Fairmont Circa 1988

The red Ford Fairmont circa Christmas 1988 at my Grandparents (in middle)

My mom was incredibly brave when I think about it. She just did it, she had no choice. But once the weather started to get nicer and she got her financial feet under her, we moved to a townhouse in the next town which was much bigger than our current one. My sister had to switch elementary schools but I don’t think she minded. I missed having a yard but not the landlord beating on the door scaring the crap out of us. I remember weekend day, my mom kept the curtains drawn and told us to keep quiet. A car pulled into our driveway and she told us to hide in our tiny bedroom closet. We could hear the landlord out there bellowing “ANITA! I NEED THAT RENT MONEY! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!”. Finally he left after what felt like an eternity. We slipped out of the closet and I will never forget the sight of my mom climbing out of her blanket chest in her bedroom. That stuck with me until this day and I still have that same chest.

She had to not pay the rent I think to be able to move us to a less expensive but nicer townhouse in what is essentially now my daughters’ and I’m hometown. However positive the move was, there were some casualties that absolutely broke my heart. She had to give away our Shih Tsu mix dog I had for years, Boomer, because the townhouse had a no pets policy. Then she had to sell her Baldwin spinet piano. I just remember crying myself bleary eyed when each one left. Before Boomer left, I think she took him to the humane shelter, I took a small Avon box that had housed a ring I loved and lost while still living in Missouri, and I cut a lock of his dark grey hair to put in that box. After we moved, when I missed my doggie, I’d pull that out and touch the fur. And cry. But never in front of my mom, I knew she had no choice. Now I have a Baldwin piano and a shih tsu mix dog… I guess you can say I came full circle when I was able to afford to do so.

My last birthday in that rental house, my mom couldn’t afford much. I would have been turning 14 and I was a huge fan of Garfield. She found these plastic drinking cups with the cartoon cat on them. I still have one of them tucked away in my keepsake boxes. She did her best with what she had. To this day, I still appreciate all she did for us.

While my youth wasn’t ideal, I learned how to fend for myself, I started to teach myself to cook after we moved into the townhouse. I would pull down my mother’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and just follow a recipe. Sometimes she would help me on things I couldn’t understand or didn’t get from reading a recipe. Before we moved, I had started learning how to fix my own bike with tools my dad left behind. I could tear a ten-speed apart and put it back together and adjust the shifting until it was smooth as butter. I also learned how to fix some minor electrical issues, how the breaker box worked, how to do some oddball plumbing fixes because my mom was afraid of the landlord and didn’t want him in the house. That house eventually fell in on itself, the roof collapsing and now it’s simply an empty lot. It’s better as an empty lot.

Every time I see Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, I think of those dark days. I think about how much my life has changed in all those years. I am grateful that we made it, for the help we had along the way, for my mom’s tough spirit that kept going no matter what. I am grateful I didn’t grow up to be a helpless girl, that I wasn’t afraid to fix it myself or dive in when I needed to. Now I’m spoiled because my husband does a lot of this stuff and is better at it than me, but I don’t walk around afraid that if down the road, if I were to be on my own for whatever reason, I’m not helpless.

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My mom Christmas time 1987 – Our last in a rental – the townhouse

I have my mom’s fiery, determined spirit.

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New Blog Series – Memories of Mom – Introduction

I've been tooling around the idea of capturing memories of my mother who passed away in 3/2014 in a blog series, mostly to capture them for later use and I've found as I get older, I tend to forget more and more details. I had considered just putting them down into a Word document journal fashion but this way I can share these memories (good and bad) with other people who loved my mom, like my daughters, other family and close friends. The posts won't be in any chronological order and I will probably be guessing at the general date of occurrence and honestly, our memories aren't the most reliable so it may not be exactly accurate but simply the way I remember things occurring.

My mom's name was Anita Marie and she was born on Christmas Day 1941. After 8 years of bravely fighting cancer, she went to Jesus as they say, at age 72 just shortly after my daughters, husband and I's birthdays in February 2014. In 1970 she gave birth to me, the fabulous oldest child and in 1972, to my sister who ruined my only child gig (just kidding). My parents were married in Washington DC, the city in which they met, on February 18, 1966, and they split up in early 1983 following years of abuse due to my father's raging alcoholism and what I believe was mental illness stemming into paranoia schizophrenia later in his life. My father passed away in 2002. The divorce was final in 1984 and my mother never received any child support from Dad. So she ended up working long, long hours to barely support us.

Her parents helped us out from time to time financially and such, but only when my mother was desperate because she hated asking them for help. I'm sure knowing my grandmother, it was held over her for marrying such a worthless piece of trash (my grandmother's words) not realizing my mother had been more than punished for her choice. My mom wouldn't have had any idea my dad would end up being an alcoholic when they got married. He was handsome and very charming. The thing was, when the pressure of life came down on him, he couldn't cope and turned to alcohol. Maybe this was part of his growing mental illness.

Back in the 1970's, you didn't get a divorce, it was shameful and against her faith. Though had she divorced him early on when the drinking and abuse started, I think maybe she wouldn't have killed herself working so hard and maybe met another man who treated her better. By the time she got away from him, she was done with marriage and close romantic relationships. If she dated, she kept it quiet for the most part. She was just too afraid that she'd make a wrong choice and someone else would make her life a living hell. She never deserved what my father did to her regardless of the reason.

I get some religions' idea of the sanctity of marriage and you should stay married since this was done in the eyes of God, but I don't get why it would be upheld in the face of physical, mental, verbal and emotional abuse. Why weren't these men (and women in some cases) held accountable for their actions instead of excused back then? I have a hard time believing God would condone that kind of treatment of anyone and I'd think he'd given my mom a pass. As I think back, people excused my father's alcoholism, trying to hide it because it was embarrassing as if they didn't call attention to it, then it would go away but it only got worse. Using religion to trap women into horrific marriages was criminal.

Oh, poor, Larry, he struggles so much. Oh bullshit, he should have been held accountable for his actions. I loved my dad but I think he should have been in jail for the physical violence and domestic abuse to my mom and also to my sister and I on a smaller level. Unfortunately, this all happened before the domestic violence laws were established. Even today, it happens all the time. Don't stay, get the hell out and get safe. This person may love you and you love them but you don't deserve that kind of terror, pain and abuse. It is their responsibility for getting well and if they refuse to do it, then you don't have to stay with them and be a victim. Stop this shit! And honestly, some people just can't get well or we don't have the ability yet to treat whatever is going on with them which I believe many times stems from mental illness that has just now started to come into the light.

Anyway, my mom's life wasn't always easy and she spent 29 years working herself into the grave essentially with all the stress and long hours. The problem with the way she coped with the stress, was by smoking and drinking too much (until she quit smoking in 2000), and her health took a serious hit. People wonder why I don't want to rush into a high pressure job because I could easily be good at more than what I do for a living, this is why. Life is too damned short and I don't want to make it shorter if I can help it. I still may get hit by a bus crossing the street, but I just saw how unhappy my mom was in the midst of all that stress and I just could never bring myself to go there. I think my husband would be happier if I made more money and worked some high-powered job but I wouldn't be happy at all. I'd rather do with less than kill myself the way my mom did.

On a happier note, my mom was resilient and she found joy in many things especially her three granddaughters. Though I regretted my first marriage and having kids so young, it worked out the best because they had more time with their grandmother. My mom was always a survivor, a fighter and she always wanted to see you do your best and get what made you happy. She spoiled the girls, with the kind of Christmases she couldn't give my sister and I when we were younger. She had a strict work ethic and liked to do things by the book so her job in quality assurance kept with her personality. She loved Tennessee and while she only lived in Knoxville for a few years before my dad's alcoholism forced us to move to Missouri near his parents in the late 1970's, we returned most years starting in 1997 for spring break vacations which gave us many happy memories.

Mom and Corrinne on 1997 Tennessee Trip

My mom lived modestly even though she could afford a more lavish life because she was terrified of being poor again. She sunk back literally almost a million dollars in 30 years in investments which would have been more if not for that market downturn. I've always regretted she didn't spend more of her money on herself but she did what she wanted to do, which was pass on a safety net to my sister, my daughters and I. She didn't want us to ever have to live off of cases of Campbell's chicken noodle soup my grandparents brought to help us get through the leanest times right after her divorce.

Though growing up in the 1980's where designer jeans and such were the metric in which your worth was determined in school (and I fell way short because I didn't have most of these things), I never felt poor. We had enough to eat, we had the three of us (my mom, my sister and I) and we were making it day by day. Actually it was a source of pride for me. I was 13 when my parents split up and I had long been taking care of myself admist the chaos of dysfunction but once my dad left, it quieted down considerably and I stepped up to do what I could to help my mom. When we had plumbing issues in our rental house and the landlord couldn't get to it right away, I found my dad's toolbox and fixed it myself.

I took over being the 'housewife' because my mom had to work such long hours to support us. A lot of times I did the cooking and cleaning, making sure we were all fed. This gave me a sense of accomplishment that I never resented. No I didn't have much of a childhood and was bitter and angry about it for many years until I realized it helped make me who I am today. There isn't much I can't do or learn to do. I can take care of myself and I've passed this down to my daughters who are also very independent. My mom and I became this team, even working together for about 13 years until she retired. I also looked after her during her cancer (along with my daughters and husband) fights. I was there beside her when she passed, holding her hand. My mom was not only my parent, but my best friend. And when she got more sick, the tables turned and I took on the role almost of parent to her, though god knows, she fought me on damned near everything until the last few weeks.

Losing her was the most devastating thing in my life so far. She was so influential (good and bad) in my life. I walk around some days still, pretty lost, wishing I could call her or go over to her house, to sit on the couch and eat some dinner she put together. Though I hate shopping, I'd give anything to have her drag me around the mall and Kohls for long hours again thinking how bad my feet hurt. Or when I went to her house when she was still working in that jungle of her gardens, to have her walk me around her yard to show me what she weeded or what flowers were blooming. I notice when I visit my oldest daughter's house, we do this as well. Walk around to see what she's planted or is blooming and vice versa when she visits me. But this seems to be a family tradition, because all the women on my mom's side of the family garden and we all walk around the beds admiring their handiwork.

My mom was tough but she loved even tougher. She was always in my corner even though I made two poor marriage choices and divorces. She looked out for my girls, being more a parent to them than a grandparent. They spent their school years walking to Grandma's house after school because her house was closer to the different school buildings especially once my oldest daughter was of age to watch them and we no longer needed a sitter. She'd buy snacks to keep in the house for them as they huddled up at her house doing homework, playing video games and watching tv, until we came home from work together. Sometimes we would stay and eat dinner together at her house. I'm grateful my girls have so many wonderful memories and had so much time with their grandmother. She helped shape them into the amazing women they are today.

So in closing, I look forward to bringing different memories of my mom to my blog. My mom was so influential and so much a part of our lives, that this is a way for me to feel closer to her. It's always a good way to get these memories down before I forget them. I can't think of the times I wished when my family had told me stories, I had jotted them down because you do forget. Not all of the stories will be positive, but life isn't all good. Though I think I will dwell more on the positive than negative. I prefer to keep the happy memories close and let the painful ones drift into oblivion of the forgotten. Though the good times wouldn't have been so important without the bad times. C'est la vie.