My saintly mother is now the stereotypical Italian grandmother--five-foot-nothing, curly salt-and-pepper hair, with an insidious passion for goading the grandkids into mischievous acts. But when I was growing up, she was part of a network of moms who ruled our neighborhood with steely resolve and bone-chilling voices.
I grew up in the proverbial Projects in L.A., in what was essentially a matriarchal society. Almost none of my friends had fathers, a situation that back then was grim and embarrassing, but today has become trendy and acceptable. I had a father, but for many of my formative years, he was in and out of VA hospitals with World War II-related injuries, so I was basically raised by my mother.
The moms in my neighborhood formed an informal network that helped keep the Good Kids on the straight and narrow and the Bad Kids away from us Good Kids. I was always amazed how even the biggest knucklehead in the world wouldn't talk back to somebody else's mother. They'd cuss out a cop, but when it came to a mom, they'd walk by, head down, speaking only when spoken to.
Discipline was big and it was universal. All the kids knew what kind of disciplinary aid each mother employed. Ruben's mother preferred a belt while Tyrone's mom had a paddleball paddle with holes drilled in it for reduced wind resistance and greater impact.
On those extremely rare instances in my youth where I strayed from my angelic path of righteousness, my mom used The Stick, a three-foot-long wooden dowel from the game of caroms.
(Caroms was a ghetto version of billiards, where one would use the aforementioned stick to knock quarter-sized wooden pieces around a flat wooden board. It was utterly stupid so, naturally, I spent years trying to master it.)
My mom liked The Stick because it would whistle through the air, adding a hint of terror leading up to the blow. And while the dowel was only about a half-inch in diameter, it would raise industrial-strength welts. After a transgression (they were almost ALWAYS misunderstandings), my mom would say, "Go get me The Stick so I can hit you with it." But one time, she was so flustered, she said, "Go get me something to hit you with."
So I brought back one piece of toilet paper, handed it to her and said, "Go ahead, Mom." She put it in the palm of her hand and smacked me across the face.
Wait! I'm not sure if that happened in my life or Bill Cosby's.
One of my favorite moms was my friend Gary's. She bore a striking resemblance to Hattie McDaniel, but none of us was crazy enough to say so out loud. Gary Matthews played 15 years in the major leagues and his son, Gary Matthews, Jr., now plays for the Baltimore Orioles.
Back in the strict social strata of Pacoima, Gary was among the Elite because he lived in a house. It was about a half a block away from the Projects, but it was a house, nonetheless. Big difference.
When he was only 2 years old, Gary's parents piled the family (Gary's brother, Henry, was 1, and Ernest was a newborn) and left Alabama for the Promised Land of Southern California. Somewhere in West Texas, an eastbound truck crossed the centerline and struck the Matthews car head-on. Gary's father was killed instantly, as was the other driver.
Gary's mom suffered a broken back, but somehow managed to scoop up her three babies and walk several miles back to the nearest town. What with their being black and Texas being Texas, no one stopped to help. She got to town and collapsed on the sidewalk. After several months in the hospital, she gathered up her kids and continued west.
She worked two fulltime jobs for as long as I knew her. She almost never got to see Gary play any of his sports, but she always doted on all of us kids when we'd see her. She'd cook for us if we were hungry (and even if we weren't) and make sure we were keeping up with our studies.
Gary got a huge signing bonus after being drafted in the first round by the Giants. He told his mom she could quit at least one of her jobs. She snapped, "Why? Just 'cause you got money doesn't mean I'm going to change the way I do things."
So he offered to buy her a new house and she said, "This is my house. I bought this house! You wanna buy a house, go buy yourself a house."
I loved that woman.
Times have certainly changed. Mothers used to represent home and hearth, a comforting stability even in the most troubling of times. Today, a mother's life is a frazzled lot. They juggle as much and as fast as they can.
The other day I was at the dedication of the new softball field at Amphi High. I somehow got suckered into doing the announcing, so I sat near the end of the bleachers, announcing the players and waiting for my son to wander over after track practice. This woman sitting nearby had not one, but two cell phones and they rang incessantly. After a while, I got the feeling that one phone was calling the other.
Finally, I said, "That's so rude. You've got to turn those things off."
She said, "I can't. They're important. I need them for work."
I said, "Well then, what are you doing here?"
She pointed to a kid on the field and said, "I'm her mother."
I walked away, head down, vowing to speak only when spoken to. But I still wanted to take a bat to those phones.