Jan 10, 2008

Feathers: a eulogy

My mother was born on February 20, 1926 and grew up in Hersheytown. In 1929, she was living in a house on Tilford Road with her mother and her father, Victor and Mary Krancic, and her baby sister, Dorothy, who was two years younger.

In December of that year, on a cold, rainy night, the nearby house that her grandparents, the Seamans, and her mother's eight younger brothers and sisters were living in, caught fire and burned to the ground.

My great Aunt Helen recently told me the story about the fire and how at the age of nine she escaped with nothing but the clothes on her back.

The ten displaced members of the Seaman family stayed with friends in the area for a few days but before long they all were welcomed to move into Victor and Mary Krancic's house on Tilford Road. My mother's brother, Eddie, was born in 1932, which brought to fifteen the number of people living together in the small two bedroom house.

Grandma Seaman died in 1936 and the fourteen remaining family members lived together for many years under the same roof through the Great Depression, World War II and beyond. They all worked different shifts around the clock so that when someone was working, someone else was sleeping. There was always food cooking on the stove and constant activity in the house. It must have been tough, but the stories my mother told me always made it sound like fun too.

She told me about the the yearly ritual of raising and then slaughtering a pig. They would hang it from it's hind legs and slit it's throat, catching the blood in a pot for making sausage. Everyone pitched in and every part of the pig was used to help sustain the family through the winter. Some years were less plentiful than others and my mother said she would always remember the tough winters when they got by on little more than potato soup for long stretches.

They grew fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and ducks. They ate them and their eggs and used their feathers for pillows and comforters.

My mother told the story about how they were sitting around one day stuffing feathers into pillows. Now, there wasn't supposed to be any movement or talking when they did this because the air currents their voices and moving bodies generated would cause the feathers to start floating around. Of course, someone would get the giggles, which would cause someone else to get the giggles and before long everyone would be laughing uncontrollably and the room would fill up with swirls of feathers floating all over the place.

She went to elementary school in Universal and from there went to Seneca High School. Always as slim as a toothpick (in fact her nick name was Toothpick) she blossomed into a beautiful young woman who made her own clothes in the style of the times. She listened to Big Band singers on the radio and became a big fan of Frank Sinatra, whom she saw perform early in his career at the Stanley Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.

An enduring memory for me, and I'm sure for my brother, Joe, and my sister, Marilee, is of my mother's singing around the house when we were kids. She had a rich, powerful voice, an acute sense of pitch and she was clearly talented enough to sing professionally. In fact, she told us how she had considered trying to pursue a singing career.

She told me how she would go for walks in the woods to a stream and stand beside it and sing her favorite songs. One day, unbeknown to her, a friend was hiding in the woods and listening, and forever after when he saw her he would say, "Betty, you should be a singer." It encouraged her and she knew some musicians, but as she told me, "I didn't have the guts."

Instead, after graduating from high school, she got a job at Westinghouse. A little more than a week ago, I asked her how she got the job. She said, "All my friends got jobs right away after high school except me, so I felt lonely. I complained to my mother and she took me on the bus to Westinghouse to apply for a job. They gave me some tests in typing, dictation and shorthand. And then they hired me on the spot. I started the next day."

She moved up quickly from the secretarial pool to personnel and then on again from there. She stayed with the company from 1944 until I was born in 1957. Westinghouse had it's own bus that she would take to and from work. She said she was the only woman on the bus in her early years at Westinghouse.

One memorable story from that era that she told me was about how she dealt with what we now call sexual harassment. The way she told it, this guy, who was one of her superiors, and who was married, would always make unwelcome advances and grab at her, trying to drag her into a cloakroom or a closet.

She said, "So one day, I took a big hat pin to work. And when he came after me, I took out the pin and I let him have it. Then I told him 'And next time, I'm telling your wife.' He never came near me again." Today, we hire lawyers and sue over this sort of thing; my mother's approach seems to be more effective in getting the point across.

During her Westinghouse years, she had an active social life. She went out at night in what was then a bustling Downtown Pittsburgh to hear live jazz and popular singers and even female impersonators.

She traveled to New York City and Florida for vacations with her sister and her friends. And my cousins Butch and Shorty still love to talk about the time when they were teenagers and my mother took them to New York for a vacation.

She bought fashionable clothes from Sak's Fifth Avenue that were sold at Gimbel's Downtown. She told me how upset her mother would get over the money she spent on clothes and shoes. She said, "But I was working and I always gave her part of my paycheck, so I did what I wanted. She would get so mad at me."

In 1955, she married my father, a good looking, local, young entrepreneur who had a few dry cleaning shops in the area. They had been dating for a couple years, going out to dinner, horse races and such.

She became friends with Carol, one of my dad's younger sisters who worked at his shop in Universal near Previc's. My mother told me stories about the fun they had when they would go out together.

Carol recently told me her memories of going to the house that my mother still lived in with her sprawling family on Tilford Road. She said, "Everything was as neat as a pin in your mother's room. Her clothes, her shoes, even her make-up was laid out just so."

In 1959, my mother and father moved with me and my sister, born that year, to the house on Saltsburg Road. My brother arrived in 1961.

We were a fairly normal family in many respects, with a mosaic of victories, disappoints, accomplishments, set backs, and lessons learned and sometimes not learned along the way. We were close-knit and isolated; together and solitary. Through it all, it somehow felt like life's delicate and sometimes scary balancing act always had my mother as a living and breathing safety net.

My mother and father struggled and persevered, and they got really lucky. My dad was driven and my mom, with her thirteen years of Westinghouse experience, managed the all important details like book keeping and accounting and was the sounding board for his efforts. I remember, as a kid, falling asleep to the sounds of their conversations at the kitchen table late at night about my father's ongoing business endeavors.

At times, he sounded unsure of where things were going. But my mother knew how to listen and when he sometimes just needed her to sit and be there with him as he talked his way through his thoughts and frustrations and hopes and desires.

She fiercely defended her children and expected loyalty. She got angry sometimes like we all do, but she was truly forgiving. She was quick to call us on any BS and championed us in our efforts. She did it right up until the end.

She visited my sister when she was in Los Angeles going to college and she visited me in New York and recently in LA too.

I always took my mother to a lot of music concerts. We went together to my first rock concert when I was 14. When she came to New York, I took her to the great rock club, CBGB's, to see the B-52s. A couple years ago we went, along with my sister, to see the Rolling Stones at PNC Park.

In New York, we went to Broadway musicals and Little Italy, museums and botanical gardens, art galleries and Rockefeller Center. We rode subways, buses and in taxis.

At Kennywood, we rode the Steel Phantom, the Racer and the Jack Rabbit together. But she drew the line at the Thunderbolt and refused to go on it.

Two of the great joys in her life were her grandchildren, Alex and Ryan. Despite each of their mounting health problems, she and my dad seemed to spring back to life with their arrivals.

I remember when my dad passed away eleven years ago, on the night that he died, Joe and Ardis came over with the boys. My mom got down on the kitchen floor and played with them like she was a kid too, smiling and laughing. They lifted her up from her sadness and she seemed for a moment untouched by the grief from my father's sudden, irreversible absence.

An ongoing passion that my mother and Marilee shared was traveling to gambling hot spots-- Las Vegas and Atlantic City, especially. They saw dozens of shows-- Tom Jones, Debbie Reynolds, Tina Turner, Engelbert Humperdink and Phyllis Diller, to name a few-- as they bounced from one casino to the next, searching for that elusive, cooperative video poker machine.

In her later years, she would tell me how much she enjoyed watching a movie every night on the Lifetime channel. I asked her why she liked them so much and she said, "Because they're about people with everyday problems that I can understand. I like to watch them work things out."

She also became a fan of Emeril and Nancy Grace. And one of my best and last memories of her occurred a few nights before she went into the hospital. She had been feeling badly since I had arrived earlier in the week and I was worried. But I watched her sitting in her chair that night, smiling and giggling like a school girl as she watched Jay Leno. She was bouncing around, happy and unburdened by her slowly failing body.

The laughter seemed to transform and heal and lift her from her suffering. I kept my eyes on her, wondering if I would ever witness it again, seeing, somehow, a part of her that was still young and vibrant.

The girl in the room with the swirling feathers was laughing again and they rose up and drifted down all around us.