One of the best things I’ve found in my 50’s is acceptance of my mom. Growing up, Rita challenged my sensibilities and sanity on a regular basis by being lawless and the most unconventional mom in my circle by light years. Appreciating her took a long time and a lot of compassion.
Rita was a single mom with no appreciation for rules, a carefree attitude about money, and a chronic habit of losing jobs. I believe her first crime was sneaking out at night with her parents’ car when she was twelve.
One of Rita’s favorite dupes was my Uncle Tony because he managed my dad’s (her former husband) money. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, you could charge things at certain department stores without a credit card if you, or someone with the same family name, were a regular customer. She took full advantage of this perk in the children’s clothing department of Saks Fifth Avenue.
These illegal shopping sprees were hard on my head. I was a high-strung child with no stomach for rule breaking. Plus, the commandment “Thou shall not steal” circled my brain like a shark thanks to a Catholic school education that included mass in the chapel every week. I usually hid inside a circular clothing rack and sat on the metal base until she flushed me out with a you’re-gonna-get-it voice.
One day I happened to be standing next to my mother when she tried to charge a pile of winter clothes to my uncle. It was the day she lost her charging privileges at Saks. The sales lady, once bright and servile, delivered the news with a tone meant to cut us down. It worked on me. Covered in humiliation, I fixated on the charms in the display case like they were shooting stars. Without a word, my mom took my hand and ushered me to the ornate elevator doors. You could have dragged me like a wet mop.
I have a hint of pride when I think about her next deception because it lasted almost a year. Rita opened a charge account at the dry cleaners across the street, using a cousin’s name. She sent EVERYTHING there, including our jeans. They returned looking like robots with flawless, stiff creases front and rear.
This next crime stays at the top of the lineup because it was so public and my mom was caught. My best friend Leslie, her sister Alicia, and I had summer jobs at her uncle’s amusement park in Lake Placid NY. My parents decided to team up for a visit. We lived in a one-room basement apartment furnished with two single beds that we took turns sleeping in, a night stand, a lamp, and trunks for our clothing. My mom looked around the room and zeroed in on the kitchenette, noting our lack of utensils.
After Rita’s inspection, we went to a small Italian restaurant for dinner. As soon as the host seated 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, who loved a good risk, was impressed.
I filled up with embarrassment and fury, ignoring my food. Everyone else dug in as if nothing had happened. Eventually my dad asked me why I wasn’t eating. At the same time I noticed my mom eyeing the salt and pepper shakers. I wasn’t sure who to zero in on first, so I gave them a panorama of my fiercest dirty look. From my dad I heard, “Alright, alright.” and from my mom I got, “Shoosh.”
As we walked out of the restaurant, the manager asked Rita to give the flat ware back. She did. Mortified isn’t a word people use much these days, but it’s a good word to describe how I felt that moment.
The list of my mom’s petty crimes is impressive. 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.