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News Section: Opinion

Tough Love With Tender Trimmings

Published Sunday, May 13, 2012 12:10 am

I grew up in a typical Irish Catholic household in the Northeast. It has always seemed to me that such families tend to include one of two types of mothers – doting or tough love. My mother was the latter with just enough of the former to round her hardest edges. Today, I'm grateful not only for what her sacrifices meant to me and my siblings, but for the dividends they continue to pay as we raise children of our own.

Mom's lot in life was not an easy one. Hardscrabble is the first word to come to mind. Her father was a long-haul truck driver and her own mother labored in front of a sewing machine at a sweaty garment factory five days a week. She had her share of misfortune long before an icy road would cripple my father on the way home from the loading docks, saddling her with the role of bread winner for a growing family, which at the time already numbered six. Without a college education, that meant long hours for little money.

She worked two jobs for most of the time we were growing up, hanging wallpaper on the side to help make ends meet. I can tell you what it tastes like to put water on your cheerios (better than powdered milk and not that bad if you add a little sugar), or how difficult it is to properly grill a toasted cheese sandwich using those orange government blocks they'd give out at our church (the bread would always burn long before the cheese would ever melt), but I can't tell you what it's like to go to bed hungry even once – mom always made ends meet, even if she had to cross her fingers and float a check from time to time, or duck a call from a creditor until payday.

There were nights when she'd bury her face in her hands at the kitchen table, unable to conjure up the math to work the margins, an occasional cry when her resolve would fade, but never if she thought someone could notice. It wasn't a matter of being too proud to shed a few tears; mom just knew that we all looked to her to see that things were going to be okay – and they always were.

My beautiful mother, Bonnie Maley

Bonnie Maley was never terribly comfortable with affection. There weren't a lot of hugs and kisses, but it wasn't owed to a lack of warmth, and any distance between her and her children was merely spatial. She was better with her words and better still with her gestures, which were always deliberate and well-timed. If she didn't know quite what to say, she knew what to do in order to convey the message.

Easter might not have brought fancy baskets, but my mom would comb every candy shop she'd pass until she found the difficult to come by pecan nougat logs that I loved as a child. Sometimes they'd be hard as a brick because she'd found it a few months prior and socked it away in case another opportunity didn't present itself, but I don't think a year ever went by that one wasn't atop the plastic shreds of faux-grass.

We didn't have much, but we never went without. We were also blessed with an awareness of our predicament which served us well in avoiding bouts of self-pity. “Some people try to pretend they're not poor,” she'd tell us. “They think the kids will feel bad about themselves. Well, we're poor and unless we hit the lottery, we're never going to be rich, so get used to it. But because we're poor doesn't mean you're not as good as anyone else. Don't forget that.” I never have.

She was honest in her appraisal and said that we should learn that life wasn't fair, that no one plans for the tragedies that derail their best intentions. They'll come when they will, and time spent sulking is better spent on the hard work that getting flush is likely to entail. Whenever possible, work hard to get a little bit ahead, if only to be better positioned to endure the bumps that are sure to await further down the road. I still carry a sense of anxiety that keeps me looking over my shoulder when the stretches between a major snag grow inordinately long, a trait that has served to keep me well grounded.

When I went to work delivering refrigerators at 13, or picked up a second gig flipping burgers the next year, I didn't feel any sense of unfairness over my friends having yet to get jobs. Hard work was something to be proud of in her house, and having a few bucks in your pocket to show for your labor came with a sort of dignity that was hard to come by at that age. Her work ethic is as great as anyone's I've known, and that some of that was passed along is a gift I'm quite grateful for.

My mother always felt trapped by the narrow confines and dreary setting of the economically-depressed coal region town that was our home. “Get out of this place,” she'd tell me from my early teens. “Go somewhere and make something of yourself. There's nothing for you around here.” So after attending college nearby, I jumped at the chance to join the Army and leave Pennsylvania for good, my only regret being too little time spent with the great, big family I left behind.

Years went by and her kids grew older. Less than content to wait around for her grandparenting years, Bonnie began taking in foster children, three of whom became permanent members of our family. I've had the pleasure of watching my older sister raise three wonderful boys, while hearing echoes of our mother in her voice when she admonishes them for shenanigans not unlike our own at their age. I've watched my middle sister become a mother and look at her newborn son with a smile that seems like a replication of the very one our mom used to cast upon her.

I've had the honor of watching my younger sister follow in our mother's footsteps, taking in two foster children and giving them a start in life that will again make all the difference in the world for those wonderful children born into a tight spot. And of course I've had the pleasure of watching my son Sullivan light up when he gets to see his Mee-mah, even before she sneaks him the cookie that's never far behind her first hug.

Age has softened her up and those hard edges have all but disappeared with time, but there are still moments when I'm reminded in the most seminal way that this is the woman who brought me into this world – the one that has given me this life. A couple years back, we lost a family member that I was especially close with. Ravaged by cancer long before her time, it was the kind of funeral that's drenched in agony, filled with the bitter shock and stinging resentment that accompanies an early passing.

To make matters worse, it was the first person close to me that I'd lost, and I was an utter wreck. My mom couldn't find the words and she fumbled through an awkward hug, but when I walked out of the church she reached into her purse and pulled out one of those pecan logs that she'd somehow found just for the occasion. It had been two decades since my last Easter basket, but she felt that a simple, little childhood comfort might go a long way at such a moment. As has been the case more often than not, she was right.  It's an honor to wish her a Happy Mother's Day.


Bonnie Maley and her great, big happy family
Photo by Jeremy Eye



A Father's Day Message: Lessons From My Son

Published Sunday, June 19, 2011 2:05 am


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We must be siblings, you just described my Mom.
Posted by Carmen Merriam on May 14, 2012

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