Mother's Day is coming up, and it got me thinking of my own Mom of course, but also of the other "Moms" who were part of my childhood. In 1950's Brooklyn, the neighborhood was a collection of melting pot families with different ethnicities, races and religions. The one thing many of those families had in common was a strong, loving mother who held the whole shebang together. These remarkable women were the glue of our society. They quietly ruled the house, but usually allowed their husbands to believe they were in charge. The men were grateful for this concession, but deep down knew to whom they reported. Not content to raise only their own children, these women extended their motherly influence to any child who happened to cross their threshold. I was fortunate enough to have regular guidance from a number of auxiliary neighborhood moms.
Tommy Dowd was a good friend and playmate, even though he was about five years older than me. He was a diabetic and small for his size, and that may have explained how he became part of our crowd. Tom's mom Lillian was a lady in the best sense of that word. Her husband worked as a banker and enjoyed a few beers in the evening at Grimm's Bar. I think Lillian just got lonesome sometimes, and would invite the unwashed urchins lounging on her stoop to come in for tea, that's right, tea! Being English, tea was a familiar ritual to her, and we would sit around her dining room table drinking tea from China cups and eating cinnamon toast or Lorna Doone cookies. Lillian made conversation by asking about our families and how things were going in school. It was an incongruous scene to be sure, but seemed perfectly natural at the time. I'm sure any bit of polish I may have acquired in childhood rubbed off from the genteel Lillian.
Angie Bilello was another surrogate mom who lived across the street from my grandparents on Hull Street. She was the mother of my friend Rich...all sweetness and light unless she thought you were up to something, at which point she would turn into Sgt. Joe Friday and start firing questions designed to break through your pathetic tissue of lies. Angie was a selfless Italian wife and mother who cared not only for her family, but also for a blind brother who lived with them; she did this without complaint. I felt at home in her kitchen because there was always something good to eat. I know my memory can't be right on this, but it seems to me that Angie was always frying veal cutlets! Ah, the smell. This was in the day when you could buy veal cutlets without needing a co-signer for a loan. We ate this Italian heroin like snacks before dinner, sitting at the formica kitchen table with Angie smilingly looking on.
Agnes Bordenga was the Myrna Loy of Somers Street. While the less glamorous mothers wore the mandatory flowered house dress, Agnes dressed up. She was a very attractive woman married to Sal, the coolest guy on the block. I would look for excuses to run errands for Agnes just to be around her. She smoked (something every other mother on the block frowned upon) had a wonderful sense of gaiety just like Myrna Loy. Agnes always treated me kindly despite the really obvious crush I had on her. When their daughter Phyllis (my sister's friend) got older, Agnes and Sal hosted annual New Year's Eve parties, probably just to keep Phyllis home where they could keep an eye on her. They invited the teenage boys from the neighborhood, and allowed us to smoke and even have a glass of beer. This might sound terrible, but we never abused their hospitality; it made us feel so grown up.
There was no escaping the mother's network in 1950's Brooklyn. Each of the women who took it upon themselves to watch over the neighborhood children not only helped them stay out of trouble, but in their own way added to the development of their character. Things are a bit different now. Neighborhoods are different and people look at the world through lenses of fear and suspicion, sadly, not without cause. Lillian's invitations to tea would be reported to Child Welfare; Angie's steady diet of fried veal cutlets would be condemned as unhealthy; and Agnes would be hauled off to jail for permitting teens to smoke and drink in her home. My mother was one of a kind and irreplaceable to me, but in raising me she had some help from the great ladies I mentioned and others I didn't. Happy Mother's Day, Frances.
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