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Adieu to a tough broad

By Jack Cashill

About ten days before she died a few summers back, my mother decided to check out of the hospital. The hospital folks, well intended but doggedly bureaucratic, told her she couldn’t go.

They didn’t know my mother. She reminded them that this was America, damn it, and she could do any fool thing she wanted.

And so she did. She went home. And there for the last week or so of her life, she sat upright on her LA-Z boy recliner, watching Jeopardy, playing cards and Scrabble, presiding, finally, like the grand dame she had always presumed to be, and complaining no more than if she had a head cold.

ALTHOUGH UNIQUE IN MANY WAYS, my mother represents a class of women celebrated by no one save for their own families, the tough broad.

The classic tough broad grows up hard. In my mother's case, shortly after she entered grade school, America entered the Depression. Not only were the times tougher back then, but as we heard it, the cold was also colder, the heat hotter , the wet wetter, the dry drier, the snow deeper, and the distances farther than they have ever been before or since.

By fourteen, my mother had kissed off school. By fifteen, she was married. By eighteen, she was a mom. By twenty one, she was sending my father off to fight the good fight in the Pacific.

At war’s end, my brother and I came in quick succession. We all five (and soon enough six) lived on Newark, New Jersey's West Market Street in a two bedroom, third floor walk up, though my brother and I did not so much walk up, as get carried up, one under each arm, groceries on the next trip and the next trip after that.

In this neighborhood, hardly anyone had anything--no washers, no dryers, no dishwashers, few dishes, few refrigerators, no air conditioners, no lawnmowers, no lawns to mow, the rare car, the rarer car that ran. Still, few griped. Either up close or on newsreels, these folks had seen the face of true poverty in Europe and Asia and were determined to remind us of it--especially at dinner time, when that occasional stringbean lingered.

Back then, too, no one--save for a few obscure academics and unregenerate Bolsheviks--believed that relative deprivation excused or even explained the plundering of one’s neighbors. So doors were left unlocked, women were left alone, and the only pictures on milk cartons were cows. Soon enough, alas, these great-thought thinkers would reach critical mass, and their theories, unleashed, would help turn this happy polyglot neighborhood into a hell-hole. But here, I get ahead of myself.

My mother, like most moms I knew, worked outside the home. And so I would watch Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It Beaver as wide-eyed as I would Captain Video. A spaceman fricaseeing Mars with a giant blow torch struck me as only slightly more fantastic than a mom greeting her kids after school with cookies and milk. That feminists would one day evoke the docile and dilettantish June Cleaver as the typical ‘50’s mom would make my mother shudder. What planet did those ladies grow up on?

Tough broads have always had trouble with feminism, especially its hear-me-litigate, wilting flower wing. Like her friends, my mother smoked, swore, drank, gambled, ate red meat and told dirty jokes. If some foolish boss harassed her at work, she’d personally slice and dice him into a 1,000 teeny, tiny pieces. And if she couldn’t, she had a husband, a father, brothers, and sons who’d be happy to oblige.

Working or not, she never saw herself as anyone’s humble employee, but rather as the matriarchal center of a proud extended family, a family that differed, say, from the Kennedys only in money, advantage theirs, and in character, advantage ours. A really good night at Bingo, and the score would be more than even. For her, as for many a tough broad, “work” was just a way to keep the family in fish sticks and potato chips. She refused to define herself by anything as transitory as a job, as trivial as a title, or as unnaturally divisive as gender.

She did, however, have one proto-feminist cause: the liberating of America’s poker tables. Damned if she didn’t play as well as any man, and God help the poor soul who refused her a chair. Needless to say, the Friday night poker games chez nous were strictly equal opportunity. But happily, not equal outcome. My mother and father, heady players both, squirreled away their weekly nut and took us to the Jersey Shore with it each summer, a rare reprieve in this asphalt world.

And thus did the 50’s pass on our block, if not with the stressless ease of a sitcom, at least with a certain rough grace. But the ‘60s for us, as for much of America, were another thing. 1963 proved to be a particularly tough year even for a tough broad, as my mother lost her policeman husband and her president, both to the same sudden diagnosis. Tragic as it was, she wasn’t one to grouse. Her style was always, "dealer, deal them cards." There was still time to get back in the game before closing.

The 60’s hit the city hard too, shattered it. As our neighbors fled on their sad, unsung diaspora, my mother chose to tough it out. Not having gone to high school, let alone college, she never learned to pity the Visigoths on our block nor to excuse their increasingly wretched behavior.

So she called it as she saw it. And if all the media would give her as role model was Archie Bunker--an unforgivable condescension on their part--more power to Archie.

She married again. But from the first time we saw Roger play cards, we knew it wouldn’t endure. It didn’t, but my mother did. In time, she moved to a senior citizen project in Newark, took care of her mother next door, organized poker games and trips to Vegas--Atlantic City was beneath her dignity--and served happily as command central for her growing, if scattered, brood.

Of course, like most tough broads, she smoked too much--especially when she played poker. In fact, I once played in an otherwise all-woman game with her and her cronies in which the smoke alarm went off not once, but three times. To be sure, the coupons netted us more clocks and scales than any family in North America. But even though she had quit smoking five years earlier, the Raleighs did finally catch up with her.

When she called to tell me the prognosis was terminal, I made some awkward gestures at condolence, caught myself, and then asked if this meant I would have to let her win at Scrabble. She laughed, relieved. She hated pity. There could be death with dignity after all.

To the end, she played her emotions like a poker hand, close to the vest. No whining, no weeping, no blaming the manufacturer. She had her own code and stuck to it.

“Any regrets?” I asked a few hours before the end. “Yea,” she said, “if I had known these damn cigarettes were going to kill me anyhow, I never would have quit.”

AT THE PARTY AFTER THE FUNERAL--so festive that I twice called it a wedding--we took turns telling " Frances" stories. The story I repeated was one a cousin had recalled the night before.

On one of our poker-winnings vacations, my brother and I, then about 8 or 9, and my cousin’s brother, the aptly named Crazy Eddie, decided to row across Barnegat Bay. True, the bay was miles wide and dense with ocean-going traffic. True, too, we had told no one we were going. But hey, boys will be boys, and we were on our way.

Amazingly, we did make it across. But not at all easily. As we headed home, fried and fatigued, we looked back into a setting sun and knew we had screwed up big time. It was then that we saw the ship, a large ship zeroing in right at us. But as it neared, we could see at the prow, of all people, my mother, the look of love and relief on her face as wide as the bay. Somehow she had managed to commandeer a Coast Guard Cutter! We were saved!

Not quite. As the boat drew up, we could almost feel the elation pass and the ‘tough broad’ vibes kick in. In her school, it was no pain, no gain; you didn’t learn if you didn’t suffer. When the captain grabbed a line to tow us home, she stopped him, looked down on us with all the scorn she could quickly muster, and snarled a line almost cinematic in its pith:

“Let’em row.”

Bon voyage, mom. Make sure the cards are shuffled and the smoke alarm turned off. We will all be joining you soon enough.


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