50 Things About My Mother
for Cathy Jean Kelly, 9/11/1958 - 10/12/2011
1. She could just look at something and make her own, only hers was always better. We teased her about this, and we started calling her China because she would be happy to sit at her art table and paint 100 of some little thing like a snowman face. She found joy in making each one have a slightly different smile. Or maybe she’d put a tiny different wrinkle on each of their noses or twinkles in their eyes. And then she’d sell them for one dollar.
2. Cathy Jean Kelly was born September 11, 1958. She always celebrated "birthday week." In 2001, she had no idea the towers had fallen. She was eating dinner with her friends, and they were wearing party hats at the White Bear Inn. She wondered why everyone was staring.
3. It was cervical cancer that did her in. It had spread all over before we ever knew she was even sick. For about two years, she had these infections every once in a while, and her doctor told her they were resulting from a spider bite and that staph infections were hard to get rid of. They never checked for cancer, and we never suspected it.
4. People thought she was cranky when they’d ask her to go someplace and she’d say, “I don’t know how I’m going to be feeling. I still have that spider bite.” I can’t blame them. Everything she ever said, she said it with a smile. People can tell when you’re smiling, even over the phone.
5. It drove other people crazy, the way my mother found some way to be happy all of the time.
6. My mother went to Computer Tech in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1976. She didn’t like her roommates.
7. My father’s mother had a Catalina, one of those huge old boat-sized cars. My mother quit college, and she and my father drove to Florida in it. They were going to live with a few friends who had already moved down there, but someone peed on my dad the first night they stayed there. They rented a lanai that had been turned into a one-room apartment, but my mom said it had too many windows, so they lived in the car.
8. Her first job was cleaning hotel rooms in Sarasota. Then she found a dead woman in one of the rooms. She came home pregnant. My grandparents let my dad move in, but they weren’t allowed to sleep together, even though the damage was done.
9. I was born November 14, 1977. Nine months earlier was Valentine’s Day. I always wondered if I was conceived in that Catalina.
10. When I was really little, my mother, my father, and I moved into the upstairs of a house in Canton, Ohio. The downstairs neighbors were always cooking something that smelled awful. She imagined it was goats. My dad worked at Timken, and when she dropped him off at work every day, we went to my grandmother’s house all day until it was time to go back to Canton and pick him up again. I got to stand up in the front seat. It took almost a half tank of gas in her guzzling Valiant, a hand-me-down car from my grandpa, but gas was cheap in the early 80s and she loved to cruise around. It had an 8-track player, and we rolled the windows down and sang along.
11. My father liked to give my mother black eyes. When my mother got pregnant with my brother, we moved back in with my grandparents. My father went hitchhiking around the country. He sent my mother letters from all over the place. He sent her photos of himself with women who looked like her to make her jealous.
12. My father had bipolar disorder. My grandmother called him “the bastard.” My mother and her friend, Cindy Allender, used to communicate with my dad and his brother Dan by Walkie Talkie. My grandmother found Cindy’s Walkie Talkie when they were all seventeen years old and confiscated it. She gave it back to her when my mom and Cindy were well into their thirties.
13. When she blow-dried her hair, the blow-dryer always overheated. Her hair smelled like hot and strawberries.
14. After my parents divorced, my mother dated a short little hairy man named John. One night, my grandmother sat my mom in the middle of the living room and picked at her hair for hours because John put his arm around my mom. She said there were crabs on his arms. It was years before I understood. I was sad because John always liked to play Atari.
15. Her second job was at the jewelry counter at Hart’s department store in Wintersville, Ohio. She loved to detangle the necklaces. She liked to do any kind of little thing that took hours and drove any normal person crazy.
16. My father was murdered on Venice Beach when I was five years old. My mother had nightmares her whole life that he faked his death and he was going to kidnap me. This continued throughout my adult life right up until she died.
17. She had an entire closet full of high-heeled shoes and fancy dresses and shiny coats.
18. She suffered fools well.
19. My mother had PJ parties with her girlfriends Cindy Allender and Mary Stacey until they were at least 28 years old. They brought their children, and we thought this was completely normal. She always made popcorn balls with melted Red Hots, and we jumped on the beds. My grandfather always said we were “raisin’ hell.”
20. She really came into her own as a Tupperware Lady. She was always shy, but she was talked into it, and once she got going, she found out she was really good at it. She was the manager of her own unit, Cathy’s Clowns. She received a company station wagon every year. We always had a new Oldsmobile. I was a Tupperkid. It was really good while it lasted.
21. When she was 33, she was in a head-on collision with a Napa Auto Parts van. The driver swore he didn’t see her because the summer sun was shining in his eyes. She had a crushed ankle and a broken knee, and she had to spend a year in a cast up to her hip. No more Tupperware Lady.
22. My mother’s second husband, Bob, owned carnival games. She married him to make my father jealous, she admitted years later. The marriage didn’t last long. When he left, his three daughters stayed at our house. Months later, there was a woman looking at us every morning when we got on the bus. She turned out to be the girls’ mother. She had no idea where her ex-husband had taken them.
23. Ever since I was in elementary school, we sold crafts at craft shows and festivals. We always talked all year about what we were going to make for the next one. My mother always waited until the night before the show, and we would stay up all night and make as many things as we could. It was tradition.
24. All four men my mother ever dated bought her an engagement ring. She married three of them.
25. After my mom died, I went shopping at Reisbeck’s, a grocery store in WIntersville, Ohio where the old Hart’s department store used to be. John works there. The John with the crabs in his arms. He opened up his line and said, “I can help you over here, m’am.” I went through his line and when he made eye contact, I said, “I’m Cindy. I used to be Cindy. Kelly. You knew my mom. She died. I don’t know if you knew that.” He said, “That was a long time ago.” I didn’t say anything else and I never go there anymore.
26. My mother had a special talent for finding zoos. She could find a zoo anywhere. We went to them all, and we rarely ever saw any animals.
27. Once, at a Tupperware party, she tried to move the demo table away from the television so she could stand behind it. There was a man underneath the table watching a football game. He was not to be disturbed, so she stood beside it instead. My grandmother helped her carry in and out back then when she was just starting out, and she waited in the kitchen with the hostess’s pet birds, which flapped their wings profusely every now and again, right overtop of the buffet table. My mother’s face always contorted into a grimace when she told the story of why my grandmother whispered, “Don’t eat the brownies.”
28. After my father died, my mother’s friend Linda Acconcia tried to fix her up. And then Mary Stacy tried to fix her up. And then Cindy Harding tried to fix her up. Finally, Linda said, “Cathy, you’re never going to meet a man if you wait for him to show up on your front porch.
29. When I was 8, she met Paul. He stumbled over from the Village Inn. Drunk. He sat on the back porch with my Grand Aunt Mary Davis. She wasn’t very hospitable. A week later, he called my mother and asked her out on a date. They were together until the day she died. My mother wrote in her journal that Linda just didn’t know what porch to look on.
30. A year after the car accident, she used her settlement money to open The Olde Garage Crafts and Gifts. She opened up the shop in an old garage that my grandfather bought off of a guy named Mark Mamula. Mark Mamula bought it off of Paul’s father, Big Turk, who ran a mechanic shop there.
31. My mother’s best friend was Rebecca Pilati. When they were young, she would go out by the road and yell across the road, “Rebeeeeeeeeeeeeca, Rebeeeeeeeeeeeeecaaaaa” until Rebecca answered. Children didn’t use the telephone back then.
32. She broke a tooth on a Panera salad once, and after she got home, she tried on my grandmother’s false tooth to see if it would fit.
33. We ate at Pangea, a fancy fusion restaurant in Pittsburgh, for her birthday when she turned 52. She ordered something with a fruit compote, and on the drive home, her lips started to swell up. And then her face. By the time we got home, she couldn’t talk right because her tongue was swollen. But she said it was worth it.
34. After she recuperated from the car accident, she was told she would never wear another high-heeled shoe. She had a bonfire. If she couldn’t wear them, nobody would wear them.
35. My mother’s favorite websites were Cake Wrecks, Awkward Family Photos, The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks, Regretsy, and Black and WTF.
36. One of our favorite pastimes was reading to each other. I can’t imagine a lovelier way to spend an evening than listening to my mother read David Sedaris out loud to me.
37. Her favorite food was Lasagna. But she never ate lasagna at a party because at parties people try to be sneaky and put cottage cheese in it.
38. When I was twelve years old, and it was time for “the talk,” my mother and grandmother gave me a series of books called “The Life Cycle Library.”
39. When she was dying, her friend Annie, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, played the Viola for her in her hospital room. Nobody complained.
40. When she was in 2nd grade, she and Rebecca took the shortcut home from school behind the funeral home. They found a bunch of flowers and ribbons in the trash, and so they put them around themselves as if they were beauty pageant sashes, and they sashayed home. My mother was never allowed to walk home from school again.
41. When my mother was sick, her friend Michelle Thompson gave her a porcelain lamp shaped like an angel. The lamp had the oddest pattern of blinking on and off. After my mother died, the lamp wouldn’t blink anymore. I told Michelle about it, and she checked with the florist. The lamp was never supposed to blink at all.
42. My mother was fascinated with how people talk about violence on television influencing children “nowadays.” She said that when she was young, when the sirens went off, everyone piled in the car to go see the actual bloody, gorey accidents. The more gruesome the better, she told me.
43. There were two philosophies in the house when my mother was growing up. My grandmother wanted to get rid of everything, and my grandfather wanted to keep it. My mother has been gone since 2011, and I’m still finding boxes of things I never knew existed.
44. My mother was always keeping something “for good.” She died before “good” ever got here.
45. Any time I ever asked her for anything, she said, “You can have it when I die,” and now I don’t care about any of it.
46. One Christmas when I was in middle school, my mother told Paul that we were getting him something special. He believed with all of his heart that it was going to be an air compressor. When the box was opened on Christmas day, it turned out that she had bought a camcorder. One of those big, huge ones that sits up on the shoulder. She videotaped every moment of our lives after that. I watched those home movies for three days straight after she died.
47. Paul was always buying and restoring old cars. The best family car we ever had was the one my mom lost in the head-on collision. It was a 1986 Chevy Caprice Classic, and it was metallic cherry red with leather seats that made the backs of my legs burn in the sun.
48. The first time my mother told the story about going to Florida in Betty Bateman’s Catalina, Paul just about spit out his false teeth. He said, “My father gave that Catalina to Betty. I been taking care of you your whole life.”
49. My mother never met my husband, but she used to talk to him on Skype. One day, he told her, “Aunt Cathy, you have a treasure, not a daughter.” And she said, “Oh, I know. Cindy’s a real treat.” And I know the sarcasm was lost on him, but when we hung up the Skype call that day, she giggled and said, “I love how he talks to you. I can’t wait to meet him.”
50. My mother always called me “Sissy.” The last message she ever left on our answering machine at home said, “I miss you, Sissy.” I still listen to it when I want to hear her voice.