Remembering my mother, Leona

Every life includes experiences we never want to give back. Reuniting with my birth-mother Leona on the evening of January 8, 1987 in Stamford, Connecticut is one of those moments for me. Getting to know her over the years until she died 10 years ago today, even more so.

For some very understandable reasons she surrendered me for adoption seven days after I was born in New York City’s French Hospital on October 2, 1953. She told me once that she held me every second she could during those seven days because she knew that time together would have to last both of us a lifetime. Fortunately, she was mistaken. She was 19 when she got pregnant. Being a pregnant, single Catholic girl of Irish, French Canadian and, I would later learn, Mexican stock, walked you into a world of merciless judgment. That, coupled with the fact my birth-father was, or so he claimed, an unhappily married 39-year-old who was not about to help with raising a child, made my adoption inevitable.

My mother had the rare ability to recognize opportunities to truly touch the hearts of  others that most people would miss. The sanctity of another’s humanity was never lost on her. Her compassion was limitless, her instinct for the wounded and the ignored, remarkable. I remember commenting once on the close relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “That’s true,” my mother said. “They were very much in love. But does anyone ever think about what it must have been like for Tracy’s wife? My heart always broke for her.” Being old-school Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife after he became involved with Hepburn.

On my first birthday after we’d been reunited my mother gave me a teddy bear, “to make up for the one I couldn’t give you when you were growing up.’

The day I married my second wife on September 12, 1991 was the only time my two mothers met. I did have two mothers. In my heart and soul their claim to motherhood was an equal one and I only use the terms adoptive-mother and birth-mother so the listener, or reader, can distinguish which is which. A quick aside: if you want to insult and probably anger someone who’s been adopted, ask them who their real parents are. All their parents are real, make no mistake about it. At any rate, this day was the one and only day they two of them met.

The wedding took place outside and was attended by perhaps 30 people. Everyone, save my adoptive-mother Virginia, was standing. She was in some pain and had a chair. We’d asked the minister, my first childhood friend in fact, William Damrow, to ask people to hold hands with the person next to them when the moment for the final vows arrived. People were video-taping the wedding and later, we watched the video that was taken from behind the minster. In the background my mother Virginia was on the far left of the group and my mother Leona was standing on the far right. When the holding-hands’ request was made, my mother Leona walked over to my mother Virginia and held her hand through our final vows.

Some say I’ve inherited the instinct for touching the hearts of others from my mother.  I don’t know about that, but I do know I touched hers on a day that held a deeply special moment for the both of us. The French Hospital had been located at 330 West 30th Street between 8th and 9th avenues in Manhattan. It was built in 1928 by the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance. It is now the French Apartments, but the words, Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance, remain carved in stone above the main entrance. On one of her last visits to the east coast my mother visited family in New Jersey. I drove down to pick her up and drive her back to my home in  upstate New York. On the way back I drove into the city and pulled up in front of 330 West 30th Street. The two of us held hands as I said, “We’re back.”

“They always made me go through the back door,” she said. “I was from the home for unwed mothers.”

“Okay then,” I said, and promptly drove around the block to the back entrance. We both said, our voices a mix of defiance and pride, “We’re back.”

My mother Leona died in California of liver cancer 10 years ago today. On December 21, two days after she died, I received a package from her in the mail. In it was a gift-wrapped package about the size of a box a pen would come in. I called my daughter on the phone so we could share the moment together. I removed the gift-wrap to discover a narrow black box. I opened the box. In it was a Saint Christopher’s Medal.  Legend is a child asked Saint Christopher to carry him across a swollen fast-moving river. Christopher, said to be a large and powerful man, carried the child across the river to safety. It was then the child revealed himself to be Jesus. Then, according to legend, the child vanished. Saint Christopher is the saint of safe travel through life. I turned the medal over and read the engraved words on the back. “Peter, I will always be in your heart. Love, Mom.”

She is always in my heart and in every stride and breath I take.

Not long before she died I asked her if she had any advise for me. She said, “Yes. Be good to yourself, Peter.” I’m trying, Mom. I love you and miss you my whole wide world.


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