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Local View: Thanks, Mom, for moments of perfect happiness

Next to the brown Dumpster in the alley behind Mitzie's Flowers was a pile of discarded bouquets, each tightly wrapped in green paper. Nine years old, I did not know all their names. Red roses, yes, since Bugs Bunny often held a dozen behind his ...

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Denfeld’s 1947 boys basketball team is the only Denfeld basketball team to win a state title. The team’s head coach was Lloyd Holm. Team members were Rudy Monson, Larry Tessier, Paul Nace, Kenneth Sunnarborg, Eugene Norlander, Howard Tucker, Tony Skull, Jerry Walczak, Bruce Budge, Keith Stolen and student manager Bob Scott.

Next to the brown Dumpster in the alley behind Mitzie's Flowers was a pile of discarded bouquets, each tightly wrapped in green paper. Nine years old, I did not know all their names. Red roses, yes, since Bugs Bunny often held a dozen behind his back as a surprise for Honey Bunny. And lilies of the valley I recognized, since they grew next to our garage, side by side with the weeds that my mother would make us pull in the hot sun.

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David McGrath

But it was early May, still cool outside, and I had lucked upon this mountain of flowers from which to choose a gift for Mother's Day.

Our family was not poor in the federal sense. But we did not have money that would have allowed me or any of my seven siblings to pass up something free and fragrant and certain to ignite a warm glow in the face of Gertrude McGrath.

Not that her smile was a rarity. But since I was the middle child on which the other seven were always tattling for making trouble of one kind or another, a gift of flowers might get me a temporary reprieve. And it may also make my mother forget, for a little while, that she had to scrounge another $40 fortune for new eyeglasses after I lost my last pair for the second time in a year.

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I snatched a bouquet that had purple petals and dark green leaves. The flowers were covered on top with tinted plastic, like how you would actually purchase them in a store. How she will love this, I thought!

Looking back, it seems I spent most of my childhood trying to please my mother and gauging her moods. She was usually more up than down, though she never exactly lived on easy street. She told us stories of attending a dozen different schools growing up, even missing high school graduation, since my grandfather moved around so much in search of work during the Depression.

And she told us more stories of how, when she gave birth to Charlie and later Jimmy, she was alone, since my father was away in the Army during World War II. But she never talked about how afraid she must have been, considering that one of her own siblings died at birth and another shortly after.

In 1945, once my father came home for good, she was whole again. I am sure of that, though I could only imagine, since I myself hadn't arrived till '49. But once I came of age, I found it fascinating to watch how two adult human beings could be in each other's heads.

My father home from work in the early evening, she would herd us into the living room to play the board game, "Clue," all of us strewn in a circle on the worn carpet. Then the two of them repaired to the kitchen, where she sat at the table while my father, standing, pacing, his voice careening in alternating tones of anger and disbelief, vented about the injustices in life as a tile salesman.

Later he was ebullient, tossing us into the air, wrestling with my older brothers, as if he had shed all the dark things in the kitchen for my mother to dispose.

At breakfast on Saturday, he was full of plans. Some were fatuous, meant to tantalize our youthful imaginations, like getting a loan to buy a Dairy Queen franchise; others were serious, like leaving the tile company. I watched his eyes register her every response.

Which was why we'd be spellbound whenever the phone rang and it was my father calling from work or somewhere on the road. I'd elbow Kenneth and shush Pat, so we could hear her half of the conversation.

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"Today?" we heard her say.

Then a pause as she listened.

"Try to catch up tonight then," she said.

Another pause.

"Stop it," she scolded.

More listening.

And then we heard her laugh, lightly, like far away wind chimes, the music that connected them, whatever the distance.

And Kenneth and Pat and I smiled at one another, not at the joke we hadn't heard but at eavesdropping on a moment of perfect happiness.

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And at our good luck in knowing the secret formula, all these years later, thanks to her.

 

David McGrath is an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, and the author of "The Territory." He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com .

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