Mom was crying. I couldn’t remember when I had ever seen her cry. From the living room, I watched her cross the lawn toward our front porch. When I opened the screen door, she stepped past me into the living room and turned to me.
“I shouldn’t have to leave my sweet baby,” she said, her face contorted and tears beaded on her cheeks. She hesitated and stared at me for a moment. Maybe she wanted me to agree. Then she wheeled about and went to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. I was stunned, still holding the screen door open.
Five minutes earlier, Mom had taken David to Mrs. Reed who had agreed to babysit when Mom returned to work six weeks after he was born. Mom had seemed fine when she left with the baby wrapped in a light blanket and a grocery bag filled with bottles, bibs, and diapers.
In the kitchen, I spooned some congealed oatmeal into a bowl, added milk and sugar, and ate slowly. Every morning Mom left the oatmeal in a pan on the stove for me and my four brothers and sisters. They were sleeping in during the last two weeks of their summer vacation, but I was up early to drive Mom downtown to her first day back at work at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. .
“We need to leave in ten minutes,” Mom said evenly as she walked into the kitchen dressed, composed and ready to go to work. I nodded, relieved but still not sure what to say.
She poured a cup of coffee and said, “You know, I really didn’t want to get a job three years ago. I was content to take care of you kids and keep house like all the other women in the neighborhood. But I had to, your dad couldn’t hold a job and he was out of work for months. The V.A. increased his disability to 85%, but his check was not enough to pay our bills.”
“You definitely had to do it, Mom. No matter what anyone said.” She knew I meant Grandmother.
“Your Grandmother said I wouldn’t be hired because I couldn’t type or take shorthand. She also said I wouldn’t earn enough to pay for clothes, bus fare and babysitters. What really bothered her, she said, was that people would say your dad couldn’t support his family, but I think Grandmother was the one embarrassed.”
I reminded her that she had practiced typing on our Remington portable until she got up to sixty words per minute, and she made several dresses from those tissue paper patterns.
“Now I only type forms and speed doesn’t count. I remember wearing that red A-line dress I had just finished to apply for my job. I was nervous, but I passed the typing test for Clerk-Typist. The pay was not great, but I’ve had several raises and now I’m vested in the state pension system.” She added with a chuckle, “So you kids won’t have to take care of me in my old age.”
“ Thank God you got a job. It’s been rough at times, but I don’t know how we could have survived at all without your salary. You just couldn’t count on Dad.”
“Your dad’s doing the best he can. The VA is starting him on some new medicine. Maybe it will help.”
“OK, let’s get you downtown to the bureau. Gladys will be glad to have you back to deal with church bus licenses and vanity plates.”
“I can take care of the ministers, but I have to pass the combinations of letters and numbers people want to put on their plates around the office. Some of them are dirty words, and I don’t even know it.”
As I pulled up at the Bureau’s tired building on the edge of downtown, Mom said, “ I hated handing David to Mrs. Reed this morning, but I don’t hate coming back to work. I’m so busy, the day goes by quickly, and I have friends here. I’ll see you tonight, Mike.”
That night I was scheduled to help unload a truck and stock shelves at Kroger’s, but I wouldn’t punch the clock until midnight. I knew I could’t sleep that day, but I surely would when I got off at nine the next morning. At $1.25 per hour, my part-time job enabled me to save $100 for my ’48 Nash, a high profile fastback the color of a grey whale. It would be January before I would have another $100 for Winter Quarter’s tuition at Ohio State. I spent most of the day working on my car. I was recovering the interior door panels with red and white plastic fabric from a Joyce Road junk yard and spray painting the window frames and dash board a candy apple red.
At half past five, I waited for Mom near the bus stop at Cleveland and Hudson. Sometimes she had to walk the two miles to our house after work, but not this night. Mom carried several small, brown paper bags as she approached my car. I reached across and opened the passenger door. As soon as she got her packages settled, she held one out to me and said, “I got this at the Fourth Avenue Market.”
I looked inside the bag and saw a white paper container with a wire handle. The aroma of peanut butter enveloped me.