Today is Mother’s Day 2011. Mother’s Day was first celebrated in the United States in 1912. Mother’s Day is celebrated in many countries around the world in March, April or May.
Unfortunately, I and my siblings are unable to tell our mother that we love her. You see our mother died in 1985. I think of her almost every day of my life. As the oldest child I knew our mother the longest but that doesn’t mean that she loved me the best. You see our mother loved each of her children in her own special way. I’m sure that you say the same things about your mother.
Our mother, Rose Purcell, met Richard Billies on a blind date in 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. She was in secretarial school, he was a young sailor in the U.S. Navy. He later told me that that he knew that she was the one when she came to visit him in the hospital in the Brooklyn Navy Yard after he had been badly injured while unloading a ship (When I was a Cub Scout he showed me the spot on the pier). They were married on a rainy October day in 1947. My father made $30 a week at the time. I was born 11 months later starting a string of pregnancies that resulted in four sons, one daughter, one stillborn and four miscarriages. I was born in 1948, my youngest brother in 1968.
My mother had many interesting beliefs that I learned growing up. “A lady doesn’t tell her age”, she said on more than one occasion. This one comes from a long tradition in her family of lying about your age. My father once told me that his mother-in-law and her sisters did this so often that he sometimes wondered if they remembered which age was the real one. When I was about five my mother and I went to Macy’s to do some shopping. Mom decided to apply for a charge plate (a stamped metal plate). The young lady who was taking my mother’s information asked her age. Mom, as only she could do, huffed that a lady doesn’t tell her age. She was probably 29 at the time.
Other vivid recollections involve various cooking and eating adventures. My mother was a program cook. To this day I can still remember the menus from particular days of the week, including the side dishes. There was never any deviation. A particular favorite (not of mine but someone’s) was liver on Thursday night. It was served with bacon, onions, mashed potatoes and beets; every Thursday without fail. Wednesday was spaghetti and meatballs night. Friday nights were reserved for fried fish. We lived in a house in Brooklyn that had no real ventilation but ‘open a window’. The smell of fried fish lingered until Sunday. I never ate it. I refused to eat something that smelled so bad. My mother relented and made my sister and I little pizzas on Thomas’ English Muffins. Sundays, we alternated ham and roast beef; unless of course if we visited my grandmother Billies or my mother’s grandmother Caton. Then, of course, was the famous boiled spinach incident. Did you ever smell boiled spinach? Well, it smell awful. My mother made it every week. It was a favorite side dish of a daily entree. My sister and I mostly pushed it around the plate. One night my mother ordered us to eat it. We never swallowed it and sat there with the spinach in our mouths for what seemed like and eternity. “Rose, they’re not going to eat it”. He told us to spit it into the garbage. My mother discontinued that side dish. My dad looked relieved; maybe he didn’t like it either.
Unlike modern mothers, the mothers of the 50’s and 60’s actually altered clothes to fit succeeding children. As the oldest I get all of the new stuff. My younger brother, John, had to be satisfied with my stuff, particularly the suits for holidays. Barbara who is between John and I was similarly lucky getting all new clothes. Clothes were simply not discarded if damaged. I got a hole in the knee of my first suit the first time that I wore it. My mother spent a considerable amount of time with tailors until she found one who could weave a repair pair that wouldn’t show.
In 1950 my parents bought a bungalow at Breezy Point in the Rockaways for $3,000. My sister and two of my brothers still own it. The bungalow turned out to be one that my mothers’ parents had rented when she was a young girl. This bungalow became the navel of our earth for most of our lives> Three generations of the Billies family have slept under its roof, painted its decks, shoveled sand from under it, repaired it, sanded it and upgraded it. Do you get the picture? From April until October it was in our every waking thought. My ex brother-in-law once told me that he had painted the entire place one spring. “Great, 22 more years and you’ll catch up to me”. My earliest recollections were of being given a paint brush and instructed not to paint in the sun since that would cause blisters. The smell of benzene was in the air since this was oil-based painted that didn’t just wash off. You wore Kelly Green paint on your hands and clothes for what seemed like months. My mother was the director. She supervised everything. Tasks were apportioned and carried out to her very high standards. Linen was washed. Dishes were washed. Floors were washed. Screens were washed. Windows were washed. Every stick of wood on the outside of that bungalow was painted every spring all under the exacting eye of Rose Billies. Boy was I glad when reinforcements arrived.
My mother loved the beach. As children she would organize us every day and take us to the water. We had toys to play with, chairs, blankets to lie on, towels, snacks and soda. Over all of the years I still remember my mother sitting on the beach watching us in the water. When she developed rheumatoid arthritis it became harder for her to walk the long distance to the water. She was pulled in a wagon so that she could enjoy the beach. My father would have carried her if they had to so that she could go there.
My mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and a heart condition for some years before it took her life. She had a number of operations to freeze joints and remove bone growths on her hands, feet and elbows. She had to wear special shoes. She was in constant pain. She endured it all with grace and her steadfast faith. I think that one of the most painful things was not being able to pick up the only granddaughter that was to ever know, my daughter Elizabeth.
Our beautiful mother died just past her 60 birthday survived by five loving children and eventually nine loving grandchildren. Happy Mother’s Day mom, we miss you every day. We’re so proud to be your children.