A lot of people came and went through our kitchen but Mom almost never left it. My father, whose own headquarters were at the bar, called Mom “The General” and the kitchen was her command center. She cooked, sewed, did laundry and helped us with our homework all in the kitchen. Every major appliance – fridge, stove, washer, and dryer – was lined against the same wall, along which she moved up and down for two decades, raising ten children and wearing a groove into the linoleum so deep the concrete showed. The phone, with a twelve-foot cord, stood at the end of the line.
Once my baby brother was enrolled in kindergarten and all ten kids were tucked nicely away for the school day, Mom branched out. She founded a church organization called F.I.S.H., which she ran almost entirely from that kitchen telephone. F.I.S.H. was an acronym for “friends in need of service and help” and a play on the fish that the early, persecuted Christians painted above their doors. The sign of the fish established fellowship without setting off the Romans. It was through FISH that I was first exposed to our contemporary pariahs – the drunks, unwed mothers and homosexuals whom even the church got in on persecuting.
Initially, the FISH clients seemed no more interesting than the garden-variety church poor – the families to whom we gave turkeys every year. Mom recruited volunteers from our parish church and when calls came in from the needy she put them in contact with her volunteers and arranged for rides to the hospital or the market. Mom walked up and down her aisle -- stove, sink, washer, dryer -- and talked on the phone, which she clamped tightly between chin and shoulder while she used her free hands to work.
As I got older and understood things better I noticed that Mom’s FISH calls involved more than logistical arrangements. Some of these callers had dramatic problems. There was the unwed teen whose family threw her out. Mom went through her list of volunteers and put appropriate people in touch. Couples came to our house and conferred with Mom. I knew a match was made the day that the girl herself showed up and left with one. The couple took the girl in until the baby came to term and could be put up for adoption. A few years later, we were the family to take in one of these teens. But in the early days, Mom just took the calls.
I knew most of these people only by voice on the phone. There was the lady who called all the time in tears. Her husband drank and she needed to find him rides for his AA meetings. I knew my own father drank, but he never crashed our car or lost his job. I eavesdropped while doing my homework at the kitchen table and knew that Mom also organized food drives for such women, women whose no good, drunken husbands were out of work and who needed more than that one turkey a year. This would never happen to us. No matter how much my father drank, Mom’s parents would never fire him from the family business, which, since it was a supermarket, also meant we’d never starve.
I’m sure Mom would’ve liked that I felt safe, but she would not have wanted me to feel superior to her FISH clients. She did her best to keep these people’s problems private. She was particularly cagey about a call if it involved a family with kids we knew. This rarely happened, but when it did, Mom was right: we noticed. We lurched and listened. And something was definitely up when that couple came with their teenage daughter who talked like a boy. I didn’t know the girl; I was only in fifth grade at the time and she was a high school kid. But my sisters Kathleen and Cecilia knew her all right.
She arrived still wearing her uniform from marching band practice. I knew marching band was for geeks, because Cecilia, the cooler of my two older sisters, told me so. I also knew that Cecilia was the cooler one because Kathleen’s friends were, in fact, in the marching band.
I was at the kitchen table doing homework and I desperately wanted to stay to hear this girl talk more. I’d never heard a girl with such a deep voice. If it weren’t for her long, stringy hair, she could’ve been a boy. It was 1976 and boys still wore their hair long, but not that long. Besides, her being a girl and not a boy seemed to be the crux of the matter. Mom sent me to the living room, which was directly beyond the kitchen and had an open doorway from which I could still hear. You couldn’t really shut things out in our house; there were too many people and too little space. My siblings were streaming in and out of the kitchen, living room and bathroom all afternoon. I gathered what I could eavesdropping from the chair closest to the kitchen.
More @ Margaret Laureys