On the day she died ten years ago today, my mother did one of the best things a mother can do for a child: she laughed at my jokes.
We were in her room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY, in the final hours of her determined struggle to hang on to earthly life. She was sitting up in bed, surrounded by flowers from friends and family. In the room was her lifelong best friend -- her sister really -- Fran Brady. Fran and Mom had shared a room in the same hospital 47 years earlier when Fran's daughter, Sue, and I were born.
On that final day of her life, I wore a striped blue and yellow oxford shirt that she hated and hoped it would make her laugh.
"Hey Mom, I wore your favorite shirt," I said. "Oh, that's really nice, thank you for wearing it," she said sarcastically. Fran joined in the laughter and it seemed like any of the thousands of times when these two great women were together. My Mom was always animated by Fran's presence and today was no different. They laughed again when I joked about how much Mom loved the overabundant and fragrant flower arrangements (she didn't).
Fran said her final goodbye to the woman she loved with smiles that hid deep sorrow. That had been their way for decades; it was a friendship cemented by laughter. My mother found rest a few hours later, quietly giving in to the cancer that had tried futilely to define her final years. Nothing, not four energetic kids, chemotherapy, or now, death, could diminish the quiet resolve and fire of Rachel Borrelle Sheffer, a diminutive daughter of Italian immigrants.
She grew up in an apartment over her father's pool hall on lower Warren Street, the city's main drag. It was a neighborhood of close-knit Italian families who worked hard to prove themselves as Americans, who did big things like build a church, and who cared deeply for each other. Mom was the community's favorite daughter, a smart, curly-haired beauty with an electric smile.
She was a little sister to two big brothers and popular with her classmates. She married a star athlete from Hudson High, our father, Kenneth "Red" Sheffer, and dedicated her life to raising the four of us -- Valerie, Ken, Paula and myself -- in her hometown.
Hudson is a small city, but to Mom, life there and in the surrounding area was the American Dream. From the Elks Lodge to Fatso's picnic grove to Lake Taghkanic to Kinderhook Lake, it provided everything she needed, including a good job for her husband. In the "Madmen" era of serious fun, she had plenty. Every time the phone rang, chances are it was a friend calling to make plans or to relive the last party. If it was Fran, it was also a way for both to clear their heads and complete their days.
Don't get me wrong, my mother was a hard worker, taking care of everyone around her. She was an amazing cook and was very house proud. She was tough. She didn't say much when we fell short of her expectations; she just had to look at you (including my father) and you knew what you needed to do. She was direct: "Thinking about joining the Army, Gary? No. You're going to college." And that was that.
When we were young, she loved sitting on her father's front stoop with us kids saying "hi" to friends who passed by. This was even more fun for her on days of big parades in Hudson. When we moved to a suburban part of the city, she and my father sat on the front porch of their house in the evening, enjoying neighbors who stopped by for a chat and occasionally a cocktail.
A few weeks before she passed away, my mother was in the hospital and desperately wanted to go home. She let the staff know it. Usually polite and charming, Mom was frustrated that she was losing her fight and muddled by her medication. We got a late-night call from a nurse who had done her best to calm my mother but needed help from a family member. I arrived at the hospital about midnight. As I sat in the chair next to her bed, nothing calmed her until I started asking her questions about Hudson and its people.
"When did the Concras open The Paramount?" I asked about the bar and grill that was two doors from her father's pool hall. I inquired about other things in the neighborhood -- her life-long friends and next-door neighbors Helen and Rose Roberts, the General Worth Hotel where she had her wedding reception, and Mt. Carmel Church. Answering these questions soothed her. We talked until dawn. She finally slept.
It may seem strange but that difficult night is the memory of Mom I hold dearest. Those hours in a dark hospital room say everything about a life that was simple but so meaningful. She felt lucky to have lived her life in Hudson among the people who would soon mourn her. The cashiers at the local grocery store turned out for her funeral. So did the people who worked with her at election polls for many years. So did the people still around from the old neighborhood.
She would never say it but Mom was quietly proud that nearly every minute of her 72 years was spent in service of her family, friends and community. And she had a great time through it all, including laughing at her son's bad jokes.