A Towel and a Banana

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A Mother’s Love in 1930s Rockaway

 (Jean (Caligiuri) McKenna recalls simple memories from a simple time of the Rockaway Beach she knew as a young girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s).

Whether as wide-eyed children taking in the world’s wonders, young people excitedly coming of age, or feverishly busy adults raising families, there is a universally comforting feeling to know ‘mother’ is there, somewhere nearby. Whether to tender a rub on a scraped knee, share a vanilla ice cream cone, lovingly explain why birds chirp, why manners matter, or provide a grown up rub of caring wisdom in our own parental years, she always has been as near as the next room and as close as a phone call away, ready to give of herself at any time.

That is how it is just supposed to be. Throughout our lives that assurance brings a perpetual calm that we cherish, even if human nature tends to blur our appreciation for it at times. In later years, its memory provides a heartfelt solace symbolized in even the simplest of memories.

My mother, who lived in Rockaway long ago, arrived on Ellis Island in 1929 from Italy in her mid-30s. A small woman (under 5 foot) who never lost her accent, her marriage role was meant to be more of a domestic companion and ‘stepmother’ to three adolescent children while fulfilling her housekeeper duties.    An energetic and tireless worker who left behind a children’s teaching job for a life in America, she was now resigned to her lot dutifully mired in servitude, until at age 41.

I was her very unexpected surprise, giving her purpose and a new lease on life. And from my earliest memory, ‘Mama’ was always near.

My ‘simple’ memory was an early summer afternoon around 1939 at age 4 or 5. War was not quite yet on the horizon as the stilled days were peaceful and carefree. The beach was right up the block from our tree-lined street of picket fences and wooden houses on Beach 84th street across from St. Rose of Lima church. It was a hot, sweltering, humid day, and Mama was busy as always, bustling with household chores and cooking, as well as catering to the needs of our annual summer tenants. But amidst the demanding clamor, she must have realized a cool dip in the ocean would do me good, because she suddenly abandoned her chores to take me for a walk to the beach.

This was a treat—it didn’t happen very often. Anxiously excited holding her hand, we set about up the block, passing the church, and crossing the ‘new road’ (Shore Front Parkway), carefully dodging black sedans with white tires along the way. As we approached the old boardwalk wooden stairs leading down to the sand, Mama implored me to be careful in the water and hold onto “the ropes.” (There were stationed posts near the shore connecting to ropes with buoy barrels for safety).

Leaving her, (not too far behind), I gleefully ran towards the seashore and into the refreshing saltwater. Holding onto the ropes in the shallow surf, I playfully frolicked amongst chatting women and children doing the same, all the while occasionally glancing for reassurance at my mother’s presence as she stood patiently distant but near, watching me like a hawk. I must have dipped myself several times (up and down, up and down), before finally running back to Mama, wet and shivering, where I have vivid memories of her waiting with a towel for me in one hand and a banana in the other. We walked back to the house, hand in hand under the warmth of the Rockaway sun— just a short little excursion but I was happy, while Mama returned to her labors!

As a child I had no idea of the busyness, sufferings, or aches and pains she must have felt at times, only that I knew Mama devoted herself to me unconditionally.  Even as she aged in body, her unwavering love remained the same as that day on the beach—never too busy, always there. Her faith, wisdom, dignity and caring, shown in many small but profound ways such as these taught me lifelong lessons of a mother’s love, which I’ve pricelessly cherished and have tried to emulate and honor faithfully in my own motherhood years.    

How true that the timeless child’s yearning of “I want my Mommy” never truly leaves us. I still miss my mother every day. I can never thank her enough for all her devotion and would do anything just to see her for even a minute. In spite of the years that have separated us, I am comforted in knowing that I still am and will always be my mother’s daughter. And like the loving imprint from that long-ago sunny day in 1939, she is always near, even if that memory drifts further away with each passing year.

No one loves you more than your mother. My First home. My first friend. My first teacher. My first love.  Thank You Heavenly Father for this Amazing Gift! 

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