Sunday, November 19, 2017

Death is a Heartbreaker - A Nasty Son of a Bitch!

Nineteen years ago today I got a rather frantic phone call as I sat at my desk on the 2nd floor of the Corning Tower. I was at my relatively new job as an Early Intervention Specialist with New York State Department of Health.  My Dad was on the other end of the phone telling – no actually crying- to me that he thought my mother was dying. Since we had thought this on and off for the last couple of weeks, I initially questioned whether I should just drop everything and run.   What if it was another false alarm? Death like birth is not always swift and easy.   One of my co-workers, sitting nearby, encouraged me to go and so I called my husband, Bob, and asked if he could come and pick me up.  Bob worked downtown Albany for another NYS Agency at the time and we typically drove to and from work in the same vehicle.  Within a matter of minutes, I met him outside in front of the NYS Museum and we drove to my parents’ house in Colonie.  
When we arrived and I went to my parents’ bedroom, I could see that this was probably not a false alarm.  I remember that my Mom’s legs were already becoming mottled and the chain stock respirations had become more pronounced.  Just before leaving her bedside to come home the night before, I had spooned some ice cream into her mouth and she swallowed it and I felt a sense of relief that she was getting a little nourishment, even if it was only ice cream.   I lay down next to her in bed as my father paced the room with a horrified look of desperation on his face.   This man was a Physics Professor who understood how everything worked but now death was incomprehensible, coming faster and closer and he was totally helpless.    Bob and I decided to call my sister, Meg, a Special Education Teacher, and she made the same decision to leave her job and come.   Our beloved Pastor, Father David Noone, was called and came over to offer a little support, but death kept moving relentlessly forward.  None of us could do a damn thing. 
When my Mother’s breath stopped for longer and longer periods of time, my father urged me, “Shake her Mary, Shake her Mary!”  This had been something he was using; I was using; for the last couple of days to stimulate her to take another breath.   We had this brief, fleeting power to ward off her dying.
I don’t remember all the words that passed between us in that grief stricken bedroom.  I do know we professed our love and held onto to her for dear life.  After all, this beloved woman had been so central in our lives and she was moving into another realm.   The time between the breaths got longer, and the shaking needed to be stronger until I realized the futility and possible selfishness of this pathetic attempt to keep her with us.  I remember clearly the last breath and my father’s frenzied request, “Shake her again, Mary, shake her” and my sympathetic, but firm response, “No Dad, we can’t do that anymore”.
My mother was gone.  How can this dreaded reality be true? How can a mother be gone? How can one’s own mother be gone?   But there was no question left in my mind, there was a moment when it became instantaneously clear that her body had became an empty shell.   Rita Mary O’Donnell Fries no longer resided there.   We eventually left the bedroom; we knew she wasn’t there anymore. 
Hospice had been alerted when it became obvious that my Mom was dying but they didn’t rush over.   I imagine there is a reason they delay.    We called again from the kitchen when we knew my mother was dead and we stood around waiting for the nurse to arrive to do “the confirmation”, which was just a required formality at that point.    I went back into the bedroom with the Hospice Nurse, and remember being angry when she asked me to check for her pulse.  She knew I was a nurse but I should have said “no”.  It is a horrible sensation to touch your mother’s wrist and feel no heartbeat.   On the other hand, I felt it an honor to wash my mother’s body, I tried to memorize her as I gently patted her with the towel. 
I leaned over her and hugged her good-bye and her breath came out in response.  I felt badly to be pushing the last bit of breath out of her.   Then for the second time in my life, I left my mother’s body.
Death is a heart breaker, a nasty son-of a bitch.
We waited for the undertaker in the kitchen and when they arrived, I purposely averted my eyes as the gurney rolled past us through the hallway, into the living room and out the front door.   I didn’t want to see them take her away.
Now when I think of my mother, I like to remember other things.
I like to remember the life she created for us, the dinners she prepared, the pies that she baked, the stories she told us, the poems she recited, the trips to the museums and the libraries, the Easter Bonnets we bought together, the faith she shared, the strengths she exhibited, the feel of her skin, her permissiveness, her generosity, her welcoming home, her smile and her love.  That’s what I like to remember.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Rita and Charlie's 77th Anniversary

77 years ago today my parents married.  My Dad said my Mom looked like the cat that swallowed the canary that day in 1940.  I'd say she still had that same look when they renewed their marriage vows at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Colonie, NY on their 50th Anniversary in October 1990.   Father John Waldron presided that day.  Get a load of the prices for the wedding menu.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fun Facts about my Father

  • My Dad, Charles Anthony Fries, Sr.,  would always go out to get our Christmas trees at the "11th hour" on Christmas Eve.  I think he felt sorry for the scrawny, unclaimed trees leaning against the fence on the corner lot.   It was cold and those poor trees looked so lonely.  It didn’t hurt that they cost nothing or pretty close to it, but I don’t think that was his primary reason for waiting until the stand was closing down for the season.   There was something exhilarating about running out at the last minute that excited him.   By the world’s standards we might have had the barest, skinniest, sickliest looking tree in all of Brooklyn, but we loved our tree nevertheless.
  • Speaking of Christmas, in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve, my parents would also rush to Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens to finish their remaining Christmas present purchases.   I use the term “remaining” loosely since a rather large part of the gifts were bought as they quickly ran from store to store in an excited, somewhat stressful fashion.  We would bring the items home and hurriedly wrap them to bring next door for the “exchange” at the annual Christmas Eve get-together at my Grandpa Fries’ house. 

  • My Dad was rather protective of his family.  When we were young children, he had us kids stand on a table and twirl around and around with our arms over our heads as he wrapped each one of us in a blanket and secured it firmly down the side with large safety pins.  God forbid we get a chill during the night!   I guess in retrospect it could be seen as a bit confining but at the time I don’t remember minding it at all.   

  • My Dad always believed that “function” was paramount and “looks” didn’t really matter.  If it works, who cares what it looks like?  So for most of my growing up years, the water spigots in our one and only bathtub, in our one and only bathroom, were turned on with pliers which we rested  on the side of the bathtub.  There were no knobs on the hot and cold water faucets, only some sort of screws coming out of the wall and these were turned on by using the pliers.  Hey, it worked; we were still able to take baths.  My sister recently reminded me that the bathtub contained another interesting peculiarity - hot water came out of the cold water spout and cold water came out of the hot water spout.  Till this day, we both still have trouble figuring out faucets.  It makes life a little bit more interesting though. 

  • Whenever we sat in the Dining Room (which was a lot since we had company all the time) my Dad sat at one end of the dining room table.   Roast beef, roast turkey and roast chicken were frequent choices for a company dinner, and my father was the primary meat carver.   These company dinners were noisy, crowded, joyous events at 62 Interboro Parkway and my father’s style of carving and serving the meat only added to the excitement.   “Do you want some more meat?” he would say, hoping he’d get a positive response.   When a guest said “yes’, he’d say, “hold out your plate”, and with one well-coordinated movement, he’d slice the meat, pick up the knife and fling the sliced meat across the table onto your plate.  Rarely did he miss, even if the meat was going to the opposite end of the table.   Dinner was fun at our house.
  • The photo above was taken in 1936 ( my Dad was 19 years old )the backyard at my father's house ( 8 Vermont Ave - name was changed to  62 Interboro Parkway in the late 30's and more recently changed to the Jackie Robinson Pkwy) 

    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Racism and Other Prejudices - Forgive Us our Trespasses # 2

    I guess it is not surprising that I had some tendencies to be prejudiced.   I went to Public School 76 through 4th grade and then to St. Michael the Archangel’s school until the 8th grade.  Both schools were in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  For my 4 years of high school I attended Our Lady of Wisdom Academy in Ozone Park, Queens, NY and then graduated from St. Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing in New York City.  In all those many years of schooling, there was not one single black person in any of my classes.  Not a one!!!  Let me remind you, I was not living south of the Mason-Dixon Line rather; I was living in Brooklyn and attending schools in 3 of the 5 boroughs of metropolitan New York City-the largest city in the world.   I was a little white girl, living in a lily white world.   I was never exposed to people of color except for what I saw on the television and that was not always a positive exposure.   I heard people say that “Black Bastard” when Martin Luther King appeared on the TV screen.   I saw people in power and people in governing positions treating people of color as if they were subhuman or at least not as important as us white people.    I doubt whether my experience was unique. I don’t think I was the only one to observe and encounter such things. 

    Racism and Other Prejudices – Forgive Us Our Trespasses

    There are some things I observed in myself and others throughout my 72 years on this planet.   First of all there was, and probably still is, some type of hierarchy to prejudice.   Not ever one will view my observations and experiences in the same way and that’s OK.  I can only share what I encountered first hand.
    Race was at the pinnacle; i.e., it seemed to be the strongest prejudice of all.  Even among the races there was another hierarchy – certain races were more acceptable than others.  Bringing a Black guy home to meet Mom and Dad was a big “no-no”.   By the way, “Black” was the socially acceptable word after “Negro” was deemed unacceptable and before “African-American” came into vogue.  Currently, I wonder if ever dark skinned individual has ancestors that come for Africa.  What about a dark-skinned person from Haiti?  Is that person an African- American?  I guess I don’t categorize every white person I meet as an Irish-American or a German-American, or Italian-American etc, so why, in everyday descriptions of a person, does that distinction even has to be made?  Back in the 50’s and 60’s even having Black friends of the same sex (and I don’t mean a lesbian friendship - just a regular friendship) was a bit of an oddity and looked upon as a curiosity or something to be noted. 
     In 1966-67 I met another young nurse on the American Red Cross Blood Mobile in NYC.  She was assigned to teach me how to perform the basic duties of my position, including venipuntures – a skill I did not learn in nursing school.    She was a young black girl, about my own age.  My initial, gut reaction -which was spoken only in my head, thank God-, was, “How the hell is she going to teach me anything, she’s Black!” These feelings of superiority surfaced immediately, surprisingly and embarrassingly and they made me realize that I was indeed “prejudice”.  I guess I might have denied being prejudice, if someone had bothered to ask me.  She was a fantastic Registered Nurse, an amazing woman and a most excellent teacher.   After my shameful initial prejudice feelings subsided, we became the best of friends.   I can truly say Connie Thomas, R.N., taught me lessons about myself and life that I never would have known had I not met her.   I quickly grew to love and respect Connie, and one thing I regret in life, is losing touch with her.  She was the type of individual I would have wanted in my life forever.  Connie Thomas, is not an easily- Googled name and believe me I have tried.   Once, when the American Red Cross Blood Mobile went up to West Point for a blood drive, we stayed a couple of nights at the Thayer Hotel on the West Point property.  When Connie and I signed up as roommates for this little excursion (an aside: this was a fantastic assignment for young, single women), the Black fellows that handled the trucks and set up the blood mobile equipment jokingly commented (many serious things are said in jest), that it was not acceptable for a white girl and a black girl to room together.  We laughed and ignored them.  Honestly, given the era in our history, this was NO joke.  On another occasion, I invited Connie to go to a Friday night party with me and she said, “Will there be any Black guys there?” and I said, “Geez, Connie, I never even thought about that, but probably not.”  I didn’t think about her “color” anymore, she was a friend and color was inconsequential.   She said, “Sure I’d love to go to the party with you” and she went.   One of the white guys at the party took her home, but ended up putting the moves on her in a rather rude way.  I was embarrassed when I heard about her experience and we both wondered aloud together if he thought because she was black, she might be “easy”.
    To be continued or I've only just begun.......

    Friday, August 18, 2017

    Hannah Byrne and Frank B. Coleman's Wedding Tuesday, April 27, 1886 at 11AM at St. Francis Church in Friendsville, Pa.

    Interesting observation for me, was the fact that I always saw her name written as "Hannah" but on her wedding invitation it is written, "Hanna"

    Margaret Coleman and TJ O'Donnell's Wedding