Since I was a military retiree and had access, we always tried to shop for the cheaper groceries at the Air Force Base because my mother was also entitled to “commissary privileges” just as I was. She “earned” those after having married a one-hundred percent disabled veteran some fifteen years after my father, George, had died. His name was Henry T. Foley, who was on duty one day with the Third Platoon, Reconnaissance Company, 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion and riding in his jeep while on patrol just north of Seoul in the late 1950’s, when it hit a huge rut and rolled over into a ditch, ruining his back for life. I was still on active duty and stationed in San Antonio at the time I learned she’d met Henry, and I of course, like everyone, was shocked at the idea that then at sixty-five years old and always miserable by all accounts, that she’d appeal to anyone as a potential partner. But of course Henry was looking at her through a different lens I suppose.
It was Veteran’s Day and he was selling those little red paper poppies alongside another Korean War veteran at a long folding table outside the exit to the Stop & Shop on Hyde Park Avenue when the magic happened. He was seventy-two years old, and very much still the witty Irishman with a slight brogue that he’d come by somewhat naturally. Although he’d grown up in Dorchester it was among his clannish relatives who’d come over from Ireland the generation before. He always said the accent was useful in trying to charm the ladies. It was warm for November, but still he was wearing his signature red plaid flannel shirt, penny loafers with the white socks, and a black “scully” cap with a bright green shamrock pin, stuck just off-center at the brim. As Ma walked by the table, he gave her a broad smile before offering his pitch.
“Would ya like to help out your country’s veterans today luv?”
At once Ma began to preen at the attention, and tugged self-consciously at the side edges of her dirty blond wig, snugging it down, then adjusted her oversized sun glasses with her palms, taking care to keep the menthol cigarette that was perched between the stained middle and forefingers of her left hand, safely pointed away from her synthetic and flammable hair.
“My husband was in the service, and my son is in the Air Force, so I always buy my poppy!” said my mother, lying about that in her sexiest voice, as she handed Henry a couple of dollars.
“Let me pin that to your lovely sweater then,” said Henry rising and coming around the table to do the honors.
Smiling with her yellowed dentures, she leaned in a little bit extra to be sure she gave him the best opportunity to make contact with her chest as he pushed the green wire stem through a button hole on her lavender sweater and then secured it with pride.
“There you go my luv!”
They got to talking, then flirting, and she made sure Henry learned in a hurry that she was a widow, and he offered did she know that he was divorced and lived alone too? And did she like Irish music and maybe a little dancing, and perhaps a fish and chip for lunch tomorrow at the Carrib Pub just up the road on Center Street would be a nice way to get to know each other a bit? They have the freshest scrod, and the best pour of Guinness outside of Dublin!
The fish and chip lunch turned into walks on Wollaston Beach in Quincy where Ma lived, trips to Fenway Park to catch the Red Sox, and Sunday pot roasts or New England boiled dinner at Ma’s place. As normal as those things might be for the average person, for Ma to be doing them was almost unthinkable to us. She had an apartment on the first floor of an elderly housing complex where she was designated “floor sheriff” or some such other lofty title. She took great pains to tell everyone how earnestly she performed her duties, checking in every day on the oldest residents on her floor to make sure they weren’t dead or at the very least hadn’t fallen down and lying helpless and out of reach of their emergency cords.
Henry did the cooking of course, as my mother only knew two cooking methods—boiling and microwaving. All of these “normal” activities that she was now involved in were truly unimaginable to me and my seven other siblings. Ma the neurotic, dating? Somehow her agoraphobia and her other miscellaneous anxieties were now in some sort of new-found remission? That idea was almost as absurd as saying she had been a good mother. Where had she found this new level of social functioning we all wondered? Was this some sort of intervention from on high or maybe a demonic possession? Or perhaps she was just being that same attention seeking and horny old lady we knew so well as we suspected was probably the case? When Henry died ten plus years after their marriage, as far as I knew and from what I saw, she didn’t even cry. I guess it was no surprise then that she didn’t even attend his wake or funeral. She took great pains for years afterward to tell everyone and anyone in a hushed but bitter whisper that they’d never consummated their marriage. Chalk one up for Henry.
Chapter 1, to be continued….