Memento mori

January 18, 2021 – Martin Luther King, Jr Day

I was the older sibling in a classic 1960s nuclear family: working father and stay-at-home mother with two children.

The pattern of our weekdays was a set piece: Dad went off to catch the 7:00 train to Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road while Mom got us ready for school, then she single-handedly took care of a 50-year-old four-story Dutch colonial, with unfinished basement, three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths …

Mom wanted to “go to work” too … she aspired to be a real estate agent as I recall. But Dad wanted things to be done his way. So instead of pursuing a career, Mom was a girl scout troop leader and a cub scout den mother. She volunteered at the church and made cookies from scratch for PTA bake sales. And when we got home from school each day, she was there to listen to our endless stories of joy and woe as we drank our milk and ate our snacks.

Then off we’d go to ride bikes through the neighborhood and play with our friends while Mom waited for the arrival of the afternoon paper, Newsday. It wasn’t until recently that I made the connection between Newsday and Robert Caro. As I read his memoir Working, the place names tumbled off page 8 and rang bells of recognition in my head, recalling my parents’ many discussions of the same: Idlewild, Mitchell Field, Hofstra, Nassau Community College, Mineola Courthouse. Scandalous doings that led to Caro’s epic book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Every afternoon, Mom would eat Mister Salty pretzels from a deep blue box as she read the latest Newsday

Curled up on the living room couch, she often dozed off. We tiptoed around, careful not to use the phone between 5:00 and 5:30 when Dad called to let Mom know which train he would be taking home. The call would rouse Mom, who then went in to the kitchen to make dinner for my brother and me. She usually poured some Scotch and sipped it neat. When dinner was ready, Art and I would eat dinner together with Mom in attendance, although she waited until Dad got home to eat herself.

When the time came for Dad to be picked up at the East Williston train station, we’d pile into the car, arguing over whose turn it was to sit in the front. Mom would play the AM radio while we waited for the train. Unlike Dad, who always turned to classical music station WQXR, Mom was absolutely okay listening to rock and roll on WABC.

So it is I remember one cold, rainy evening in April of 1968. I was 11 years old, sitting in the back seat of our 1965 Mercury Comet, windows cracked to keep them from fogging, listening to the radio, waiting for the 7:10 to arrive. Remember because the music stopped for a special news bulletin, that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee (and here I pause to note that I found this WABC radio link after drafting the post).

It was a time before cell phones, before the instantaneous knowing of all things newsworthy. The commuters coming off the train were completely unaware of what had just happened. As Dad ran across the rain-drenched parking lot Mom turned down the radio, and as he got into the car she told him the news. Told it with such urgency and despair, that it marked the time and the place forever in my memory. Made known to me the world-changing existence of Martin Luther King.

We witnessed history then and we still do to to this day. What will come of it all this time?

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Process notes: thanks go to Malka at Stitch in Dye for the funereal linen cloth, to Deb Lacativa for the variegated floss in shades of gray, and to Rose for the collaged image of rain drops that inspired this patched memory.

21 thoughts on “Memento mori

  1. LA – wow – what a beautiful post about your mum, dad and memories and MLK. Thank you for sharing. Peace. B

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  2. A beautiful story – so well related. I could picture each step. Momentous days of good and bad. Mister Salty – my goodness, a blast from the past. Been following your “patch trail.” I applaud your creativity 👏

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  3. Such a well told and vivid passage. Thank you for telling it. Of course the sad and impactful assassination at the end but leading up to that, the details that make up a childhood — fighting for the front seat, eating before Dad arrived, leaving the phone available for that critical half hour. I sometimes forget that you’re not from Texas.

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  4. Liz your exquisite telling of this time is so heart felt, real and equally poignant; I’m thinking of your Mom, her hopes and dreams.

    Aug 28, 1963, a hot day in my home town in the central valley of CA, glued to the TV, no air conditioning, Dr King gave his amazing I Have A Dream speech. The march on Washington, his words ringing out, my parents talking about their own journeys to America, hoping to find a better life…in part, understanding in their own way, his words, taking it in with tears in their eyes…I have never forgotten that shared time, together…

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    1. telling these stories helps me make sense of who I became and why … and informs what I hope our grandchildren see and remember

      likewise I feel I “know you” through your stories … and am the better for it

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    1. I stitched the final tear/rain drops as the ceremony was taking place at the reflecting pool on the National Mall … the connections between the thens and nows felt sacred

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  5. Like the rest, I think this is beautifully written, so vivid and easy for me to imagine. I am thinking a lot about history. The cycle of past, present,. future.

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  6. Liz~ Such great storytelling. Beautifully written. Our childhoods hold some huge differences, but that era we share, that defined us lives on in our hearts.
    I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but my parents had a poster (yes, a poster!) in the living room of the three heads, in almost total profile, of JFK, RFK and MLK…this and my childhood ‘report’ on MLK – impossibly immature in its presentation and documented reason for choosing him, but forever an incredibly deep piece of who I am (as you state, why/how you became who you are).
    Thank you for sharing your story here, in this way. xo
    PS My niece went to Hofstra 🙂

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    1. I started to write a response and decided to go with “it’s complicated” … but suffice it to say there were no posters of the Kennedys in my home … but yes, the era defined our lives and I’m glad about that

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  7. Liz, such a touching and beautifully told account of such a significant event. And I can just imagine a young Liz sitting in the back seat absorbing it all.

    And I’m thrilled to be thought of in connection to your wonderful memory quilt. The patch is beautiful.
    I love to note all the circles in our lives, as events become memories, and then we re-ignite the original events in our minds as we circle back to them in thought.

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    1. I confess the patch came out more lunar than raindrops within a raindrop (which is what I was going for), but it felt right somehow and I thank you again for the collage that inspired it

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  8. Your words paint such a vivid scene for me Liz. What wonderful memories you shared with us, your mother sounded “so cool”. Love how she napped and you and your brother would tip toe so she could rest before having to start dinner and pick up your dad. And what an adorable home you grew up in, a Dutch Colonial. Sounds like a “Father Knows Best” childhood, the kind I used to dream and wish for as a child in the 1960’s.

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