(by Megan Clancy)
Growing up in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, my mother loved coming home from school to the comforting aroma of freshly baked blueberry muffins, knowing that they would be dessert after supper. One day when she was seven, she could not wait. Mischievous Mary snuck behind my grandmother Sally’s back and snatched a muffin, thinking she’d get away with it—until a loose tooth fell out, and she had to confess what happened.
But my mom did not live with her mother; actually she was terrified of breaking the rules and being sent away. Her father had died from alcoholism, leaving the family in poverty, and her younger sister Kelly had died from pneumonia at the age of two. (My mother still has Kelly’s blond hair stored in an envelope.) My grandmother, bereft at these losses, sent my mother to live with her sister, who was not kind to her. Although she was sometimes allowed to return home for meals, there wasn’t always enough money to feed everyone. My mother remembers one dinner when she wanted more Campbell’s tomato soup, and my grandmother cried because she had nothing more to feed Mary and her two brothers.
Mom did not follow the rules during high school. She’d skip classes to go off with a friend and smoke cigarettes. To earn money, she worked after school at the local supermarket or the ice cream parlor, and she sewed her own dresses for dates and the prom. She was very popular and married at age 21, ironically to a man who drank too much. My sister and I—twins—were born three months prematurely and couldn’t digest formula, so Mom collected breast milk donated by other mothers from the La Leche League. She had milk flown into Boston and transported to the Massachusetts General Hospital where we lived in incubators in the Neonatal ICU for weeks. Then, for a year or so, she would drive around with a cooler in the back of her car, collecting milk from local mothers who could spare it. It always seemed to me a brave act of early motherhood.
It was clear to my mom that I was deaf at birth since I did not respond to sounds when she opened the door to the incubator. She insisted on getting a diagnosis from a specialist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. And throughout our early childhood, she had to find skilled pediatricians for my sister and me, who had continuing medical issues as preemies. It was the early 1980s, when the school for the deaf did not support teaching sign language, focusing instead on oral communication. My mom still insisted on learning how to sign, secretly, from a teacher and a parent of two older deaf children. That’s why I know sign language today.
My mother made sure my sister and I had a different childhood than she had. All during our school years, she had after-school treats waiting for us—BLTs, homemade applesauce, chocolate whoopie pies—and of course, when blueberries were in season and we could go blueberry picking, warm muffins, using Sally’s recipe. I never knew my grandmother—she already had an advanced form of cancer when I was born—so her blueberry muffin recipe had, and continues to have, a lot of sentimental value.
When my sister and I were teenagers, Mom worked as a flight attendant for a charter airline. She was in Berlin when the Wall came down and brought home a piece of it, which we still have today. Sometimes we got to fly for free on standby. One summer, Mom told us we were taking a family trip to Detroit to see Motown, whose music she loved. But when we arrived, Mom said we had to catch another plane…to Paris! Mom had traveled there often as part of her job, and I finally got to taste the olive bread, molten hot chocolate, creamy cheeses, and flaky croissants that I’d heard about.
When I told my mom that I wanted to become an actress, her response was, “What? Are you brain dead?” It was her typical sarcastic sense of humor—in a Boston accent, which neither my sister nor I got, for some reason. Perhaps her sarcasm helped her get through a lot of obstacles in her life, but she still managed to make happy memories for us.