Thursday, October 28, 2010
Mary Dolores "Dolly" Leo, 1929-2010
My mother, Mary Dolores “Dolly” Leo, was born Oct. 4, 1929, right into the beginning of the Great Depression. Her mother died when she was still a child, her father was was an amiable but alcoholic bartender. She grew up very poor in North Philadelphia, with nine siblings.
I live in Philadelphia, but twice a year I would go to go visit my mother in her little cottage in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. I’d usually stay from Monday through Friday, and we wouldn’t do much. We’d sit together and read. When we felt like talking we would talk, when we didn’t feel like talking we wouldn’t. Often she would have her TV shows on. In the morning it was Regis and Kelly, The View, later it would be Oprah, at night it would be the cop shows, CSI, NCIS. I would take long walks along her road, then I’d come back, we would read, take naps, watch TV, talk when we felt like talking. She did most of the talking, which was fine by me.
She would talk about her Dickensian childhood. It sounded awful to me, it was awful, but she wasn’t looking for sympathy, to her it was just talking, remembering. She talked about meeting my father, their working-class courtship. My dad was a young World War II vet who’d lost his leg in Europe, he was at loose ends apparently, getting by on the GI bill and his disability pension, not worrying too much about a regular job. They got married when she was eighteen, and within a year they had their first child. My dad settled down. At first he worked in a shop that made artificial legs like the one he wore, then he became a tool-grinder.
The family eventually settled in the Olney section of Philadelphia, in a rowhome at 431 W. 65th Avenue. My mother moved with my younger sister from the old neighborhood to Cape May, NJ in 1981.
I live in downtown Philly, but a couple of years ago or so I started going up to the old neighborhood occasionally with a friend to eat at Kim’s Korean BBQ on 5th Street. On several occasions I took my friend on long walks through the old streets, just soaking it all up.
When I would go to visit my mom I would talk about these walks through the old hood, and we would open up the memories. Nothing special, nothing all that unusual, just the memories of a quiet working-class Philly neighborhood.
I treasure those many hours I spent alone with my mom in her cottage, just sitting, reading, watching TV, talking when we felt like talking, being quiet when we felt like being quiet.
My mother was an ordinary woman in most ways. But in the most important ways she was extraordinary. She was liberal in the very best sense: she believed in doing for others. She was the most completely unselfish person I’ve ever met. She loved children, and she loved adults until they proved themselves unlovable. She gave her entire life over to her family and to her friends, to her children, to her grandchildren, to her great-grandchildren. She was the undoubted center of the extended family, and the entire family loved her. If the world was filled with people like her then there would be no wars. There would be good food, there would be lots of cookies and pies and cakes, there would be family and friends, there would be cigarettes and drinks, there would be lots of talk. There wouldn’t be very much talk about love, but there would be a lot of love.
She died very suddenly in her beloved little cottage, and this is the way she wanted to go. We always had a long talk on the phone every week, and I got the word of her death just as I was about to call her up for our usual chat. Our last words to each other had been a mutual “I love you”.
I’ll miss her to the end of my life.
(I was trying to think of some of the odd records in our little LP library back on 65th Avenue: Hank Williams, Dinah Washington, Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins, Babatunde Olatunji's "Drums of Passion", Mitch Miller's "Sing Along" albums...then I remembered Ruby Murray, and this song. It's called "If You're Irish Come, Into The Parlour", but with my mom it would have been more like, "If You're A Good Person, Come Into The Parlour"...)