July 26, 2011 – Today would have been my Mom’s 60th birthday. It’s been nearly six years since she’s been gone. I still miss her and think about her and my father every day. My brother and I were fortunate to have two parents were colorful characters who fostered every creative dream we had, who knew how to be a friend to their kids, and most importantly, a parent to their children.
More than anything in the world, my mother loved to be a mom. I can remember her taking me and my younger brother with her everywhere when we were kids. I remember Mom teaching me to read and write when I was little. Before I entered kindergarten, we’d play “school” on the front porch every day with a little chalkboard and magnetic letters. She would read to me and sometimes change the stories in the Little Golden Books just for laughs. I doubt the original version of “We Help Daddy” had Mommy lobbing a wrench at Daddy’s head.
Even well-into adulthood, Mom recognized the importance of stuffed animals. She still had her favorite stuffed animal from her childhood, a bear named Tuffy. Sure, my brother used to (and still does) think I’m a flake for my unreasonable attachment to my own favorite stuffed animal Sammy, but Mom totally thought nothing of it. In fact, she would bake Sammy birthday cakes and crafted him a party hat out of a Styrofoam cup that she decorated with colored markers proclaiming him a “Party Animal.” In a lot of ways, Mom was like a big kid herself who got to experience a better version of her childhood through her own children.
When Mom was 6, her father died of a sudden heart attack. He was only 42. As a result, Grandma became a single parent who scraped to provide for her only child on a widow’s pension and by holding a job as a saleswoman / window dresser for Sullum’s, one of the area’s finest dress shops. Grandma made sure Mom had beautiful clothes, baton lessons, singing lessons and went to college. However, Mom resented the fact that she didn’t get much time with her since Grandma worked. Several of Grandma’s 12 brothers and sisters — particularly my Great Uncle Tony who owned a local grocery store/butcher shop in the ’50s and my Great Aunt Johanna and her husband, Pete — pitched in to help raise Mom. They were wonderful as family and in helping to raise Mom. Yet, as far as my mother was concerned, no substitute for having her actual mother around more often.
I think her own upbringing partly informed Mom’s decision to give up her teaching career and stay at home to raise us. Even though it meant we would be a single income family. Mom wanted the best for us. Although it stretched our limited budget, she wanted us to live in a nice apartment complex. We could never afford family vacations like Disney Land or anything like that, but Mom insisted that living in an apartment complex with a pool in it was like being on vacation all summer long. (Considering how many fond, crazy memories I have of our apartment complex’s pool, she was right!)
She did everything she could to ensure that my brother and I lived in a nice home. Not only did she clean religiously every day, but she managed the money my Dad brought home from his factory job. At one point, when Dad’s hours were cut drastically, she figured out how to feed a family of four on $27 a week left after rent and utilities. Sure, we had a different SPAM-themed entree for dinner every night, but we ate. We were actually quite poor, but Mom never let us know how poor we were… It didn’t matter because, aside from a few verbal sparring matches that lasted maybe 20 minutes then blew over completely, we were happy.
Mom also budgeted our family’s funds to be sure there was enough for lessons for me and my brother. Mom was a big proponent of the arts. She was one of the best pianists I’d ever heard and could transpose music in mere minutes. She didn’t just read the music, she felt it. She’d throw in little flourishes here and there, reading off of simple sheet music or handwritten chords. When I was a kid, I’d ask her to play my favorite piece, “In a Persian Market,” all the time. At Christmas, she’d play carols and have me and my brother sing along with her. She could play everything from classical to current and considered Liberace, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis to be the Holy Trinity of Pianists.
When we were kids, it was part of our daily routine to learn to sing different songs at the piano with Mom and perform them. Raph got a mixed bag of songs, even some popular ballads. Mom had targeted me for Broadway songs like “No Bad News” from The Wiz and Streisand selections from Funny Girl. I liked those. I wasn’t too fond of learning to sing Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” though. Still, it was fun to learn to sing and perform under Mom’s direction. As a teenager, she had performed at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier and later on, she and my Dad were in a band together.
Mom’s other passion was acting. She was kind of a Mama Rose from Gypsy type. “Sing out, Louise!” and all that jazz. In college, she did Summer Stock. She left teaching English and Drama to raise my brother and I, but once we were old enough, she went back to substitute teaching and volunteered to head up a Speech and Forensics department at my brother’s school. She coached them to several district championships. A few years later, she picked up a job at the Scranton chapter of the Boys & Girls Club to develop a Musical Theatre department. While there, she taught the same things she taught my brother and I to a lot of kids who may not have otherwise been exposed to the arts.
While I was closer in personality and interests to my Dad, it didn’t mean I loved Mom any less. Although, I have to admit that sometimes, I found my Mom a little intimidating. At 5’4″ and maybe 117 lbs. with long blonde hair, she didn’t look intimidating, but true to her zodiac sign, the lion, my Mom could be fierce — in both a personal sense and in a sense that many a drag queen could appreciate.
While most kids fear their fathers finding out about any trouble they got into, I was much more terrified about my Mom finding out. Without hesitation, she would whoop your ass for stepping out of line. Mom was a big fan of The Three Stooges and would frequently refer to punishment as “five across the eyes” and then cite Pavlov’s “Stimulus-Response” theory.
If my brother or I acted like little assholes to an adult or showed disrespect, we were severely reprimanded. There was none of that “time out” happy horseshit in our house. You either got whacked with a kitchen utensil or had television and radio privileges revoked for an entire school quarter. Ditto for throwing tantrums in public. It was not tolerated. I’ve seen kids get lollipops for causing less of a ruckus than my brother and I got backhanded for. My parents beat me and I turned out fine. More parents should take stock of that.
While Mom was definitely a disciplinarian, she was also quick to defend her kids. If either of us were being picked on, Mom would be the first one to tell us to fight back and defend ourselves, both verbally and physically. She taught us to never be pushovers.
At the same time, if Mom felt that we had been wronged by a teacher, she’d be the first to go to bat for us. She listened to my brother and I enough that she knew when we were right and when we were blowing a situation out of proportion.
Beyond that, Mom was just fun. Despite her very ladylike appearance — and the uncanny ability to wear hosiery and not snag it on a wicker couch — Mom had a great sense of humor. Like Dad, she appreciated a good fart joke, a trait I inherited from both of my parents.
Mom beamed with pride when, during high school, I got her a Christmas card from my big-time job working at Spencer’s in the mall. It had a middle aged couple sitting on the couch on the front with the wife-beater-and-boxers sporting husband lifting an ass cheek in the direction of the curlers-and-bathrobe bedecked wife. At the top of the card in bold, red letters were the words “Passing you a Christmas Fart.”
Mom loved it! Every Christmas after, she would take the card out and prominently display it on top of the television set as part of the Cooper family’s holiday décor.
Another surprising thing about Mom was that, even though she spoke with perfect diction and was quite a witty wordsmith herself, Mom could have schooled Lenny Bruce in the art of using four-letter words.
One word Mom used rather often was “coozie.” As a kid, I had no idea what a “coozie” was. (And we’re not talking drink holders, either.) I just remember Mom making my Miss Piggy puppet make a “coozie smile,” that weird tightening of her mouth that Piggy would do whenever Kermit or some other Muppet would piss her off.
I also remember being five-years-old, wrapping gifts at Christmas time with Mom teaching me that neat little trick of curling ribbon with scissors. She would call it “making Curly Coozies.” She also noted that, “If anyone asks you what these are, tell them that they are “Curly Q-Z’s.” At that age, I had no idea that you could grow hair “down there,” much less that “there” had another purpose besides peeing.
“Why can’t I call them Curly Coozies” outside the house?” I asked.
Mom’s response was, “Trust me… I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I did find out much later what exactly a “Curly Coozie” was. I also found out the origin of Mom’s fascination with the word. Apparently, growing up in the ‘50s in Olyphant, PA, there was a man about town who had half a tongue. People in town referred to this dude as “Coozie” because of what his tongue looked like and because it made him talk funny. Kids in the neighborhood – Mom being one of them – were obsessed with The Legend of Coozie and he was one of those colorful local figures every small town has.
I, too, became enthralled with The Legend of Coozie once I knew what one was. This was forever immortalized in my high school year book. Most parents post wonderfully sweet congratulatory messages to their graduating children. My parents (although I know Mom was behind this one) included a message that read:
Congratulations, Lana Cooper
From the “Coozie” Fan Club
It was a proud day. Sure, Pat O’Malley (who had a congratulatory note above mine in the yearbook) had love from his Mom and Dad… But did Pat O’Malley get a shout-out from the Coozi Fan Club? I think not!
Even when taking photos, instead of “Say ‘cheese’,” Mom would say “Say ‘coozie’!”.
There was nothing sexual about Mom’s usage of the word at all. It was just funny. She was like a big kid in a lot of ways. Actually, Mom was about as asexual as you can get for having popped out two kids. She didn’t even know what a dildo was.
I remember one time, my brother and I were riffing on an acquaintance’s mother, alluding that she probably pleasured herself with a dildo in one hand and a bag of Cheetos in the other. Mom interjected into our conversation asking “What’s a dil-do?” Only, she pronounced the word in a way that “dil-do” rhymed with “mildew.” The awkward task off having to explain dildos to Mom was left to me – and to educate her on its proper pronunciation. To paraphrase Darth Vader,“The student had become the master!”
On the subject of Star Wars, it was Mom who took me to see my very first Star Wars film. I was four and my brother was still a baby. She left him home with Dad so that she could take me to see Return of the Jedi, the last film of the original trilogy. I thought it was awesome. (Yeah, yeah. I know many Star Wars purists cringe at the thought of Ewoks. Blow me. They were small, furry and I was four and thought they were adorable, damnit!) Unlike Dad, Mom wasn’t a huge sci-fi fan, but she loved Star Wars. The 1977 original was actually one of the first “date movies” my parents had seen together, Dad having convinced her of the Power of The Force.
Ironically, the last film I saw with Mom was Revenge of the Sith, the last film of the “first” Star Wars trilogy. It was only a few months before she relapsed and passed away one month after being re-diagnosed. I didn’t know it then, but it was fitting that I would see my very first Star Wars film with Mom, as well the last. Not knowing what would happen in the months ahead, I remember enjoying the film and feeling like a kid again at the movies with Mom. In what had become a family tradition, Mom loaded her oversized purse with candy, sodas, and even some sandwiches for us to snack on in the movie theatre rather than paying top dollar for a bag of popcorn that would be finished before the previews. (A fondness for big, colorful purses and stashing contraband food items was something I also inherited from Mom.)
Like the Rebel Alliance, Mom was a fighter. Not with a lightsaber, but just in the way she carried herself. In late 2003, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They initially gave her less than six months to live. The kicker with pancreatic cancer is that once they find it, it’s usually too late. Mom wanted to beat it and sought out the best doctors’ possible. She went to Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Every day for a solid month, she’d get radiation treatments and chemo once a week. Dad would drive the 100+ miles to Philadelphia, Mom would vomit. She kept all of her hair (which went a long way towards her hiding her illness from most people outside the family), but lost a lot of weight. Once the treatments shrunk the tumor enough, she was able to undergo the grueling Whipple surgery to remove at least a third of her pancreas. She would have to take enzymes for the rest of her life to digest her food but she didn’t care. She wanted to live.
Miraculously, after a successful surgery, she was given a clean bill of health. She regained her weight and went for regular check-ups. She started doing more new things and really enjoying life even more than she already did. She even went to her first live WWE show and loved it!
A year and a half later, the cancer returned. She and my brother knew it was terminal in July of 2005 when smaller tumors started popping up all over her body. My father and I didn’t know she was terminal until three days before she died. She had sworn my brother to secrecy, not wanting to worry me or Dad.
With my mother’s death, each of us in the family had our own cross to bear: Dad, then 71, had to deal with outliving his 54-year-old wife – something he never would have imagined – and wonder why she never told him she was dying.
My brother had just graduated college and taken a full-time teaching job. He wound up with another full-time job that, in a perfect world, no 23-year-old should ever have to do: caring for a terminally ill mother and draining all sorts of tubes to the point he had blisters on his hands. He bore the added burden alone of knowing what was going to happen.
As for me, I was 26 at the time and lived 100 miles away in Philadelphia. The only clue I had that Mom wasn’t doing well was when her nightly phone calls grew shorter and less frequent. Ultimately, finding out Mom wasn’t going to get better left me with a horrible sense of guilt that I wasn’t there. If I had known, maybe I would have taken time off from work to help out. Maybe I would have forgone my yearly Wildwood vacation for a few more minutes of time with Mom when she was still able to laugh and talk with some lucidity.
Since college, I would visit home every other weekend. In the month that Mom had been re-diagnosed, I saw just how far downhill she’d gone in two weeks. The last weekend I came home was three days before she died. I decided to stay longer, convinced that if my brother and I tried to get more food in her and kept her spirits up, she’d live. The word “terminal” hadn’t sunken in yet and I was deluding myself. She passed away that Monday morning while Dad and I were walking the dog.
I’m still angry about it. Sometimes, I get angry that I didn’t know why she didn’t tell me or Dad what was happening. Mostly, I get angry that Mom was way too young and too good of a person to die while some truly vile people still walk this Earth in perfect health. I’m angry she didn’t get to see my brother’s wedding or share in any success her kids had. I’m angry because I worry if I’ll remember the disease more than Mom as a person. I’m angry that four years later, Dad died, leaving both my brother and me with no parents at a relatively young age. I’m angry that a lot of other relatively young people I know, too, lost parents to this evil disease.
As much as I miss Mom, we didn’t always see eye to eye. A little after Mom had been given a clean bill of health – about a year before the cancer came back like Brett Favre – she and I had a really great talk. I had always felt Mom had favored my brother because the two of them were more alike. I often felt somewhat distanced because I deviated from “the plan” Mom may have wanted for me. I wasn’t pretty, popular, or into things most kids were. I was nothing like what she was in high school: blonde, attractive, and the Drum Majorette.
I always assumed she had wanted a cheerleader for a daughter and ended up with nerdy metalhead / pop culture junkie instead. I thought she was disappointed with me. Instead, she told me that she was always worried that I was disappointed with her as a mother. I told her that was so not the case and that I actually really admired her and looked up to her. I wished I could have been more like her, but I had to be me.
Mom set the record straight for me and said that she had only wanted these things for me because she wanted my life to be easier than hers had been. I had been under the misconception she was “popular” in her high school days. She said it was not the case. She wasn’t an outcast, but she just never felt at home. She told me that she was proud of me as a daughter and for always being myself, even if it wasn’t the easiest choice.
I remember this conversation in the car and giving my mother the biggest hug ever. Those five minutes cleared up years of what I had wrongly assumed was disappointment – and put aside my own mother’s fears. I had told her what I still believe to this day: I had the best mother any kid could hope for and was so proud of her. I always made sure I told both of my parents this because that’s what I truly believe.
Although we differed in a lot of ways, Mom and I bonded over writing and our love of language and the arts. A lot of my writing ability comes from my mother. As a former English teacher, she drilled me in proper spelling and grammar. Every goofy story I’d write as a kid, she’d read and give me an honest critique or suggest plot points to me. Similarly, as I developed as a writer, Mom would tap me as her “go-to girl” for smaller details in dialogue for a play she had written called “CinderAnnie” and even in angry letters (written in hilarious poetry form!) to the editor of the local newspaper complaining about certain area politicians.
I shared her love of musical theatre, too. We totally bonded the one year when she bought us tickets for my birthday to see a Broadway touring company that passed through Scranton. I got to see Into the Woods and Les Miserables with Mom and had fun discussing the shows together afterwards.
She got me hooked on Vaudeville comedians like the Stooges, the Marx Brothers and our mutual hero, Mae West. We’d watch old movies together on Saturday afternoons on public television and watch classic horror movies on Uncle Ted’s Monster Mania every Friday night.
We talked about how when we got older, she would be like Sophia and I’d be like Dorothy on The Golden Girls. I think the similarities between my relationship with Mom and the one on the show is part of why I still enjoy it so much. I could always count on her to “tell it like it is”, even if the truth hurt. She was my most brutal critic and my biggest fan. At the same time, she’d be one of the first ones I could laugh about something with – good or bad. That’s what a good mother does. I was lucky to have one of the best.
Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you and miss you always.