My memories of home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are of my strange and wonderful mother. She's the most unusual person I knew. I’m not exaggerating: how many seventy-nine year old women do you know who go out, by themselves, three nights a week until three in the morning shooting pool?
She was always there. In the house during winter, but from April to October, my two younger sisters and I knew to look in the backyard. Mom would be in a halter top and shorts getting the darkest tan she could. She had raven-black curly hair, big blue eyes, and a beautiful smile.
With three little girls and a husband to care for, there would not have been enough time in the day if she only suntanned. So Mom did as much work in the sun as she could. She brought out her sewing basket to darn and mend our clothes. She peeled potatoes and cut up vegetables for dinner. She put her hair in curlers, wrote letters, and paid bills while sitting or laying on a blanket. She dragged the ironing board onto the back porch, snaking the iron’s cord to the electric socket through the open window.
The most wonderful thing about being a child in my house came from one of my mother’s amazing traits: she believed children could be trusted to make most decisions for themselves. I was in charge of how much to eat, for scheduling my own homework time, and when to go to sleep. I was just as free outside the house. During summer months, Mom wouldn’t have a clue where to find me.
When school was in session, I might decide to go home with a friend after school and call to say I would be home later. Just as easily, I brought classmates home for dinner without asking permission. One day when my best friend, Sherry Bender, and I sat down to eat, we were each given a glass of water and a plain piece of bread on a plate! Mom laughed as much as we did when she found ways to tease like that.
Mom allowed me to manage my daily life, but she didn’t expect me to behave like a grown up. She indulged me as a child. She perceived the need to play as more important than keeping the furniture in good shape or making sure the house was spic and span. I remember propping the dining-room table leaf against the couch for a sliding board. My sisters and I would turn a chair into a boat by laying it on its rounded back and rocking side-to-side. We decorated the walls of our bedroom, not by thumbtacking finished pictures, but by drawing and crayoning on the wall.
When relatives dropped by unexpectedly—people did that back then, I imagine they were shocked as they watched us roller-skating on the hardwood floors while eating crackers with crumbs smashed to smithereens under our wheels. One day when Mom and I were reminiscing about her laissez-faire childrearing, she defended herself: “It was raining outside, I had to let you girls play somewhere.”
Some of what I remember about my childhood comes from stories others tell. At every high school reunion, Betty Keller tells the story of coming to my house, along with another friend, for a pajama party. Her voice, tinged with awe, exclaims, “Peggy’s mom gave each of us our own box of Chef Boyardee pizza!” Betty turns to me, and says, “I thought your family was rich.” But we weren’t, far from it—at least using money as the measure.
Soon after Mom became a grandmother, she stopped suntanning. But my mother remained an unconventional woman to the end. Two weeks before she died, a month before her eighty-third birthday, she sunk five balls in a row at the American Legion during her Tuesday night pool league.