My mother was a hard worker, a lover of literature, a believer in the power of jazz, and an introverted loner — a trait I inherited from her.

My parents divorced when I was a young child. Mom left New York, and I stayed with my father and grandmother in the Bronx.

One day my mother showed up, knocked on the door, and asked if she could visit with me. Dad was at work, and my grandmother was hesitant.

“Would it be okay,” Mom asked, “if I took Johnny out for an ice cream?”

Mom had brought me three or four picture books. I wanted to bring the books, but Mom said no, that we were just going to have an ice cream and I could read my books when we got back. These words seemed to reassure my grandmother.

Instead of getting an ice cream, Mom took me straight to the train station and bought us tickets for Oklahoma.


Today, this would be considered kidnapping. At the time, though, it was simply a mother taking her own child.

I had a half-brother who was six years older. The three of us — Mom and her two boys — lived in a tiny house. She supported us by working long, hard hours as a waitress.

Mom would read to me, not kids books, but classic literature. I remember her reading Rudyard Kipling’s poems. Among her favorites (and mine) were not just Gunga Din and If, but Tomlinson, My Rival, and The Young British Soldier.

When I was in the third grade, Mom, hoping to give me a better future than she could provide, got me into a Masonic Children’s Home. From then until my late teens, I only saw her one afternoon a month.

Even though the home was a good place and the kids were well cared for, I hated it. I was an introvert living with 125 other kids. Privacy was scarce, and alone time, too. It almost drove me insane.

When my mother visited, I was happy to see her, but also resented her for putting me in a place I didn’t want to be. Why couldn’t I have stayed with her?

When I finally got out on my own, I was indifferent to my mother. Maybe I was trying, unconsciously, to pay her back for the years of indifference I had felt. The painful sacrifice she had made, putting me in the home, never occurred to me.

It wasn’t until later in my life, after she had died, that my heart began to yearn for my mother. My fleeting memories of her became precious. I wished we had not lost touch. And that I had been kinder. And that I had been more responsible toward her. I was ashamed that she’d had to continue waiting tables to support herself.

And I wished I had been there as she lay dying, that I had held her hand, that I had read some Kipling to her. Even on her deathbed, I think she would have smiled at the raucous humor of The Young British Soldier.

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