I remember being washed in a bassinet by my Mom, her friends looking on, and then not understanding why she thought it was such a big deal that I was born weighing 8 pounds 10 ounces and colicky.
It was a tough neighborhood, 143rd and Willis Avenue in the South Bronx, where my Dad was the building superintendent in the “picturesque” tenement we called home. There was a candy store next door, a firehouse with brass poles and friendly Dalmatians, the “el” train station, and, across the street, the Gramercy Boy’s Club.
My Mom’s favorite book was Black Beauty; it was the first book I read.
When I had a fight with “Johnny Upstairs,” my Dad got down on his knees and taught me how to punch “Johnny” back, at 5 years of age, and I found out soon my mother was a fighter.
We went to a bakery. Mom said, “Sit here Johnny,” pointing to a straight back chair. I may have been 10. A woman entered the bakery yanked at my right arm, and said, “Give me that chair!” My Mom, standing by the slanted glass bakery counter, took the woman’s right elbow, in hand, pulled her, quite quickly, and threw her, aiming at the slanting glass counter, saying, “You keep your hands off my son.” Mom’s final coup de grace was swinging her heavily laden hand bag with her right arm from behind her back, with such force, the woman splashed up against the glass, and slid to the bakery floor. The other patrons cleared a path. My Mom looked at me, extended her hand, and said, “Come on Johnny.”
Agnes Flannery had long flowing red hair; Dad called her “Rusty.”
Years later when I was a stronger fighter, I met Mom carrying bags and found marauding toughs bothering her. I “discouraged” them. My Mom actually wondered where I got my fighting spirit.
In the third grade, my favorite Dominican Nun at St. Pius Grammar School took my Mom aside and said, “He’s always talking in class but when I call on him, he knows the answer.” I said, “It’s like TV, you don’t have to watch it all the time to know what’s going on.” The Nun laughed, but my Mom gave me “a look” – like perhaps I’d gone too far – and maybe it had more to do with our study drills at home.
When we got a little older my Mom worked at Biograph Studios in the Bronx, as a typist and receptionist, where they filmed “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “Butterfield 8,” so we got to see some stars including Fred Gwynne, Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Richard Burton.
My Mom had only finished High School, same for my Dad, but they were smart, and proud when I finished College. When I asked them how to finish a Calculus problem, they said they couldn’t help but be proud – because of how they’d helped me get there – doing math they didn’t understand.
My Mom went to the federal court at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan to watch a drug case I was prosecuting as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. She was suffering the disabling effects of a stroke she’d had. A Deputy US Marshall helped her get situated and filled her with glorious stories about her son. When the Judge upheld my objections, my Mom said, “He’s such a good man.” After a break when the Judge upheld defense objections, she had nothing good to say about him.
My Mom taught me how to fight for what’s right, to study, to enjoy life, to be loyal, to live, you know, what all good Mothers do.
When I spoke at her funeral in 1983, I said I was sure that she still watched what I do from the mid-distance between this world and the next.
Heaven knows, she’s an indwelling presence in my mind and heart to this day – on Mother’s Day and every other day.