“Emma’s the genius in the family,” Mom Stephens says to someone on the phone. My paternal grandmother doodles artistic masterpieces of beautiful faces on a scratch pad at the kitchen table while she talks. Educated at a Brooklyn art school, her pre-retirement career was fashion design for storefront windows. Her name, Maggie, is written in calligraphy everywhere, even hand-painted in white on her red tool box.
At five feet tall, this total diva will never let roots show through her dyed blonde hair. An entire dresser drawer in her gold bedroom is filled with makeup, and the closets of every bedroom in the house overflow with clothes and shoes. In the hall closet hangs her most prized possession, a full-length fur coat that she calls Spot. I’ve never seen her wear it, but it must have sentimental value because she’s told every one of us secretly that we can have it when she passes.
Mom Stephens is synonymous with Berritt Street, her home of forty years where she raised my father and his three younger siblings, without the help of a man she will remind you. Liberated to a fault, men are completely useless in her opinion. At any given time, she is on a stepladder re-wallpapering one of the rooms, painting flowers on a lampshade, or sitting at her sewing machine making our Halloween costumes. I won First Prize the year she turned me into the Statue of Liberty.
If it’s after 6:00 p.m., she has a glass of wine in her hand. A rectangular spot on the kitchen counter never sees the light of day where a fresh box of pink wine always takes up residence. She spends the evenings relaxing out back on the screened-in porch admiring the Garden of Eden that has become of her backyard where she plants a tree for every birth in the family. My father’s tree is the monstrous oak that stretches over the roof. Sadie has a cherry tree. Mine is a dogwood.
Mom Stephens is one hundred percent Irish and sings to us the ballad of “Molly Malone” about a fishmonger from Dublin, reminding us of our heritage and testing us on the music and lyrics. There were ten children in her family, all born in Ireland. Because three of them passed away within a year of a visit to their homeland, her superstitious nature forbids any of us to ever go there. “It’s Ireland calling us back,” she proclaims. A modern-day Scarlet O’Hara, drama defines her. She is always fretting about something, usually that someone else is doing. The code word is ten-thirty, which she says when she can’t finish the phone conversation because the person she is talking about has walked into the room.
She paints my fingernails at the kitchen table and tells me if I keep up the good grades I can be a doctor or a lawyer, preferably the latter so I can affect political change. She is certain there will be a woman president in her lifetime and has been known to march in front of City Hall holding a sign and wearing a custom t-shirt for any issue about which she feels strongly. “When you’re old enough,” she says, “I’ll tell you what my father told me: ‘Vote Democrat if you want to come home.’”
Outspoken and matriarchal, she is the anchor on my father’s side. Anyone who meets her once remembers it forever. Even neighbors and family friends call her Mom Stephens. It would be just as appropriate to call her Queen Maggie. A bright yellow Volkswagen bug with ‘Maggie’ on the license plate is recognized all over town, as well as the blonde with big sunglasses in the driver’s seat sucking air through a little plastic straw. She quit smoking long ago but can’t give up the physical habit while driving, so she cuts straws in half and pretends.
Outsiders might say that her other form of transportation is a broomstick. College students rent the basement-level bedrooms, but never for more than one semester. She has little regard for privacy and inspects their rooms for cleanliness when they’re away. “Zeus is a complete slob,” she says. That’s the code name for the tenant since her voice carries through the floor. Though there are no shared living quarters, a list of very strict rules is taped up in their common area, including the disallowance of dirty dishes in the sink at any time. They are expected to get up every day and leave, and anyone that spends their days at home is considered lazy. Even if they’re paying their rent on time, she finds an excuse to throw them out. Reason is not a word in her vocabulary. Her way is the only way.
She has strong opinions, which to her are indisputably fact. When she speaks, agreement is expected. I usually concur because it makes her happy, but it’s also not advisable to provoke her antagonistic side. I’ve seen her turn on people very quickly. Though all of his siblings say my father is her favorite, Mom Stephens is constantly berating him for his lack of, well, everything. When he doesn’t show up at Mother’s Day dinner, she says to him on the phone, “You’re with a friend? What friend? DID THIS FRIEND GIVE BIRTH TO YOU OR YOUR CHILDREN?” CLICK! She loves hanging up on people. And she always has to have the last word. Luckily, she has nothing but praise for me.
The linen closet at Berritt Street smells like moth balls. I drop to my knees next to it and push open the door to the laundry chute. Sadie and my cousin Jake from Massachusetts are underneath in the basement waiting to catch the coveted éclairs I have stolen from the freezer while the adults are all on the back porch playing charades. I have to break the rules for Sadie and Jake to let me be a member of their ‘cool’ club. After watching the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, the three of us sneak out and roam the neighborhood to knock on doors and run.
In the fall, especially after we’ve stayed up too late, Mom Stephens lets herself into the room where we sleep and throws open the curtains. “The early bird gets the worm,” translates to, “Get up and start raking leaves.” After some groans and rolling eyes, the three of us rake until the mountains of leaves are taller than we are and require a running start to jump into.