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Memories of Mom

Every family has its own unique holiday traditions. In my family, Mother’s Day has always been celebrated in tandem with my birthday (May11).

I was very fortunate to be able to enjoy Mother’s Day—and my birthday—with my mom for the first 69 years of my life.

She died a few years ago, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday. And for virtually all of her 99-plus years, she was a happy, healthy woman, married for 60 years to the love of her life and proud mother to three boys who never caused her too much grief.

My dad first laid eyes on Irene Erlebach when she was 14 ½ and immediately knew she was the girl for him. They got married in 1940, when mom was 20 and he was 24. Here’s how she described their honeymoon in her memory book:

“Watson’s Twin Lakes in Pennsylvania. Passed through a terrific storm—more like a flood. Went bicycling and Johnny fell off. He was so worried that I would. Stayed 3 days and it rained continuously.”

That was it. No embellishment. No romanticizing. No flowery prose.

Which was always the way it was for mom. She never exaggerated. Never told a lie. She could be direct to a fault.

She was an old-fashioned girl with traditional values. Family. Church. Hard work. Discipline. Honesty. Respect for authority. And she instilled those values in her boys.

Mom reminded a lot of people of Edith Bunker, the kind, cheerful wife of Archie Bunker in the TV Show, “All in the Family,” although she was much more attractive than actress Jean Stapleton.

Like Edith, mom was the matriarch who kept her home and family organized. Like Edith, she was fully dedicated to her husband and children. Like Edith, she was not as political as the rest of her family.

Mom also spoke with the same nasal, high-pitched voice as Edith, especially when she was excited. My wife, Christy, is renowned for doing a great imitation of her voice.

Though mom was intensely proud of her boys, I know she was a little disappointed she never had a daughter. After my older brother, Johnny, was born, mom was sure No. 2 would be a girl. I think she had a couple of names picked out for me—Janice or Carol.

I was told she cried and cried when I was born. It was a Catholic hospital, and when one of the nuns spotted mom crying, she came over to comfort her. She told mom that I might end up being the Pope someday.

That only made her cry harder.

There were lots of rules in our house. One of mom’s favorite expressions was “they say,” and whatever “they said” became gospel in our house.

We couldn’t eat a certain food because “they say” it caused cancer. At the beach, we couldn’t go in the water until an hour after eating, because “they say” you can get cramps and drown.

I spent a lot of time trying to find out exactly who “they” were, but never got very far.

Mom was a product of the Depression, as thrifty as she was beautiful, never wasting an extra dime, or an extra penny for that matter. We all loved ice cream, but when we were kids, were forced to eat something called Meadow Gold Imitation Ice Cream. It was 49 cents for a half-gallon. It tasted like cardboard.

Mom was very religious. She played a lot of bingo and said a lot of rosaries. The Church used to have this thing called “indulgences.” Basically, you said a bunch of prayers to reduce the amount of time you had to spend in purgatory before you moved up to heaven. Mom knew some of the people in her family, especially her middle son, needed all the help they could get, so she kept praying and racking up those indulgences.

When the church changed its policies several years ago and eliminated indulgences, mom was devastated. “You mean I prayed all those years for nothing?”

Mom was a card-carrying hypochondriac. She loved going to the doctor and she delighted in reciting all her various ailments and medications. If you asked mom “how are you?” you’d receive a 20-minute answer about all her medical woes.

When mom finally started to slow down, in her early 90s, we suggested moving her into a senior home. But she’d have none of that. When I asked why, she said, “because they have all those old people there.”

So she lived in her own home until the day she died.

My mom wasn’t a CEO or a marketing whiz. She didn’t write poetry or paint landscapes. She didn’t participate in the PTA or protest marches. But she was kind, she was beautiful, she was thoughtful, she was loving, and she was understanding. She was the center, the core, the anchor of our family.

And she left behind three sons and six grandchildren who adored her and miss her every day.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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