October 8 would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. Healthy as she was in body, no doubt she still would be alive today had stroke dementia not taken her down a slow and painful down spiral over six years to her death, in 2000, at age 89. Please forgive this departure from regular ADHD Roller Coaster programming as I honor my beloved mother, whom I still miss every day.
In a sense, though, she had much to do with my 10 years of advocacy around ADHD. It is my mother’s spirit that, in large part, enabled me to wade these sometimes treacherous waters in the pursuit of fairness, compassion, and honesty for everyone affected by ADHD.
So, if my work has helped you, my mother is partly responsible.
Three pieces follow:
- The eulogy I gave for her at her funeral on August 18, 2000
- My Editor’s Column that appeared in The San Diego Business Journal, in 1990 (if more people thought as she did back then, we might not have met our current economic calamities), and
- My sister Elva’s eulogy and prayer of thanks for our mother, for whom she was named.
Eulogy for Elva Pera, by Gina Pera:
When people use the word “independent” to describe our mother (and they always have), they cannot possibly mean carefree or selfish. For decades, mother spent almost every waking hour expertly running both a household of nine and a full-scale business. Mother had less time to pursue her “independence” than anyone I have ever known.
Yet independent she was. Independent in spirit. Independent in her opinions. Independent of the limiting expectations society had for a woman of her makeup and ambition (though deeply hurt by it). Independent from the “popular” thing if it went against her deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong, truth and fair play.
In the 1960s, Mother gave Daddy quite a turn when she spoke out against the Viet Nam war at a Crump company function. Suffice it to say her opinion did not meet with overwhelming approval. Momma did not mean to cause a scene. She was quite surprised and hurt by the unfavorable reaction. In her mind, she was just stating the obvious: It was an ill-considered war that was taking the lives of young sons just like her own.
“My Daddy Thought I Could Do Anything”—and He Was Right
Mother was always ahead of her time. As a freshman at Memphis State University in 1929, she was the first woman to enroll in Shop class. How did she have the courage to do that? “My daddy thought I could do anything,” she told me. Momma could do anything––and was often called upon to prove it. Time and again.
Her feats of resourcefulness and ingenuity started at a young age. Her responsibilities included watching over her rambunctious little brother, Albert. When the toddler climbed out the window from their apartment over the Fourth and Georgia Street grocery store, little Elva caught him. She held him by his chubby little arm until the neighbors finally came to tell her parents “Elva’s hanging onto Albert and she’s hollerin’ for dear life.”
As adolescents, we used to tease momma, “Oh sure. We know. You were running a grocery store when you were three years old.” What little twerps we were. Now we know better. And I wish I could go back and be kinder.
When I think now of little Elva standing on a wooden crate to operate the cash register and falling asleep at night on the flour sacks, I am that much more overcome with love and respect for her. Her work began early and continued late, for 80 years. Always, she worked for family.
Kept Her Family Afloat During the Great Depression
When her adored father died suddenly, mother left Memphis State University and postponed her wedding to my father. She needed to help her mother and younger brother.
The wealthy judge who had loaned her parents the money to buy the store (immigrants could not get a bank loan bank back then) called the loan. With my grandfather dead, the judge concluded, my grandmother would be unable to make the payments. He moved to seize the property—their grocery store and home.
That is when 19-year-old Mother got to work. The tenants subletting the small apartments in the building said they would pay if they could. But the depression was setting in, and times were hard.
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Rather than evict her neighbors, Mother said, “Okay, let’s work together. You pay me what you can, week-by-week. And help us in the grocery.”
That judge never did get the store. Those people, including my mother’s family, did not lose their homes and end up on the streets. We sold it only a few years ago, more than 50 years later.
She had a lot on her mind. An endless supply of dental appointments and school functions for us seven kids. Mountains of Catholic school uniforms and shirts to be starched and ironed. Bottomless bushels of ripe tomatoes waiting to be transformed by her kitchen alchemy into the best Tuscan gravy you will ever hope to eat. An endless succession of annoying phone calls from her tenants who looked to her to solve every problem from broken water heaters to marital disputes.
Despite all that, Mother always came through.
She Was No June Cleaver
Make no mistake. You would never have confused our mother with June Cleaver.
Though a meticulous housekeeper, she was not wearing shirtwaist dresses, pumps, and pearls when carrying all the winter clothing out to the clotheslines for “airing”. She didn’t haul water heaters from the salvage yard to her car without mussing her hairdo. Typically, after a hard day’s work, her eyeglasses would be speckled with paint. (It was my job to clean them.) But no one looked more beautiful or chic than she did when it was time for cleaning up. How her beautiful painted nails never got chipped despite her hands-on work, I’ll never know.
Momma did not float through life smiling sweetly and acting as if she had not a care to her name. (Yet a part of her questioned why she could not pull that one off, as others seemed to.) In fact, she had many cares. But she met them with fortitude, courage, intelligence, and often a great ability to laugh at herself and her situation. Mother “showed up.” Every day.
In fact, after her tragic fall a few weeks ago left her bedridden, I knew we should count the days. For more than 80 years, I daresay momma never spent more than one day at home sick in bed. Like the Energizer bunny, she kept going.
“Oh Hell,” Momma said. “You Again?”
Just last year, she made one of her “great escapes” from the Ave Maria home. She cut through the trees to a residential neighborhood, where she found two ladies in the driveway emerging from a car. “Here, honey,” they said to her, knowing exactly from whence she came. “Get in the car. We’ll take you home.” Our ever-determined mother hopped in the car all right—in the driver’s seat. “Where are my keys?” she asked. “I’ve got work to do.” Just at that moment, she looked up and saw the Ave Maria Home attendant in pursuit. “Oh hell,” Momma said, with resignation. “You again?”
Who could not admire her bravery and perseverance? Only those who could not see and appreciate her for the complex woman she was, and all the life events that had shaped her spirit.
At the Fox Acres Alzheimer’s facility, the manager saw her sprinting down the road. This relatively young man told me that he had to chase this octogenarian at a fast clip to catch up. He later confided, with tut-tut ting disapproval, “I knew that she was a woman who was accustomed to getting her way.” I wanted to reach across the desk and slap him for such snide presumption and utter lack of empathy for a woman who simply, desperately, wanted to go home.
What this man could never hope to understand about Momma was that she hardly ever got “her way”—except when it came to getting the best possible future for her children.
From clothes to cars, education to ethics, Momma made sure we had the very best she and Daddy could give us. Even as they pinched pennies and did without many “extras” for themselves. We did not have many toys or clothes. But what we had was carefully selected and made to last.
Always Coming Through For Her Children
I remember one treacherous and icy Christmas Eve. Goldsmith’s Department Store called to say it could not deliver the pool table she had ordered for my teen brother Michael (pictured with his new drumset, center, at a younger age). Our house was a gathering spot, and having a pool table made it even more so.
Determined that her Michael would awaken to that table on Christmas morning, Mother made the trip herself, slipping and sliding all the way to and from downtown Memphis to our home off Walnut Grove. She had tied that boxed pool table atop our 1960 black Ford Fairlane. And somehow she still kept it a secret from him until Christmas morning.
As a young girl, maybe in third grade, I caved into pressure from my fellow Girl Scouts to host the Halloween party. “Your house is so scary, it’s like the Addams Family house!” they’d squealed. Had she known, that would irked momma. The Hedgemoor Tudor-style house was her pride and joy.
The Halloween Surprise
I became immediately regretful of my generous offer and the extra work it would create for momma. I did not summon my courage to tell her until the morning of the party (to be held in after school). She went “full Italian” on me, and I deserved it. I feared coming home to no decorations at all, and it would have served me right.
Instead, I came home to the most amazing set-design wizardry. She had collected her father’s giant restaurant kettle and filled it with dry ice. Next to it, stirring the “steaming brew,” she had concocted a life-size witch out of a stepladder, my big old doll, and a witch costume that my sister Elva had worn in a school performance of Hansel and Gretel. I was in awe. So were my classmates.
She never ceased to amaze her children. In hindsight, it pains me to see how much we took her for granted. We didn’t know that not every family of nine ate homemade tortellini in chicken soup on a weekly basis, among other amazing feats she performed regularly.
“Just Wait a Bit. Maybe You Just Need More Information.”
At heart, my mother was an optimistic, philosophical person. By her example and advice, she gave me faith in my ability to solve problems and make decisions – “Just wait a bit. Maybe you just need more information.”
Sparked by a movie we had watched together, she told me just a few years ago, “You know. I’m not afraid of death. I think what comes after is probably pretty nice.” I worried more about my fear of her death than her fear of her death. Terribly worried.
When my niece Madeleine told her little boy Jake that Nonna had died, he asked her: “Is Nonna with O’Daddy in heaven, riding around in his convertible?”
O’Daddy is John, Momma’s oldest child and our brother, who passed away two years ago from brain cancer. More than anyone, he and my brother Douglas could always make Momma laugh.
More than anything, our mother was a potent, fiercely loving force of nature. I cannot begin to comprehend her absence, even though over these last few years we have lost her bit-by-bit.
Jake, thank you for that image: Momma laughing and cruising through that open air, finally free in spirit.
Keating Probably Never Listened to His Mother
Gina Pera, Editor’s Notebook, San Diego Business Journal, October 1990
Seeing Charles Keating, Jr. being led away in shackles on TV a few weeks ago made me think of my mother. She turned 79 this month, and for years she has been predicting a debacle. Not just the S&L crisis, but all of it–the 1990s fall-out from the 1980s deficit of honest work and surplus of sleaze.
“They’re acting like a bunch of jackasses,” she repeated throughout the Reagan era, long before the pundits put it in less-direct terms. In general, “they” were the big shots, the guys who spent more time flaunting their spoils than earning them–the Wedtech executives, Michael Milkens, et cetera ad nauseam
“They’re ruining this country,” she would say, all 5 feet of her getting worked up in a style and accent unique to Northern Italian women raised in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. “And they’re going to leave an awful mess for you children. You watch.” She warned me not to rely on a pension. She foresaw the big-money operators wiggling out of those obligations.
I met her predictions with mixed feelings. I partly agreed: Common sense told me too many people were making too much money too fast with too little effort.
It Appears My Mother Was Right—Again
Another part of me said, hey, don’t be a chump; quit working so hard and hop on that gravy train. Lease that BMW. Speculate in real estate. Sell annuities. Say yes to debt.
Despite the pressure I felt all around me, I simply didn’t have the stomach for it. And it’s a good thing, too, because it appears my mother was right. Again. The gravy train’s been derailed, and the boxcars just keep stacking up.
Observers say the 1990s will be a more austere decade. Less glitz. More ethics. A return to solid values. That remains to be seen. I’m not sure many people remember those values—or a different time.
I used to slightly resent that my parents [shown left, at their wedding, in 1933] were first-generation immigrants who had been adults in the Great Depression. While my friends with younger parents were receiving 25-cent and—gasp—dollar allowances, I was hearing, “Here’s your dime, and don’t spend it all in one place.” (But I did, at Highpoint Drugstore, where for a dime I could get a nickel vanilla phosphate and two Banana Beichs.)
Now I find myself grateful. Compared to Donald and Ivana’s kids, or any little Boeskys, I might not find the transition to tighter times as tough.
“Be Careful How You Spent Your Money, Work Hard, and Do Right”
If I had to summarize my parents’ message to their seven children, it would be simply this: Be careful how you spend your money, work hard, and do right.
The first part hit home through fairly direct means. Fear and guilt stand out.
Despite our apparent affluence, I believed the “poorhouse” was just one thoughtless purchase away. When I would whine to my mother that I didn’t have trendy clothes and the latest toys—and we NEVER went out to eat or had store-bought cookies—she would tell me that we lived in the beautiful house we did because we didn’t throw our money away on junk.
That was an important lesson, one that later enabled me to buy a house in San Diego as a single person on a journalist’s salary.
The other parts, “work hard” and “do right,” were more intangible and seeped in less directly, mainly by my parents’ example at work and at home.
My father, for example, would have made a lousy junk-bond salesman. Having worked his way up from E.H. Crump’s secretary in the 1920s to an executive VP at E.H. Crump and company, he retired after 53 years with the company. Years after he moved on to larger commercial accounts, he was known for his loyalty to longtime, smaller clients, however paltry their premiums. And he let them know he appreciated their business.
Education And Land Were the Best Investments
My mother proved a more colorful role model, mainly because I went with her to work.
Forget high-yield anythings.
In her opinion, a good education and land were the only real investments. (Only Italians outdo Southerners in their estimate of real estate as immutable wealth—and we were both!)
Momma had a very clear memory of the stock-market crash in 1929. By the time I was born, when she was 44, she had strung together a mini-empire of small apartments and duplexes, including the grocery store with apartments overhead where her parents started their new life in America in the late 1800s. She would have gone bigger but my father was more risk-averse—and he was already tired of the constant calls from tenants.
From the time I was 4 years old, we would make the rounds of her rental units, her old station wagon loaded with ladders, tools, and two-by-fours. And if I ever have a small business, what I learned might come in handy.
Momma’s B School
First lesson: Turn your business over to somebody else, and prepare to suffer the consequences. No absentee landlord, she could tell you the exact state of any given property on any given week.
Second lesson: To heck with “outsourcing” to high-priced specialists. When facing a repair unfamiliar to her, she would ask questions at the hardware store or lumberyard and talk out the task with her workers. With her help every step of the way (“You’ve got to stay with your workers and work as hard as they do,” she’d admonish me), they’d usually get the job done right at far less cost. And, you know what, they had a great time with each other, laughing and cutting up.
More folks in the 1980s should have had my mother’s attitude about buckling under to corruption and backroom deals. When she learned that payola meant the dilapidated property next hers passed city inspection while her well-maintained property did not, she called the city inspector and demanded the situation be rectified. She prevailed.
Why evict tenants who owed back rent, she figured, when you could try to work out a payment schedule. Part good business sense. Part compassion, which always had a place on her balance sheet. She first learned this strategy during the Great Depression, when this young woman’s quick-thinking intervention saved her family’s property and kept their tenants in their homes instead of homeless.
My father died a few years ago. But when I go home to Memphis, people I run into remind me how highly they thought of him as a person and a businessman.
My mother is still going strong. She’s worked hard all her life and has no intention of stopping. I ask her, can’t you come visit me, take a little vacation? Even President Bush made time for Kennebunkport in the midst of a world crisis. “Well, he didn’t have vacant apartments,” she quips.
Unlike her, I’m partial to the occasional vacation. But I hope I’ve picked up some of my folks’ more admirable traits. I love my work, and try to do it well. Driving a 9-year-old car doesn’t strike me as deprivation; I’m grateful that it runs well and is comfortable. Debt makes me nervous. And I try to “do right.” Maybe I’m on the right track, even if it’s not the gravy train.
Eulogy for Elva Pera, from her daughter Elva Pera Kelly:
I wear an orange dress today for my mother. I refuse to wear black for black is the color of mourning, and I have mourned for my mother for these recently past painful years. I refuse to mourn another day.
Today I wear orange in celebration of my mother’s life and her passing from this world to the safety of the next. It is very difficult for me to think back on the past 7 years of mother’s life.
Though I remember momma before that time, it is the most recent life that leaves the most jarring memories. Her disease is a horrid one, for her and for the family. She is the one who entered the portal and left us waiting on the other side. She handled this last part of her life as courageously as she handled the others, with grit, determination, and even charm.
Some religious tenants promise that good can come from evil. I have pondered this concept at all hours have the day and the night concerning my mother’s illness, and have decided that yes, of course, this can be true; and I will tell you why.
Momma Was Our Teacher
First, momma was our teacher, a teacher who taught us how to live our lives. Through her illness, momma was again teaching us how to live our lives. However, more importantly, she was teaching us who we are. Through our coming together in our care for her, there was much interaction among siblings. If we are willing to look and to examine that interaction, we can find clues to our personality traits, both good and not so good. We can learn our strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn what pushes our button and how not to respond.
Momma also gave us a reason to determine our bottom-line values and evaluate how far along our spiritual path we have come. She taught us that life is fleeting and the things we think we may really, really want in life are but a chasing after wind, as so often mentioned in Ecclesiastes.
If we took heed, we also learned that the body fades and passes away, and that we must enjoy what life offers and know that it must end; and that when this life does end, we begin the journey that surpasses all understanding–that of eternal life. Therefore, we must see to it, especially at this point in our lives, that we are prepared.
We must learn to let go bit by bit of this earth and its earthly possessions and prepare the soul for what lies ahead. Mother entered another plane as she progressed into the dementia of Alzheimer’s, and she has entered yet another plane through her death. We cannot follow her in either yet; we can be prepared for one, but not the other.
Did We Learn Our Lessons?
We now enter a time of healing; we have already mourned for so long. This stage of our lives together is the one we face without our hub, without our reason to come home.
We stayed in touch through our common care of our mother. What now holds us together? What will keep us a part of each others’ lives?
If you listened to and watched mother on a higher level, you learned that she gave us the strength to stay together and wants us to do so. She wants us to love, respect, honor, and listen to each other.
She always said that family is the tie that binds, the commonality that will always be there. Momma was teaching us from our births to her death. Did we learn our lessons? There is only the individual response.
Yes, there is always much good that can flow from bad things, we just have to change our perspective.
A Daughter’s Prayer, By Elva Pera Kelly
My heart is full of sorrow, but it is also full of thanks. I give thanks for a mother who is leaving me and going home to you, and who you allowed me to share for 53 years.
Thank You For:
- A mother who was willing to give birth to seven children, and stay with them through the good times and the bad. Thank you for the tenacity of her spirit and for the beauty of her face.
- The time she gave to me when she was tired and for the things she gave to me when money was tight.
- All the new Easter dresses and new pairs of spring shoes that my mother took me to buy when I was a little girl.
- The Christmases of my childhood that she made sure were special, and for the money that she spent on my presents even when money was in short supply.
- The lessons I learned from her and for the generosity of her laugh.
- The strength that she developed through the hills and valleys of her life and that she passed on to each of her children.
- The privilege of being born to a mother who wanted more for her children than she had.
- A mother with the spirit of feistiness and zest, who was not afraid to speak her mind, even when I did not want to hear it.
- The lessons that I learned in the family that she raised.
- Her spirit of never giving up when those of lesser spirit would have lain down and quit.
- My mother’s face with a big grin, standing at the doorway of our home as I drove in to see her from Arkansas.
- Giving me the privilege to help to care for my mother when she could no longer care for herself,
- The privilege of allowing me to be a mother myself so that I could better understand my mother and feel her pain and joy.
- The likenesses of my mother that I see in my own children.
- A mother who would not have a birthday party for me unless I invited every child in the class.
- A mother who taught me the value of a dollar.
- A mother who showed love and care to her own mother, thus setting an example for me.
- Her imperfections, which taught me that I could still be a good mother without being perfect.
- Most of all, for allowing me to be with my mother just one last time before she died. Thank you for letting me touch her, feel her warmth, and see her brown eyes one last time.
- Letting me comfort her.
- The last spin through the garden that I was able to take with my mother—and for the last Coca Cola that we shared on that beautiful day.
- All the memories that my mother gave to me.
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