“You tackled your little brother on the street. Not the grass. THE STREET. What did you think was going to happen? You are grounded, Andrew Thomas. And you’re lucky he’s not hurt worse.” She grits her teeth tightly. “Very lucky,” she said, as she rattled the jar with the wooden spoons.
My mother, Ann Beltemacchi Haverstock, was the Italian lady that the neighborhood feared. (Ancestry.com calls that Italian designation into question, but our family knows the truth.) Why was she feared, you ask? Simply put, she really didn’t care much for people that were lemmings and couldn’t think for themselves. She despised those who lacked empathy. And, as she’ll tell you, Ann fashioned herself as the original feminist and was truly an independent thinker. She wore men’s ties. She was not going to be a secretary and she certainly was not going to have a nun tell her what she could and couldn’t do. Ann had opinions – lots of them. And she was never shy in sharing them, even if people didn’t ask.
My mom’s wrath when you acted the fool or didn’t think for yourself was something to be seen. And, to be clear, it was only fun when you were watching from the outside. Ann carried that desire for free thinking with her everywhere, and it drove most all of her parenting decisions. In a million different ways she created an amazing environment for me to grow up in. At her core my mother was a teacher. Not just in the schools, but everywhere she went. And let’s not forget she was the one who introduced me to that Electric Company hippie, Morgan Freeman, aka Easy Reader!
Now, back to the main story.
Once Ann knew her son had a taste for the astronaut program and all things outer-space, she did what she always did – inserted herself in a way she felt she could help push things forward. I don’t know how she swung it, but one day over the summer she showed up in my room with a question.
“What are you doing?”
“Reading Spider-Man. Duh.”
“Want to see something cool?” She baited her trap.
“Hold on. I’ll be done in just a minute.”
“Fine. I’ll eat the astronaut food by myself.”
My head popped up immediately. The team-up between Spider-Man and Silver Surfer would have to wait. Space food was calling my name.
I went downstairs and on the keeping room table was an oversized bag from Goldblatt’s. (Yes, I’m old.) There was a cardboard box popping out of the top. I pulled up a chair and gently lifted the cardboard box. My mom smiled and pulled out a knife. (All moms do that, right?) She carefully ran it along the tape that sealed the box, pushing it back towards me once it was ready to open. I started pulling things out and found a mushy silver packet with a piece of paper that read “NASA”. I continued pulling the packages out, one by one, until half the table was covered. I had no idea how all this stuff in front of me was really supposed to be edible but, for a moment, I felt like my mom was best friends with Neil Armstrong. She. Was. So. Cool.
I stared at the table for what seemed like an eternity. What was with the silver packaging? It looked like Philadelphia Cream Cheese with a twist-off top. Some of it came in see-through, vacuum-sealed plastic bags and looked like the vomit my little brother spewed out the other night. Other stuff looked like it was rolled over by a car. It didn’t matter. I was a man with a newfound purpose.
“I want to eat it.”
“Like, all of it.”
“But I want to be an Astronaut.”
“If I eat it, it’ll help me become an astronaut, right?”
“Well, why not?”
“If you want to be an astronaut, you have to find out what they do to become one. Drinking Tang and eating the food they have when they’re in space won’t do it alone.”
There was a long, pregnant pause as my heart sank.
“You can’t eat it, you know.”
“You’ll probably get sick. This stuff is old. I don’t know how old. But touch it. Isn’t it cool?”
Yes, it was.
She went on to explain how the bags worked and how astronauts had to squeeze the food into their mouths as gravity wasn’t there to help it fall out of the packaging. She explained why what we had for dinner last night wouldn’t work in space and challenged me to think of how different it would be to eat everything in zero gravity. Milk would fly all over the place. Cherry Kool-Aid, my favorite, would look like a murder scene if it escaped its cup in zero-g. We talked about what having no gravity does to the human body and talked about what would happen if a baby was born and raised in space. That half hour with my mom was awesome. I immediately wanted to know even more important stuff – how the astronauts went to the bathroom after dinner? And where did all their pee and poop go?
My mom just smiled.
“Maybe it’s time we went to the library and read something more than Spider-Man? Let’s see what we can find out about space, eh?”
That afternoon we went to the Geneva Public Library where I got my own laminated library card. The first thing I checked out was a book on the space race between the USA and the USSR. Then I found another talking about what astronauts did when they were in their capsule. Heck, this place was huge and I grabbed anything I could find remotely involving how to become an astronaut. I was in heaven, and thanks to Easy Reader, my mom was surprised at how I was able to read more than just the captions under the pictures. Her investment in comic books had paid off. I wanted to learn, and the best way to get there was through books.
Fast forward approximately 40 years. The other weekend I took my family up to visit my mom for dinner in Geneva, IL. As we walked to our table she saw a couple in their late 30’s, heads down and typing furiously on their phones.
“You should put those down and talk to each other,” she whispered.
The woman looked up and said, “My husband is in the middle of a very important email.”
“I’m sure he is,” Ann replied, drolly. “I don’t care. Talk to each other. You’re out to dinner. You might learn something. Hell, you might even like each other.”
The only thing missing was the rattling of the wooden spoon jar on the cooktop. Even when in public, my family had grown used to her quips over time – like a callus on your hand from hard work in the yard. Others though…notsomuch.
Love you mom!
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Amongst all that great stuff my mom did for me growing up, she did me a great disservice as well. Ann Beltemacchi Haverstock alone was not only responsible for making me fall in love with outer space, but she is also the singular reason I had to let that dream go.
Make no mistake – I am not an astronaut today solely because of my mother. It falls 100% on her shoulders, and I’ll never let her forget that.
Why would she do this to me? A woman so caring and vested in her child’s development? Stay tuned, true-believers – more to come!
NOTE: This was actually written for Mother’s Day, 2020 but — COVID!