Mrs. Higgins Hugs - A Memory from 2014

Lorraine Salmon with Marty & Esther Higgins, Colleen Miller & Patty Kowalski Jackson

Lorraine Salmon with Marty & Esther Higgins, Colleen Miller & Patty Kowalski Jackson

Growing up in Red Hook, in upstate NY, you learned pretty quickly that we were all connected. If you grew-up in the era of Esther Higgins, (which included generations of my friends (the fifty-somethings), my little sisters’ friends (the forty somethings) and my children’s friends (the thirty-somethings), you learned a few other things as well, the most important being we were all one.

One what? Well, I’m not sure, perhaps one community, but what I mean is, we were the same. We were all treated the same in Mrs. Higgins’ eyes. She was the epitome of fair and equal. We were the children of her neighbors in Red Hook, and we were to be encouraged and sent on one direction… forward.

My days in Red Hook began with a bus ride from Forest Park.  There were a lot of us back then and it took two buses to pick us all up. But whatever had happened that weekend, the night before or in the morning on our way to school, it was either enhanced by or replaced with the most special of greetings upon your arriving at the Linden Ave School.

I can still feel the buzz of the commotion on our bus, the sound of the door as the bus driver pulled the handle back and the door folded open, grabbing hold of the pole at the front seat, stepping down one then two steps, then that big last drop from the bottom platform to the pavement.  Both feet on the ground, I’d look up… and scan the chaos of my schoolmates pouring out of the other buses.  And then, there she was, Mrs. Higgins, always with a big smile to be shared with anyone looking for it, or worse, needing it.  She always seemed to be looking at me as if she had patiently awaited my personal arrival.   Later, I found everyone else thought she was looking for them… but I know better.

“Hi darling! Good morning!” Sometimes the call was through a morass of boys shoving and girls giggling, someone gossiping, someone getting pinched, someone getting slapped, for pinching.

And now that I had found her, at least seen her thorough the commotion, and our ‘good morning’ exchanged, it was somehow less important, less urgent, that I go over for the hug or squeeze I so often liked to get from our Mrs. Higgins.   She was here today, like she was here everyday.  You could count on it. I will pass her sometime later, in the hall, or in the gym, or during lunch. I’ll hug her then.

That time would come, and I would, hug her. I’d jump out of a line, or through a door, step a few steps toward her, and then, a quick squeeze and I’d be on my way, forward.

When Martin Higgins passed away at only nineteen in his sophomore year at Ithaca College, my Red Hook class was still in high school.  I wondered if Mrs. Higgins would ever be back. Never mind back to school, but I wondered would Mrs. Higgins ever ‘be back.’  I wouldn’t have blamed her if she didn’t, if she couldn’t. I wondered how she got out of bed.  And then face us, how could she face all of us, a constant reminder of Marty, how much he liked us and how much we all loved him?

This was when Mrs. Higgins taught us our most difficult lesson. We must always get back up. We must always move forward.

I married, young, and when I saw Esther, she would give me a hug, the same one, and ask me if I was okay. I’d say “sure”, and before I could say anything else, she would be squeezing my hand, telling me I was better than okay, “your doing great” she would say, willing me forward, “now, where is Sheri, let me see her!”

We were always greeted with that same happy smile, and why was it that her smile was so grand that one would think she was about to laugh out loud before we even knew what LOL was … and then sometimes she did.

You also learned to be nice. Because being nice somehow worked. And it eventually came back to you, sometimes when you needed it most. So for the most part, we were nice to each other.  The jocks were nice to the heads and vise-versa and we all seemed to move seamlessly between what we used to be and what we might be, what we were then and what we are now. And when we see each other, its all okay, because we know, from Mrs. Higgins, that sometimes we are jubilant, and sometimes we can't breathe with grief, but we are always each other’s neighbors’ children and friends and if you can’t expect nice here, well then, where can you expect to find it?

My girls and I moved back to Red Hook in the early 90’s, I worried about my daughter Sheri’s first day in a new junior high school.  Short of any other reasonably helpful advice, I said, “Get off the bus, look for a pretty lady with black and grey hair, she will be smiling, tell her you are my daughter, she will laugh out loud and hug you, and then, you will know you can always go to her for anything.  If you can’t find me ever, then find Mrs. Higgins.”

* * *

I went to Red Hook to Mrs. Higgins’ wake last night and to her funeral.  She was eighty-years young.  I saw some old friends, perhaps not my best friends growing up, but old friends and good friends.  I saw Mrs. Higgins’ neighbor’s children.   And I saw their children, some of them.

Some of us were crying and some were laughing.  Some went outside to smoke.  I secretly wondered if she could still catch them, only to find some of them had snuck her a cigarette, or a scotch or two, over the years, so I guessed if she did catch them, she’d  be joining them.

As for the lot of us and our good friends who couldn’t be there today, we’re all fine, better some days. We are nice to friends and strangers. We keep moving forward even on the days when we can’t breathe with grief.  And we were so very sad to hear that the Higgins’ family lost their matriarch, Martin’s mom and biggest fan; Marty’s wife; Margaret, Kathleen and Jimmy’s mother.

As I drove away, I knew I had something to say, something to write to Esther.  It was a desire to share an expression of my thanks, for reminding us all that a kindness is transferrable.  It comes along with you.  It’s there when you need to hold it close again. Our kindness to each other is the one thing that multiplies without additional work, water, effort, or money. It can mend a bad day and it can save a life. It can make you smile or keep you from crying.

Arriving home, I looked out over the Hudson River - to Tivoli Bays and Barrytown - to the hills leading to Red Hook and Mrs. Higgins’ neighbors’ children.  I felt like I had just been over there, in Red Hook, on that bus.  I had seen Mrs. Higgins and she had smiled at me.  I knew I couldn’t hug her today, there were so many others off their buses and mulling around trying to find a piece of her, but I will see her later, someday, and she will give me that hug.


03 Sundae.jpg

It was the 1970’s.  Our kitchen table was Formica.  The edges were silver metal with etched horizontal lines surrounding the laminate ivory and green surface.  The floor was Linoleum.  Maybe we’d get a new floor someday … but no time soon.  With five of us in the house - my brother Gerard and my three sisters - there was always too much month left at the end of the money. 

But somehow, Mom always found a way to buy Breyers ice cream.  French vanilla was my favorite, little black speckles of heaven.  Gerry always wanted chocolate.  Bern wanted anything with Hershey’s syrup dumped all over it.  Bean and Beth were babies …  they weren’t having sundaes, but if they saw us with ours, their mouths would drop open like baby robins and without a word they would be asking for some.

Payday was Tuesday, which also meant we were having sundaes after dinner.  The Hershey’s syrup would last all week, but the three oldest of us could knock off a half gallon of ice cream in nearly one sitting - leaving us to fight about who got it a second time on Thursday.  The other two would move onto the Cheerios and the Rice Krispies for their nighttime desert.   I am not sure why it surprised me when weight was a problem for me in my early twenties …  being used to filling my belly with ice cream, cereal, or toast and peanut butter each night just before bed. 

Those were my first sundaes.  My best Sunday came much later in life, in a Carvel shop, 49 years old, in Westbury Long Island.  Mackey and I had been dating for only a short time and he’s suggested we “hurt ourselves”.  I loved everything about him so I wondered if I’d just signed up for something wild.

“OK. Let’s go!” he had said.  We were in the car and at the Carvel around the corner within minutes.  He had a glimmer in his smile that made me want whatever he wanted.  This day, it was an ice cream sundae. 

As the woman at the counter asked what I wanted, I said, just hot fudge …  as similar to my childhood as possible.  Then Mackey took his turn.  Extra large, wet walnuts, hot fudge, dry nuts, whipped cream and a cherry … this was a real ice cream Sundae, and I wanted some.

I traded mine back in across the counter and said, “I’ll have what he is having!”    Everyone laughed, even the woman who walked in behind us. 

When I think about ice cream sundaes, I think about our kitchen and the linoleum table.  I can feel the silver etched trim of the table’s edge, I can see the box the Breyers came in and when it was our turn to have “my” ice cream, I can see the vanilla beans on the label.  I see Tom Mackey and a devilish smile, and I hear the laughter of a Carvel worker and a woman … out to satisfy a craving and finding a couple on an adventure.  I taste wet walnuts and whipped cream, cherry juice and vanilla Carvel, and I know that some moments in life are captured, for all time, in the taste of a moment, of a ritual, of a sharing of something sweet, and the knowledge that something can be cold, and warm, at the same time.

Cliff the Cat

Cliff the cat died today.  Cliff is a big black cat.  He is so big you think his dad might have been a dog.  

When I first met Cliff, he was a bachelor.  He lived with my daughter’s boyfriend Erik.   I remember meeting Cliff at Erik’s with the other seventeen … I mean three … cats and as I saw my daughter fall in love with this handsome man Erik, the bachelor with the four cats, I wondered just where the cats would all go should Erik ever live with my Lindsey.   Certainly no daughter of mine would have four cats in her house. 

On move-in day I remember there were cat cages … some arrived full, others empty.  It seemed the cats were in a wild frenzy, running here and there and trying to figure out where Erik and his furniture and his things, and let’s be serious, where Erik was going.   So, Erik was moving-in, and he was just figuring out that most of his things … even if they had been moved from his bachelor pad, were not making their way to the living room or the dining room …  perhaps a prominent place in the garage … until there was time to “have a talk.”  Erik was about to learn about how none of his things were getting by the goalie, well, except for that blown glass bubble thing that told the temperature outside – that was cool and landed a front row seat on the kitchen window sill. 

And then there were those four black shadow boxes.  They were installed on the wall in the dining room, against the gold paint, the gold paint that Erik had to paint over the perfectly good ivory paint because, well, the wall needed to be gold to move-in.  After all, Lindsey was my daughter.  The house looked terrific!   The shadow boxes, the painted walls, Lindsey and Erik playfully working to make a new home, one for them and as it turned out, a home for a few others as well.     

Opening the door to the basement stair landing, I was shocked to find not one, not two, but four cat dishes … enough cat food in a Rubbermaid bin to feed one cat for a year, and looking at Lindsey I said, “you are not really….”

“He loves them, Mom, and that one, Cliff, he’s gonna win you over.   He is pretty cool – you will see.  That is, if Erik can find him.  When Erik left his place today with the truck, Cliff was no where in sight.”

Sighing as loudly as I could muster, “Let’s get serious Lindsey, no cat is getting to me, and maybe Cliff found a house in Elizaville to stay in, you know, to stay where he comes from.” 

I was accused of being “awful,” and it is true that the eating of my words began shortly after move-in day.   Erik went back to Elizaville and there was Cliff, sitting, waiting for him like, “hey man, that was rude, where’d everyone go?”

Thereafter, anytime I stopped over to see them, and yes, this is often and no, I’m not the meddling type, and yes, it’s okay with Erik, and yes, I am sure, I would be greeted by Cliff.  I don’t know how he knew I was pulling up in that car, or how he managed to be at my feet by the time I walked through the front door, but he did.  The purring began as I rolled my eyes and said, “Really Cliff?”  It continued as he hovered near my feet until I sat down and prepared to jump onto my lap.  This dog size cat, now on my lap, purring so loud I could barely hear the conversation I was in.

It wasn’t long before Cliff was called Cliffy (sounds more like a dog name to me) and even less time before I began looking for Cliff as I got out of my car.  

Winter came and springs and summers as well.  Four years later, Max was born in the fall of 2011.  I was a grandma, Lola to you.  Cliff slept near Maxton and purred him to sleep.  My Mackey passed away in October and in the very depressed state I lived in that winter, it did give me the only chuckle I remember to know that Erik continued to offer to let Cliff move-in with me.  When I’d leave their home, Erik would say, “He’s gonna figure out you live around the corner one of these days anyway and then he will live there instead of here.  It’s just a matter of time.”

Two years later Lindsey and Erik moved in with me for three months. Three cats lived in the garage and neighborhood, Cliff lived in my bedroom and pretty much anywhere he lumbered, walking about the house like we were the ones here on borrowed time.  Cliff kept me company when I took a bath, sitting, head tilted, “How long is this gonna be, I was thinking we could hang in the chair tonight?”  When Lindsey and Erik moved into the house across the street, Cliff and I stood on my porch and waived goodbye, “adios, good riddens, See ya soon but don’t ask too often when I’ll will be home,” from Cliff and, “He looks pretty comfortable here, so I guess he’ll be home later, don’t wait up,” from me. 

We all decided not to talk about it … let’s just be like good first graders and share.

And this worked for all of us.  Every once in a while someone would say, “I didn’t know you have a cat?”  I’d say, “I don’t, that is Cliff.”   And sometimes I’d get a text from Lindsey, “Erik wants to know if you have Cliff, we haven’t seen him for days!”   Last week Mary Quinn was visiting and she called Lindsey to say, “Does your Mom have a cat?  A big black cat is literally knocking on the front door to get in!” 

Lindsey claims it has something to do with the organic chicken I fed Cliff.  But I know it was really all about me. 

These last two weeks Cliff lost a lot of weight.   We had a few sleepovers and I let him have the other pillow – oh what the heck. His purring was so loud.  I slept like a baby.

Today Cliff had a stroke.  Lindsey found him walking in circles and crying.  She held him for a few hours.  Maxton got close and I said, “Cliff is very old and he had a great life.  His body just can’t stay here anymore so it’s okay to pet him and tell him we love him and then he will go.   But the good news is, he got to be here and he got to be ours.” 

Max, stocky, kind, smart and four years old,  nodded.  Then he said he wanted to play at his friends.

After we all said our goodbyes, I put Cliff on Lindsey’s lap in the car and Lindsey and Erik drove down the road to take Cliff for a magic comfort needle.  No sense suffering.  Only ten minutes later they were back.  I knew he wanted to be with them when he left and sure enough, he had left and there he was, still in the towel in Lindsey’s arms.   I ran to get Allen, Erik’s back was out, and Allen dug the grave right there in the front yard.  

We buried Cliff on the ridge overlooking the river where he will be with us forever.

So why do I think I hear a paw on my front door?