A few weeks back I mentioned that Mom and Mary Hein were best friends.
Mary Hein lived just three houses up the street on Brook Street from us on Staten Island in New York City. And I swear that no two women on this planet have ever been closer than Mom and Mary Hein. They watched over each other and cared for each other like two loving sisters.
The hardest decision Mom ever had to make was moving away from Mary Hein when she fell in love with Harry Johnson, an old Connecticut Yankee, and we pulled up stakes and moved to New London. Mom worried about it for months before the move, and after we moved, those two were on the phone all the time.
What welded Mom and Mary Hein together was the tragic loss, for each of them, of a young, healthy, active husband.
Daddy was a golf pro. Standing on the 12th green one day, he was struck in the neck by a clot-producing golf ball hit by someone over on one of the first nine holes. It caused a stroke from which he recovered enough to walk, although not to talk.
Mom later told me how he and I used go to the Victory Theater right up the street from the house, where I, at 4 years old, would stand on tiptoe and tell the ticket lady, “One adult and one child, please.”
I don’t remember any of that. I have no recollection of Daddy at all.
Complications from his stroke were added to pneumonia, which in the 1930s was a coin flip. As pneumonia progressed, and the fever rose, the doctor would say: “Watch the patient carefully tonight. Stay by the bed. If the fever breaks, he will survive.”
If not ...
Lousy odds, Johnny. Penicillin is a great thing.
As the youngest in the family I was touched by none of this. All I remember of Daddy’s passing was the morning I was hustled over to Mary Hein’s place, where I had cold cereal for breakfast for the first time in my life — Kellog’s Corn Flakes. And I had clam chowder for lunch too, New York style with tomato.
As I said, I knew nothing.
At breakfast I admired a small blue-glass milk pitcher that had Shirley Temple’s face embossed in the glass, and Mrs. Hein, looking oddly unhappy I thought, made me take it with me when I left. That was the day of Daddy’s funeral.
My two oldest brothers, Bill and Frank, dropped out of school and went to work. At night they went to high school to earn their diplomas. Mom took in sewing, scrubbed floors, and did whatever else she could — so I’ve been told.
I just went on enjoying life.
Lloyd Hein, Mary Hein’s husband, drove one of the old milk trucks where the driver stood more than he sat. One wet morning he came to a downhill T-intersection on wet cobblestones and braked lightly, but the top-heavy milk truck flipped sideways. He was thrown out the side door and killed instantly.
So Lloyd junior, and Herbie, the same ages as our Bill and Frank, also went to work. As did old Mr. Horner, Mary Hein’s father, who earned a little doing whatever he could find, which wasn’t much.
It was 1938, and we were still in the depths of the Great Depression. For every dollar-a-day job that came up, there were five healthy young men glad to take it.
But we survived, and in fact, even prospered in a way. You see, we had something that seems sadly missing when I look around our nation today.
You all know I came from New York via Connecticut, and that after one look at Arizona I decided to settle here.
Now Arizona is a beautiful state. Far more beautiful than most Americans realize because they see us as a land of sand, saguaros and sidewinders. But I didn’t come here for the beauty. I came here for the people.
And something more.
Something you have that you may not even realize you have.
I was stationed in Utah from 1962 to 1964, and I immediately noticed something that surprised me, namely that the people of Utah were a lot like the people I had met in Arizona in 1958. There was a certain something I could not quite put my finger on until I met the lady next door and her seven strapping sons.
And then it dawned on me ...
Family. If you come from here you may not see it, but it is plain to me. You may not realize how much family is an essential part of life here, as it is in Utah. Family influence is very strong. How different that is from the northeast, and for all I know, from the rest of this land of ours.
As I said, you may not see that quite as clearly as those who don’t come from here because you are so close to it, but trust me it’s very real.
When I moved from Texas to here, and decided to live down in the Valley, where Lolly’s sister and husband settled after coming here from England, the only school district I applied to was Mesa Public Schools. I knew from my days in Utah what I would find in my classes — kids who had the same outlook on family I had, an outlook formed in my youth, at a time when family was sometimes all we had, all that stood between us and disaster.
And oddly enough, the Hispanics in my classes only made the point stronger, since family is also paramount among Hispanics. I felt right at home. My 14 years in Mesa were happy, productive ones that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
So I now understand something that puzzled me back in 1958 when I first came through Arizona and decided to settle here some day. I knew what I wanted to do. I even knew it had to do with people. But I really didn’t quite understand what I was seeing.
It’s so plain to me now. That morning in Mesa 53 years ago when I stopped for breakfast in a little restaurant on Main Street, I felt like I belonged there. I felt that way because they made me feel that way. They treated me like family.
They were still living the traditions of our forefathers, when people joined together and treated each other like family.
I guess that tradition has largely been lost back east, but here in the Southwest it’s still alive.
The old folks had it right. They knew that in the end, it is family that stands between us and the world.
Mom and Mary Hein knew it. They saw it with their own eyes. The shadow of death may have crept across their thresholds, but what it did was bring two families closer together.
Mom, Mary, and seven sons.
You know, Johnny, we could all be family.
If we choose to be.
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