My mum was extraordinarily energetic and not only worked full time as a teacher but took on a long list of extracurricular projects like coaching cheerleading and volleyball, running a recreation program for our community in the summer months, and being the chaperone for the local beauty pageant queen in her quest to become Miss Pennsylvania. She became sick in September 1973. Her brief illness forced her to slow down somewhat and take time off from teaching, and for the first time, my mum was home all day.
Back then that was called a housewife.
Not content to sit around and watch her “stories” or suddenly take up baking, my mother found and befriended another housewife—our neighbor down the road Mrs. Ferraino. They became daytime BFFs, and soon, my mum was drinking coffee, learning to bake, talking about kids, and running around (literally) with Mrs. Ferraino—the one member of the duo who didn’t have leukemia. (Mrs. Ferraino admits today that she had trouble keeping up.)
Mum died in May 1974.
The summer that followed (and for countless summers and winters thereafter), Mrs. Ferraino, along with Mr. Ferraino and their four kids—David, Mary Ann, Annette, and Deanna—took us in. When I say they “took us in”, it wasn’t “taken in” in the sense that we moved in with them or that they became our parents. They took us in when we needed taken in—rides to practices, rides to the emergency room (on several occasions), and rides to church. Or, one of the family members would call our house and announce that it was bread baking day (Friday) and did we want some bread? (Uh, yes, please.) We also would pile into their yellow station wagon on trips to down to their hometown of Kittanning to see their extended family and even started calling their grandparents and aunts and uncles by the same names used by their family. We camped out in their backyard in tents, hiked with them in the woods surrounding our respective houses, begged anyone nearby who had a horse to let us ride it, and went sledding and ice skating in the winter.
Another family who took me in were the Byers’. I was the same age as Deedee and because she was nothing but a big ball of fun, I fell in easily with her and her five siblings. My mother’s maiden name was also ‘Byers’, so we secretly agreed that we must be cousins. (We aren’t.) There were (and still are) six Byers kids—Donny, Deedee, Dougie, Davey, Danielle, and Denny, then one more: me. Their mom Rosie (who refused to allow me to call her ‘Mrs. Byers’) worked as a hairdresser and worked hard, owned her own shop, and yet kept an immaculate and well-run household. Again, this family always had room for me—we went camping, swimming all the time, rode the Stewarts’ pony whenever we had a chance, and because they lived “in town”, we made a little bit of mischief along the way.
Rosie and Mrs. Ferraino with ten of their own kids among them always had room for me. I was subject to their family rules, took my share of the blame when our shenanigans went south, but was always welcomed at their homes.
I did appreciate being a part of their families, such as it was, but I appreciate it now even more since I’ve raised three of my own children. Sometimes you just want your own kids running around your house, not an extra neighbor kid (or two or three). If they minded an extra kid, they never, ever, let on.
All I wanted after my mum’s death was normal. Mrs. Ferraino and Rosie gave me normal and then some. I will be forever grateful to each of them and to their kids who put up with an extra sibling—kids who are now grown with kids and grandkids of their own—and on this Mother’s Day, I want to thank all of them.
But I especially want to thank the two women who knew exactly what I needed at a very lonely time in my life. Thank you, Mrs. Ferraino. Thank you, Rosie. I don’t think you’ll ever realize how much you did for me.
I love you both very much.