Mothers. Everyone, everything has one. You may love yours, or not like yours, or you may not know yours. However, there is no life without them, not yours, not mine.

The very sound of the name mother evokes images of safe harbor, someone, somewhere to run to when you are hurt, somewhere to find inspiration or guidance. In reflexion of your own, what words most fit your mother? – Generosity, sacrifice, one who listens, humor, soulful beauty, trailblazer, Lady of Grace, someone to turn to when looking for answers, even when you think you have your own

Isn’t it odd, for most of us, every goal to succeed is motivated by love for ones mother. Name them; Elvis, Sinatra, Ali, countless athletes, artists, writers, nameless musicians, actors, and so on…

Look mom, this is for you.

When each of us gets a little more seasoned one can more fully comprehend what we receive in return. A mother who stands behind you, to the end, in your quest and dreams, no matter how misguided or on the mark those can be. How many mothers are unsung hero’s, holding their own hopes and wishes quietly suppressed behind ours, so that we may find our own path?

In trying to find herself, what can a mother really know when she is only eighteen, twenty eight, or thirty eight? Someone, understandably, guided (perhaps) by instinct rather than intellect. A woman only being human and normal, in spite of her misgivings or shortcomings, providing her children with Motherly Love. Regardless, most mothers are held in near reverence.

There was one such fine lady, one whom I knew and became more familiar with. It began with her taking my sister and me to our first live performance of Babes in Toyland and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the historic Masonic Temple, Detroit.

The world opened up.

Then films, movies at the Fox, Michigan, United Artists, State Theater, with an elbow poke to say Watch more closely the subtlety of those fine actors; Lawrence Olivier, Paul Muni, Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, Brando, Paul Newman, Peter O’Toole, Olivia De Havilland, each with their own style of pause and pacing.

Authors and books were next. Zane Grey’s The Last Trail, Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage, James Fenimore Coopers Last of the Mohicans, Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast, Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, Jim Harrison’s Farmer, dozens upon dozens more, and Sheridan Gibney’s Anthony Adverse (still unread), along with countless classics, all still there, some within reach.

Each book an adventure, each page searching for a fresh, clever, unexpected, rich, inspirational, colorful, sole searching, poignant, riveting, articulate, precise, eloquent, beautifully crafted use of words in single sentence… On occasion, with language so striking one wants to read it to someone else.

Music was her constant joy; a fine voice always singing in the kitchen and all along Gross Pointe Mansion’s Lakeshore Dr., with my sister, Philly; classical standards 1940’s, Blue SkiesSentimental JourneySummertime and how many more, each embedded in my memory.

Dancing in the dark, alone (thinking no one was watching), as she moved through her imaginary place, is an image I have kept with me. She taught me to dance when I was fourteen, when I laughed and said, “Oh me!”. She answered with a strong shoulder shake and an, “Oh, yes you!”. Dancing and embraced in the purity of your mother’s arms – the epitome of feminine beauty. This, all the while garnering culture and a sophistication I was too young to understand.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1920 made her a young child of the infamous New York Roaring 20’s, but still old enough to get a piece of it. She would swim with her brother in the ocean and play under the docks in Coney Island. Once, she was chased out of the water by a giant, horseshoe crab, screaming in fright until her big brother rescued her, grabbing it by its spike tail and burying it in the sand. She loved riding the Cyclone rollercoaster, and the Steeple Chase, and the Wonder Wheel – and, was sometimes fortunate enough to grab slivers off shaved ice left behind by the Ice Man, who delivered blocks from a horse drawn cart.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s was another matter, and it left a lasting impression. Family dinner with her brother, Tony was a highly anticipated event. A large heavy wooden soup spoon, however, always had its place on the table. Any misbehavior, which as children was frequent, was met with a sharp crack to the forehead. If one did not work, there were more where that came from. Any backtalk, or maybe not finishing dinner, might receive one or even a few whips from the large leather strap that hung on the wall. Both her mother and father were from the Old Country – Russia and Poland – where and when this was ordinary.

Prohibition changed the country. Working as a seamstress her mother, Katherine made what money she could making dresses at home. Anthony, her father, a stevedore on the tough Brooklyn docks. Making gin, whiskey, any kind of wine was ordinary knowledge from the Old Country. Making and selling their bathtub spirits brought in a little money. Katherine, however, became more than fond of gin. In just a few months, Anthony would come home from work to find both son and daughter unbathed and hungry. This led to more arguing and fighting. A month later he returned from work to find his children gone.

Anthony searched for them in familiar places in desperation for several weeks. He followed every lead in New York but they left him empty and heartbroken. Three months later, he had a very credible lead to a town near Toledo, Ohio. He followed, and asked all around until he got an address of where they might be. Parked in front of a house, it looked bleak, empty and abandoned. The front door was locked. Ready to leave, his instinct said check the back, where he needed a crate to reach the window and look inside. Both were there alone in a bare room on a hardwood floor; barefoot, a boy without a shirt and his sister, crying. He kicked the door in, picked up both his children, who cried and hugged him. Anthony won custody and raised them back in New York, in a very tough manner, which was all he knew.

Soon, her brother formed a gang in Brooklyn. One night, after setting off an alarm and running from police, he was shot in the back in the middle of a field. Although, he was still a juvenile, he was sentenced to three years in Sing Sing (in case you haven’t heard of it).

Henry Ford and his Ford Motorcar Co. began an advertising campaign to pay $5 a day to hire workers for a new production assembly line. Leaving New York was not easy, but Anthony left, worked the line and began a fresh start for his children in Detroit.

There, his daughter, Lillian met and married a very young, good looking Italian. They lived in a home on Detroit’s east side, a block up from Mt. Elliot & Lafayette in a two story home, wooden with a back porch and stairway descending down to a yard. Some of his family lived downstairs, all fresh from Italy, in the family home his Father had built. It was there Lillian learned to cook true Italian food, Old World, old school. She had a tenth grade education, but now spoke fluent Polish, Russian, Italian and English.

Poland was invaded by Germany’s Nazi army in 1939, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and WWII began. Lillian’s brother, Tony – now back from the joint – joined the army to serve in the war. Most of the women from the Eastside went to Willow Run Airport to build B-17 Bombers, which began the “Rosie the Riveters” WWII campaign.

Lillian, who’s nickname was Terry, was employed by an ammunitions factory where she was assigned manager duties over a handful of other riveters. The hours were long and hard. There they assembled thousands of rounds of 50 caliber machine gun bullets. Management penned her group “Terry and the Pirates”, where she won a special commendation for production output.

The 1940’s and WWII had significant influence in films and music in that decade. Looking back, from this perspective, perhaps one of the most romanticized periods of home and love, and of longing and loss for those who did not return. Again, I was too young to understand the significance of her contribution.

Down and across from us in our two story Detroit east side home lived a family from the south, a southern gentleman with three hound dogs in his yard. One bright morning we heard the dogs barking, then all of them howling and yelping in obvious great pain. We went to the porch to see what was wrong. The gentleman neighbor, metal shovel in hand, was beating each of them repeatedly over their head and backs and swearing at the top of his lungs over their crying pain, “Shut up you goddamn dogs!”.

Then a familiar voice screamed over to him, “Hey you, you son of a bitch!”, which surprised and got his attention. “If I ever see you hit those dogs again I will take our shovel, come over there, and beat you over your head until I knock your Goddamn brains out!”. He stopped, looked threateningly back at us, took notice of my motheer and me, and went quietly back into his house.

A few days later, I was sent to our corner store to pick up something. When I came out, bag in hand, our Southern Gentleman’s son, Leonard was standing there with two of his friends. I am seven years old, Leonard is nine years old and a foot taller than me. I went to walk around them but they blocked my way.

Leonard shoved me back hard with his hand to my chest.

When I tried to go around again, he raised a board with a nail sticking all the way through its top and slammed it down hard on my back under my right shoulder . I don’t remember yelling out but I remember the pain. I ran home crying. My mother and grandfather asked what happened. I told them.

They lifted my shirt and blotted the blood. We heard several voices yelling from the backyard. When we went out there and looked down into the small yard from our porch there was Leonard, his two friends with six other boys their age. He was taunting me and yelling for me to come down and fight him. Now the rest of them joined in the taunting. Leonard had a sneer on his happy face. The rest of them looked and sounded more in tune with how angry pit dogs would behave, all waiting for me to come down so they might tear into my unhappy face.

I looked up at my mother and grandfather with question, what should I do? They were both quiet and hesitant for a few seconds. What came next was a voice I thought I was familiar with. My mother looked down at me and said, “I think you have to make that decision.”

“What?” With big wide eyes I looked up at my mother. Aren’t moms supposed to protect their little boys? “Well, that is easy mom, I don’t want to go down those stairs. I don’t know how to fight.”

“If you don’t go down those stairs and fight they will continue coming after you,” she said.

“I’m afraid to go down those stairs,” I said. “If fighting feels like the nail that just slammed into my back it’s going to hurt, so I don’t want to learn how to fight.”

Stay where you are or go back inside, I thought. Maybe, it will all just go away.

I looked back up and my mother and grandfather. The Old Man, as we would eventually come to call him, was stern. He knew what needed to be done. My mother put her hand on my shoulder and nodded softly.

When I looked back down at Leonard his sneer turned into a half smile. The wooden stairway down was long, with its rail running the full length. I placed my hand on wooden railing, stared down at the little mob, then took a first slow step; then another and another, until I reached the bottom.

Then, I was being thrown down hard face first in the dirt, Leonard jumping on me, his arm under my neck and jerking my head up. Choking, I pulled his arms away, rolled over, grabbed him the best I could and we rolled and wrestled each other in the dirt…

The neighborhood kids gathered and there were jeers and cheers for both sides. I don’t remember anything else.

When it was over and I got back up the stairway I asked what happened. My mother said, “Well, you lost but you fought well.”

A week later, I came home to find Leonard in our living room, with my mother’s brother, my uncle Tony, and a pair of red boxing gloves. He told us to put them on and fight, which Leonard was more than happy to do. I certainly was not. He came at me and punched me all around the room, then left. One week later it was the same thing, however, I did try vainly to punch back a little. This went on for two weeks until my grandfather asked why Tony was doing this.

“Well, Tommy is not yet mad enough or hurt enough,” my uncle said.

The following week, Leonard arrived with the same happy look on his face and came right at me as usual. This time, I punched him in the face as hard as I could and knocked him down.

He never bothered me again.

There would be a few more confrontations in my naive youth from unexpected places. I had two loyal best friends to explore junk yards, railroad track switches, and finding adventure any way we could. Gene was a full blood Chippewa and Junior a dirt poor Black kid.

I had no idea you now had to fight just to defend who your friends were but it became evident when it took three drunk hillbillies to beat Gene’s father on his own front porch, because he was an Indian.

It was the nature of the neighborhood; a place where boys were trying to figure out how to be tougher boys, a place where turning kitchen lights on during a hot summer night would drive 30 or 40 cockroaches into hiding; a place where sleeping in the dining room and looking across our hardwood floor at a beautiful moonbeam was accompanied by the sound of rats chewing through a low wall; a place where Gene tried to hitch a ride on a garbage truck with his bike, was pulled underneath and died; a place where my mother and aunts cooked city chicken, lasagna, Stufato, and a number of desserts and pastry for all the family on Sundays and holidays. It was a place for which I am thankful and grateful, a time that I would not trade.

We moved to rural Ferndale, Michigan when I was 10, a 1 1/2 lot corner home with a fireplace, a plum tree, a pear tree, apple, peach, cherry tree and a Grapevine.

So this is what dreams are made of?

Lillian was a city girl. Later, when I was an adult, however, we went to northern Michigan and for the first time her demeanor was different. Mackinac Island, the clip-clop of horses in the morning, an ore freighter silent glide at night through the Straights, lights glowing their dark passage, Tahquamenon Falls’ golden water, Song of Hiawatha in majestic white pines.

Leland’s Fish Town – its nets drying on large wood spools – canoeing Lower Platte River in Autumn under crimson birch, making a fire inside a cottage on Crystal Lake, Chimney Corner’s fresh scent of cedar – a gift from late glistening sun over deep blue hue.

Her husband passed quietly, leaving her Matriarch of the family.

Early mornings, she was often seated alone on a swinging bench overlooking the lake – amber glow against her face. Through screened in porch her grandson spied his grandmother and ran across dew soaked grass to swing with her in the sun.

“What are you thinking about, nanny?” her grandson asked.

Her gaze disappearing into a soft smile

“Oh … nothing,” she replied.





Born and raised on the lower east side of Detroit, Tom Brank now lives and writes from the Leelanau Peninsula or northern Michigan. Find more of Tom’s stories at Substack.