I consider myself fortunate the GPS (global positioning system) wasn’t around during my mother’s life. That would have given her the ammunition to make short trips unbearable.
Explanation: I left home in my early 20s and lived in other states during the last 36 years of my mother’s life. I often returned to Solvay for visits. During those visits I often took her shopping because my mother couldn't drive. She was accustomed to the routes taken by my father and later by my sister. However, I used these shopping trips to check out my old stomping grounds, so I would I drive one route to get to our destination, another route to return. If we had to go to the store again the next day, I’d take yet a third route, return via a fourth route.
My mother invariably thought I had gotten lost. Her thinking was, “Jack doesn’t live here anymore; he doesn’t know where he is going.”
I KEPT assuring her I still knew the area better than anyone in the family. Her reply was either “But your father never goes this way” or “Your sister never goes this way.” I’d tell her it was because they were creatures of habit. I’d appeal to her sense of adventure, which was hilarious because on a scale of zero to ten, my mother’s sense of adventure still wouldn't register.
Our drives always took approximately the same amount of time, but she continued to believe I was driving around lost when I departed from what she believed was the one true way to get from her driveway on Russet Lane to the supermarket on Onondaga Boulevard. Having a GPS in the car would only have confirmed her suspicion because — from what I hear — the device is just as inflexible as my mother was.
Even when the magical Wegman’s arrived on West Genesee Street, cutting our drive in half, my mother would give me grief over the routes I took to get there. “Why are you driving past the (old) high school? Mary never goes this way!” My mother had perfected a special withering glance for such moments.
ON THE other hand, I wish we had had GPS during the first sixteen years of my life when there was no Interstate Highway System. GPS certainly would have helped us on our many family trips when my sister and I sat in the backseat while Dad drove and Mom functioned as navigator, a map spread across her lap. To shade her eyes, Mom often wore a cap with an unusually long visor. This was a comical sight because these trips were the only time my mother ever wore a cap. I’m not sure where this particular cap came from, but I suspect my father had acquired it for fishing.
As navigator, Mom did a good job of getting us from Point A to Point B, but where she encountered difficulty was in the second part of her job – selecting our food stops. She made these selections through observation and instinct. There were times her instinct almost caused accidents.
It worked like this: she’d start looking for restaurant signs along the highway. If she got a good feeling about the restaurant from its sign or its name, she’d alert my father the we might be stopping a few miles down the road. Key word: might.
When she saw what she thought was the restaurant, she’d tell him to slow down, or worse, enter the parking lot. That’s when things often got hairy because Mom would quickly assess the place, usually decide against it, and urgently shout, “Not here! Keep going!” Maybe she felt we'd have a moral obligation to visit the place if we lingered outside for even a moment.
When this happened several times in a row, my father might become so irritated he’d impulsively swerve back onto the highway without seeing his way clear. He managed to escape accidents, though we were honked at from time to time. Luckily my mother usually made her decisions during the slow-down stage, before my father had left the highway.
We might occasionally spot a Howard Johnson’s, one of the era’s few franchises and therefore the only recognizable restaurant we were likely to see, but I don’t recall the family ever stopping at one. Perhaps my parents already knew what I would discover a few years later — that while the food at a Howard Johnson’s wasn’t bad; actually, some of it was quite good — the service was excruciatingly slow. The only chain restaurant that would ever provide a stiffer test of my patience was Friendly’s, which could have adopted as its slogan, “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
BUT BACK to my mother, the navigator. I never kept score, but my guess is we abruptly sped away from three restaurants for every one that met my mother’s approval. She generally did a good job with her final selections, though perhaps her method was to keep us waiting so long that we’d reach that stage of hunger where anything would have tasted good. This is unlikely, but I can’t rule out the possibility because Mom was a lot easier to please than the rest of us, who were were obnoxiously — and monotonously — fussy about food.
Now, of course, it’s incredibly easy to find restaurants along most highways, though this defeats one purpose of taking a trip. That is, the restaurants you choose shouldn’t be exactly like those around the corner from your house. Why drive 1,000 miles to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts?
If you were a Major, you’d know the answer. To us, a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast has become a vacation highlight.
Which gets me back to that remark I made about my mother's sense of adventure. There was one area in which she was a lot more willing to explore the unknown than were her husband or her children. She alone would try new foods, a trait she shared with her siblings, particularly her brother, Bill Smolinski.
My father, on the other hand, may have been the world's fussiest eater. My sister and I weren't far behind, though over the years both of us have become more like my mother, though neither of us have acquired a taste of liver or kidneys. However, on occasion my sister and I have followed my mother's lead is preparing different meals for different members of the family. It probably started with those kidneys, which my mother cooked for her own enjoyment. On those evenings my father, sister and I were served something else.
With liver we weren't quite so lucky, though my mother had a way of making the meal palatable, even occasionally delicious. She'd fry bacon, then put it in a meat grinder with the liver, winding up with a kind of hash. I had no idea this wasn't the common way of preparing the meal. So imagine my surprise when I selected liver for the first and only time at a Kent State University food hall and was served a hunk of gray meat you couldn't cut with a chainsaw.
No doubt my mother had spoiled me rotten, but I loved her all the more for it. As far as I'm concerned, she was inducted into the Mothers Hall of Fame years ago. She asked for little, but gave a lot, her concern almost always for the feelings and needs of those she loved. If she placed a condition on her generosity, it stemmed from an ever-increasing reluctance to go out. She loved her home and a rather simple life, gladly sharing things with visitors, which for several years included nieces, nephews and her children's friends.
And, yes, she often would take orders from family members and prepare different things for the same meal. While it seemed strange then, I think my mother simply was ahead of her time. With an outdoor grill it's fairly easy to whip up several things. And when you come from a family of grazers, you know the leftovers will not go to waste.
ABOUT BEING spoiled ... I'll mention a few examples, even at the risk of raising questions about my family's sanity. The first seems very simple. It happened during first grade at Prospect School in Solvay, NY, where students had a mid-morning break when we were served small bottles of milk we had purchased for a price so low that no parent refused the deal. This was at a time children were taught that milk was just about the healthiest thing there was.
The problem was the milk cases at Prospect School weren't refrigerated. Oh, they were when they left the milk company, and perhaps they were in the truck that delivered the milk to the school. But at that point the milk went from cool to tepid and sometimes to unpleasantly warm. Most children had no problem drinking it. Me? My gag reflex went into overdrive. The solution turned out to be chocolate milk, which many adults frowned upon. My mother was sensitive to public opinion about many things, but when it came to her children, she often followed her own instincts.
Forever after there was always a can of Hershey's chocolate syrup in the Major home, some for my father's vanilla ice cream, some for my milk. Sometimes I was a bit heavy-handed with it.
I was relatively young when my mother tossed in the towel on any kind of milk and allowed me to have Pepsi-Cola with my meals. This was not a good decision, given my proclivity for cavities and my indifferent practice of dental hygiene.
My favorite milk story about my mother was the evening my parents and I had to attend a high school banquet at which the beverage choices would be coffee or that dreaded white stuff, which undoubtedly would be served lukewarm. In those days coffee wasn't for kids, so I'd be stuck with milk. My plan was to give it to one of the milk lovers among us — you'll always find a few — but my mother had a different idea. She had put a container of Hershey's chocolate syrup in her purse and gave it to me to flavor my milk. Which I did. I don't recall being embarrassed about it. More likely I figured my mother was a genius.
Sometimes she went to far in her effort to be a supermom. Like the time I went to high school without the bag lunch she had prepared for me. She knew I wasn't about to buy the school lunch, so she hiked to the school to deliver the bag to me at noon. (Unlike today's students, we had a rather long lunch period.) Anyway, she tracked me down. When I recall how she looked that day marching down the hallway to our cafeteria I'm also reminding of the way Maureen Stapleton stalked her son Dick Van Dyke in "Bye Bye Birdie," except that my mother wasn't wearing galoshes.
Which gets me back to my mother's inability to drive a car. The idea that she delivered my lunch wasn't all that unusual; that she made that particular hike ... that was above and beyond the call. And then she turned right around and walked home. Had she a driver's license ... no sweat.
She told me she had taken a driver's test, in the late 1920s or early '30s, but did it in my father's Studebaker, which she described as "like driving a tank." In true Helen Major fashion, being humiliated once was enough. She remained a passenger the rest of her life. Well, a passenger with opinions about where the driver was going.
Not surprisingly she was Jimminy Cricket to my father, particularly during his years as Solvay mayor. She disliked pretenders and hypocrites and alerted Mayor Buster whenever she spotted one in his path. Buster was flattered when Gov. Averill Harriman invited him to Albany to discuss running for Congress, but Helen was incensed, believing her husband was being set up as a sacrificial lamb. "Go to Albany," she told Buster, "and I won't be here when you return."
He correctly translated the threat: "When you come back I'll make you wish I wasn't here." Buster also admitted Helen had wisely analyzed the situation. He didn't make the Albany trip.
After my died in 1985, my mother carried on alone at 104 Russet Lane, turning to my sister, Mary whenever a ride was needed. By then my mother's life centered around Mary. her husband, Fred, and their children, Danielle and Brian Chard. My mother also looked forward to annual trips to Florida with Mary's family.
YEARS PASSED, and despite failing health my mother refused to leave her home, even as she approached 90. She was easily flustered, often forgetful during this period – until she had a doctor's appointment. Suddenly, with Mary as her witness, Helen Major became an all-knowing sage, providing correct answers to any question the doctor might ask to test her mental state.
In 1998, a few months after her 90th birthday, Helen Smolinski Major died, true to herself and to everyone who knew her.
I was extremely lucky to have Buster and Helen Major as parents. And for my father's sake, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I hope in his next life he finds someone a lot like Mom, who'll cater to his need for simple, but hot meals and well-done beef.
As for my mother, well, I just hope that in her next life she learns to drive.