I watched my mother walk toward her bedroom, her slipper-clad feet shuffling through the blue shag carpet. It was 1973, and I was home from Northwestern on break. We’d spent the evening talking about my classes, my trips to Chicago’s museums and restaurants, and my new romance with a fraternity boy who’d taken me to his formal. Just as I was telling Mom about him, she’d interrupted me.
"I want to show you something," she announced as she left the room. Now I wondered what my mother had gone to fetch.
A few minutes later, she returned, a white, tissue-paper-wrapped bundle cradled in her hands like a relic. Slowly, Mom opened the bundle, the paper crackling like dried leaves. A military Good Conduct medal and a Purple Heart were inside. I reached out and touched them, first the Good Conduct medal, a heavy gold disc hanging from a red and white grosgrain ribbon, then the Purple Heart, beautiful with its gold raised profile of George Washington against a deep purple background.
"These were Tommy Kickler’s," Mom said. "He was my high school sweetheart. We were going to get married, but he was killed in the war."
I was stunned. "I didn’t know you were engaged before Dad."
Stuck in memory, Mom gazed at the medals. "He went to Central Catholic." Dating a Central boy, I knew, was a prize for young Catholic women of her generation in Pittsburgh. "I can still remember what I was wearing on the train platform the day he left," Mom said, smiling. "I had on a flared black skirt and a pink top with my initial on it." A spiffy dresser all her life, it was no surprise that she remembered such details.
"So, he was your boyfriend?"
"We wanted to get married, but his dad thought we were too young. If he’d let us get married . . ." Her voice trailed off, heavy with sadness. The regret in her voice made me uncomfortable. Talking with Mom about her love for another man felt disloyal to my dad, asleep just down the hall. And it was clear that Mom had been in love: Only real love could yield so much sorrow.
"He gave me his class ring before he left for camp. I lost it on the beach in Wildwood. I had put it in the toe of my shoe. I picked up my shoes and forgot it was there."
I pictured Mom anxiously digging through the sand, looking for a ring that was never found.
"He wrote me letters," she continued. "In the first one I got from him, he wrote, I left my heart on the platform when I boarded that train. Pretty romantic, huh?"
Mom smiled at the memory and I grinned back. Just as quickly, she lowered her eyes. "He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge." The family had a portrait painted for his memorial service. The artist asked Mom to describe the color of Tommy’s eyes. "They were grey, like slate or the sky on a rainy day," Mom said, carefully wrapping the medals back in the tissue paper.
Later, I climbed into bed and thought about the medals. I was 19, and tonight was the first time my mother had spoken to me as another woman, not just as her daughter. Why had she decided to tell me now that she'd been in love with another man? My mother had always seemed practical about romance: "It’s better if the man loves you a little bit more than you love him," she liked to say.
It was advice I always resisted, partly because I could see it play out in the relationship between my parents. I always sensed that my mother had the upper hand with my Dad, pitying him because he grew up in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Dad doted on her, bringing her snacks and drinks while she reclined like Cleopatra on the family room sofa, watching her favorite TV shows. A gentle man most of the time, my father had a streak of jealousy about Mom that surfaced with sarcasm and angry words if another guy showed her attention. It was always over nothing; Mom never gave him a reason to doubt her faithfulness, not even during the 10 years Dad was crippled by a massive stroke. Once, a man who lived in her senior community called and asked for a date. "Don’t you ever get lonely?" he asked. She hung up on him. "I couldn’t do that to your dad."
Maybe that’s why Mom never talked about her old boyfriends during Dad’s long illness. Even that felt like a betrayal. After he died, Mom moved to live near me. There were six years of mother-daughter outings and reminiscences before she told me, "I coughed up a little blood the other day."
As Mom was dying, I thought about Tommy Kickler’s medals for the first time in more than 30 years. The memory of them, of a part of my mother’s life I’d never understood, sat on the edge of my consciousness, taunting me that I didn’t really know my mother, that we were very different women.
After she died, I put off packing her apartment for a month, but finally forced myself to face her belongings. There was Goodwill for the doubles and the triples of pots, pans, and measuring spoons accumulated over a lifetime. Resale shops would take the designer clothing she’d prized. Those were easy decisions. Dealing with items that held memories—family photos, my grandmother's ruby ring—made me feel overwhelmed. I’d start sorting through a box and end up blubbering over a picture of my grandmother in her pink and black 1950s kitchen.
One day, I brought my mother’s ashes to the apartment while I worked. I set the polished oak box with its shiny brass plate—Freda Reolo Jarmulowski—on a small table that had belonged to my grandmother, surrounded by family photos. I turned up the thermostat and felt the heat’s warm breath blow out of the vent high in the wall. I started to sort clothes. First the pajamas. The stained ones from the months of chemo could be tossed, but the lovely, soft cotton and satin ones—those would be donated. As I opened another drawer filled with piles of gloves and stacks of hankies, I shook my head, answering the question I could hear Mom asking. "Don’t you want some of these gloves?" No one still wore dress gloves.
Soon Mom’s dresser was empty. I realized that I’d been expecting to find Tommy Kickler’s medals, but they hadn’t been there. I glanced around the room. They’d turn up. But as I made my way through drawer after drawer of old sweaters and comfy sweatshirts, I found nothing from my mother’s past. No surprising memorabilia. No sentimental newspaper clippings. And no medals.
Had I dreamed the whole thing? I glanced at the box containing my mother’s ashes, silently willing her to show me where they were. There was no revelation, only the sound of the heat cycling on and off. Her old desk had photo albums piled on its built-in shelves. I’d pack those next. Don’t look at the pictures, I told myself, remembering my tears over Grandma’s kitchen.
But it was impossible to ignore the old, brown, leather photo album embellished with tassels, full of photos of my mother before she married. She’d worked at Levine’s then, a women’s clothing store in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She labored in the business office during the week, but on Saturdays she worked the sales floor, putting in a 12-hour day before changing her clothes in the ladies room to go out on dates. I always felt like a dowdy wallflower when Mom recalled her string of admirers from those days. I was lucky to get one boyfriend while Mom juggled several at once. She most enjoyed telling stories about guys who never had a chance: Ernie Cuda, the married man who flirted with her in his Italian grocery store, and Sam Denardo, whose family owned a jewelry store.
"I never did anything more than kiss a fella before I was married," my mother told me once. "Well, I have!" I’d blurted out. Mom looked at me while an uncomfortable silence opened between us like the Grand Canyon. In her day, getting serious meant getting engaged. My generation moved in together.
Mom took a sip of coffee and lit a cigarette. "If you’re going to choose to get involved that way, don’t expect me to pick up the pieces." I never asked her to—even after she proved to be right in predicting a disastrous end to my relationship with a Vietnam War vet. He worked as a radio DJ and used two different last names, so I knew one had to be an alias. I never knew which one it was.
Now, sitting in her empty apartment, I wondered about Mom’s claim of chastity, especially when I toted up her string of boyfriends. Could she really have made it to age 25—the age when she married my dad—and still been a virgin? "I can understand how a girl could get involved," she’d once admitted.
Opening the last box in Mom’s bedroom closet left me with even more questions about my mother’s romantic history. Inside was the oldest album of all, its ivory cover perched loosely on top, no longer attached.
Several pages featured photos of a young soldier: posing in fatigues near his barracks; hanging up laundry; shirtless, perching on some boulders. Was this Tommy Kickler? I gently pried the laundry photo out from its black photo corners. "You’ll see we don’t use clothes pins here. Love, Joe," read the handwritten inscription on the back. I peeked beneath the other photos; each was signed by the same guy. A man I’d never heard of occupied six pages in my mother's album. My skepticism about her chaste life grew.
On the next page was a picture of a curly-headed man. I’d seen him before. Once, while poring over photos with Mom, she’d tapped a polished fingernail on the man seated next to her in one, suave in a tailored suit. "Clarence. My fiancé," she’d said, deliberately nonchalant. It was like discovering she had buried a body in the basement. She’d been engaged twice before she met my father—a fact she’d never mentioned in more than 50 years.
She broke it off when she learned Clarence’s sisters were pressuring him to ask my Catholic mother to become a Protestant. "He cried when I gave him back the ring."
I was the one who cried when I left the Vietnam vet, even though I initiated the breakup. Quick engagements didn’t happen often in the 1970s and 1980s. People lived together and there was no need to rush into marriage. I was 29 before I got married, and it was my first and only engagement.
My mother’s third fiancé—Steve Burns—was having a scotch and water at the bar at The Copa, one of Pittsburgh’s hot spots, when she came in to make arrangements for her bowling league’s banquet. "Who’s that in the hat?" he asked Sal, the bartender.
My parents were engaged at Christmas 1950 and married nine months later. Mom had a surprise when they went to get the marriage license. She learned she was about to become Freda Jarmulowski. Steve Burns was an alias, Dad confessed, one he used in his gambling days, to avoid sullying his family name.
"And you believed him?" I asked, incredulous.
Mom shrugged. "I just did." I thought about the Vietnam veteran, astonished that my mother and I could have similar experiences with two very different outcomes. Dad turned out to be honest and reliable. I could never count on the vet.
Getting ready on her wedding day, Mom sat at her vanity, careful not to rumple her tea-length dress, while she adjusted her short veil. She thought about her independence, how she had enjoyed her single life. Just before she walked down the aisle at Mother of Good Counsel Church, she told me, she turned to her maid of honor, her friend, Flora, who would become my godmother. "Do you think I’m doing the right thing?" she’d asked.
I understood how she felt.
I met my husband while working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chasing stories. I married him in the backyard at my parents’ home. I remember standing nervously in the upstairs hall, wearing my off-the-shoulder gown. Before the ceremony began, I started to cry. I didn’t ask anyone if I was doing the right thing. But I thought about it. I had been single for a long time. He wasn’t the first man I’d loved. Or even the second one. Or the third. Like my mother, I’d been in love more than once.
A few years before I met my husband, I fell in love with my editor at the newspaper. He was married, and we worked hard at being discreet about our relationship. We met when I was 23, brand new in the newsroom and unsure of my spot among all the seasoned reporters. He started bringing me a cup of tea in the morning as he moseyed to his desk. Soon he was encouraging me to have confidence in my writing, his words delivered with a teasing banter that couldn’t hide his kindness. I tried to ignore the way my heart speeded up whenever he looked at me—until I stopped to say good night to him late one evening as I was leaving the newsroom. His eyes—slate grey, like Tommy Kickler’s—peered at me over his glasses. I asked him to go to dinner with me and never looked back. It only lasted a year, but I was still in love with him when he died soon after our relationship ended.
If Mom suspected the truth, she never said anything. The day he died, I went to my parents’ house to spend the night so I wouldn’t be alone. I turned on the TV, and performers on some long-forgotten variety show started singing "You Are My Sunshine."
"You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. . . ."
I started crying. Mom sat down beside me and put her arm around me.
"Honey, you always talk about Dave being your friend. Was he more than that?"
There are some things you don’t need to tell your mother, I thought. I took a shaky breath and blew my nose. "How can you ask me that?"
Mom just held my hand while I sobbed for hours. I remembered when she first told me about Tommy Kickler, and I knew she understood.
I never did find Tommy’s medals. Were they lost in a move, long forgotten in some piece of furniture that Mom gave away or sold? All I found as I cleaned Mom’s apartment that day was a holy card, the kind that undertakers provide, with a picture of the Sacred Heart on one side, and Tommy’s birthdate and date of death on the other. I held the worn cardboard and looked at the packed boxes, all that remained of my mother’s life. We had shared more during her lifetime than I’d understood. We had both learned that you could lose the love of your life. There would be others; you might even marry some day. But the memory of that lost one would always be held, precious, like medals wrapped in tissue paper.