May 13th, 2018

carole lombard 07
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Remembering my mother on this day

Probably no person was closer to Carole Lombard during her lifetime than her mother, Elizabeth Peters. She gave daughter Jane Alice confidence, instilling in her feminist qualities atypical for the era. She was a confidante, as many mothers are, someone Carole could turn to when she sought refuge from celebrity life.

Indeed, after both died in the 1942 crash of Flight 3 -- one day after the photo directly above was taken -- it was said without any sense of flippancy or sarcasm that their joint passing was appropriate, since one would've terribly grieved the loss of the other.

Today, Mother's Day, I thought I'd look back at the life of my mother, officially Filomena Belviso Paterno (she went with the first name Phyllis). I miss her dearly, and wish I had more than a handful of images of her. However, I have both memories and the stories she told, and I'll share them with you.

She entered this life in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Oct. 25, 1920, although she had been conceived in Italy. (She later listed her birth as occurring in 1926, for reasons I'll explain later.) The Belvisos were among the last wave of southern European immigrants to America before borders tightened in 1924. Phyllis grew up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, to a relatively poor but tight-knit family.

Like so many who grew up in that era, my mother was an avid fan of movies. While she said she was a Lombard fan, her favorite actress during that time was Ruby Keeler (shown above in 1936), the talented, likable Warners star. In fact, she said, she had made a scrapbook of Keeler clippings and mailed it to her.

My mom had a connection to another '30s Warners actress: Late in the decade, she got a job delivering packages in midtown Manhattan, and one of the assignments was dropping off a parcel at the New York apartment of Glenda Farrell (shown below). Alas, the "Torchy Blane" star wasn't there to receive it.

While both my parents were Brooklynites, they hailed from different parts of the borough and thus didn't meet until 1942. My father Vincent hailed from the more prosperous Bay Ridge neighborhood, met my mother that year and were married that Dec. 21 in Elkton, Md., just across the state line from Delaware. (Maryland's relatively lax marriage-license laws made it a popular place to get married for decades.)

Vincent Sr. was born Oct. 18, 1923, making him nearly three years younger than Phyllis; uneasy about such an age difference, she turned it around by cutting six years off her age until admitting it many years later.

What happened next, as she tells it, might make for a good romantic comedy. Having joined the Army earlier in '42, Vincent didn't tell his mother he was wed, and soon he was sent to Princeton. N.J., where the university's graduate school was used to instruct military police. (My father remained stateside throughout World War II, though he nearly was sent to Europe and the Pacific.)

Phyllis joined him in Princeton and found office work; she said she recalled seeing Albert Einstein walk along Nassau Street. By now, my grandmother had been told they were married, but if there was any rancor between her and Phyllis, it had disappeared by the time I arrived. But first on the scene came my sister Helen, on Dec. 16, 1943.

Once the war ended, my parents returned to Brooklyn. Dad -- now a civilian technician in the National Guard -- graduated from Long Island University, then attended New York University law school (though he did not complete his degree). Mom raised Helen as the family moved several times, even briefly residing in Richmond Hill, Queens. In early 1952, my dad was transferred upstate to Syracuse, and moved there that February.

I arrived Aug. 19, 1955, a preemie weighing two pounds, 10 ounces. It was touch-and-go for me for weeks, and I spent more than a month in an incubator, but my resolve -- not to mention plenty of prayers -- pulled me through. Mom and I finally were discharged in late September...into the family's first home, a new ranch colonial in the Onondaga Valley section of the city's South Side. Here's how the house looked in 2011, more than four decades after we left, including a garage and paved driveway my folks had built in the early '60s:

On Jan. 26, 1958, I was given a younger brother, Michael. The five of us lived a typical postwar American family life, at a time when Syracuse was thriving. As the '60s went on, my sister echoed what my mother had done two decades earlier by marrying a man in the military -- though this time, the parents knew, and objected. Their relationship was often uneasy. Thomas Gibbons would serve with the Green Berets in Vietnam, then become a businessman with two children before his death in 2002. Helen would follow at age 67 in October 2011.

Meanwhile, my father had founded a federal employees union for civilian technicians (in late 1968, President Johnson signed a bill giving them the same rights as others in the federal workforce), and his travel meant my mother often raised Michael and I without him. She never drove, but the Syracuse city bus system took us where we needed to go, and she occasionally took jobs downtown for some supplemental income.

In 1970, my brother and I underwent the first major change of our lives, leaving our birthplace home as my father's work led us to move to the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md. In 1972, Phyllis returned to retail at an ill-fated local mall where the department store she worked for went under, as did its successor. The '70s went on, my family upgraded houses every few years, and in 1980 found the home of their dreams, a newly-built, four-bedroom residence on a cul-de-sac in Gaithersburg, Md.

That's how it looked in May 2012 (it's in the middle, with a long driveway, but in 1980 the house had a carport rather than a garage). Alas, my parents' time together there would be brief; in February 1982, less than a year after I had returned home to work for my father, he died of a heart attack at 58 in a House of Representatives office building on Capitol Hill. My mother, of course, was devastated.

Did she ever get over losing him? No. But she always remained active, working in retail for many years (this time at a successful nearby mall), made many friends along the way who helped guide her through tough times and lonely years, and visited Europe, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, continuing a tradition of travel my parents began when they spent a week in California in the spring of 1968. I moved away in 1983, first for graduate study and then to work on my own.

Most important, she did all she could to uphold my father's legacy. And, as in Syracuse, much of that came through the house. In Gaithersburg, she oversaw the building of a garage and a room and outdoor patio behind it, along with other improvements meant to enhance its value. And eventually it did, as part of a thriving subdivision with nearby supermarkets and other shopping.

That's her, in one of the rooms she had built, with two of her friends.

In her 80s, she relaxed, watching plenty of cable TV (her favorite programs were Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" on MSNBC and Washington Nationals baseball games). Despite occasional ailments, she remained pretty spry, as this image shows:

But in early 2013, when she was 92, things began to change. She began to forget things, her speech was slightly slurred and she simply wasn't quite her former self.

For Mother's Day, I bought her the Debbie Reynolds book "Unsinkable," not knowing she wasn't a fan of hers. (Fortunately, she enjoyed reading it.) But time went on, the gradual deterioration continued, as I kept in touch from Virginia. (By now, I was set on relocating to Los Angeles -- something she knew -- but I wanted to be near her till the end.)

That end would come on Dec. 12, 2013, when I got word from my brother that she was gone at age 93. She had been a widow for nearly 32 years, and now she's reunited with my father at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in suburban Maryland.

What things did she teach me? Decency, toughness, compassion to name a few -- traits that have guided me in the ensuing, often struggling years without her.

So my best to you and your mothers, whether they be in your life or in your memories.
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