Portrait of a survivor

Mom's survival secret: You can't and shouldn't go home again

Mom with me in Kensington, circa 1950: A life she couldn't foresee.
Mom with me in Kensington, circa 1950: A life she couldn't foresee.

My mother, Edith Lutz Franklin O'Connell, was the youngest in a poor family of six girls born to working-class parents in Philadelphia's gritty Kensington neighborhood. She grew into a tall, pretty woman, with long brown hair, a calm disposition and good sense of humor that no doubt helped her survive extreme poverty and a series of disruptions and traumas until her death this month at the age of 91.

"As the youngest in a large family, I had to fight for just about everything," she recalled on several occasions. And that she did, even after leaving Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

The family's two-story row house stood in the shadow of the Frankford El on Pacific Street, just east and north of the notorious intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. In those days the neighborhood was a bustling community of blue-collar families struggling to cope with the loss of jobs as nearby factories moved to the suburbs or shut down in the face of newer manufacturing technologies.

Arizona beckons

Neither my mother nor her sisters finished high school. As young women during the 1930s and '40s, they were forced into the labor market to provide for the family (and also out of their patriotic desire to support the war effort). My mother worked at the large Sears Roebuck factory on Roosevelt Boulevard, wiring radio consoles that were installed in the cockpits of airplanes.

My father battled tuberculosis and emphysema for much of his adult life. Like many who suffered from these diseases, he decided to move to the southwestern desert, to Phoenix, Arizona, and my mother reluctantly accepted this dramatic change of her life. My father lived there for seven years before succumbing to his condition in 1974. My mother was then 52.

Soon after his death, a new husband came into in my mother's life. He seemed gentle and caring, but my mother was unaware that he had been badly injured in World War II and required daily medication. After abandoning his family in Ohio, he had wound up in Phoenix and stopped taking the medication, telling no one about his condition. Over the course of six months or so he began to behave oddly, at first forgetting things, then staring blankly for long periods of time.

Calming presence

Then he became aggressive and abusive until he snapped. He attempted to kill Edith; she survived only because the gun misfired. She took refuge in a home for battered women. Several weeks later her troubled husband was killed by a police sharpshooter after he walked into a bar and opened fire.

A year or so later my mother met and eventually married a local man named Leslie O'Connell, a big Westerner who had been in and out of the Army and Navy between Korea and Vietnam. Leslie was a rough-and-tumble short haul trucker who knew when and how to run a good con on unsuspecting country boys, but he spent much of his time tending to my mother's needs and exerted a much-needed calming presence in her life. Les and my mother eventually settled in Payson, Arizona, after she retired from the Honeywell Company. It was a good life for both of them until Les was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in 1995, leaving my mother a widow for the third time.

Return to Kensington

After moving to Arizona, my mom returned to Philadelphia only perhaps three times, mainly to visit her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, none of whom grew up in her old Kensington neighborhood. On those visits I would take her to see her sisters, nieces and nephews, all of whom lived in the far reaches of suburban Philly. We would also make short visits to the old neighborhood just to "see who survived," as my mom put it.

The first visit back to the old neighborhood was especially sad. Most of the houses seemed to be abandoned. We parked on the corner of Jasper and Pacific Streets in front of what used to be Tony's Grocery store, an important gathering place for the neighbors. We walked to the house where she was born and I was raised.

We knocked on the door. A man peered out, then slowly opened the door. I introduced us and apologized for the intrusion. He smiled, shook our hands and invited us inside.

To our astonishment, little had changed in our old place. The small living room, dining room and kitchen were immaculate. To the man's amazement, my mother explained how she shared two of the upstairs bedrooms with her five sisters. I noticed a small white ornamented iron heating vent that brought back fond memories of Christmas mornings— the Christmas tree was always placed in front of that vent.

Retracing her path

We thanked the man, then walked west to Kensington Avenue. My mom wanted to retrace a path that she had taken so many times. Her memories of walking along Kensington Avenue between Tioga and Somerset Streets were vivid: One of her two sons"“ probably me"“ sat in a baby carriage while she pushed it along the avenue, pausing to ponder if she should buy some candy or maybe a strip of soft pretzels from the nutty little guy in front of the El stop on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny. Or she might drop in on her sister, who lived a block away on G Street.

It took only a few minutes for the reassuring memories to end, wiped clean by the first panhandler to approach us. On each corner, sad bedraggled junkies gathered in small groups, waiting for their connections, or perhaps just waiting to die. Young girls vamped along the sidewalk searching for their next trick, or just searching.

This was also my first visit back to the old neighborhood. After I left for military service I had returned to Philadelphia, but I had no desire to go back to the neighborhood. Now, as I walked down Kensington Avenue with my mother on this summer day, it reminded me of Yossarian's Night Journey from Catch-22; the decay and destruction"“ like wartime Rome, as depicted by Joseph Heller— was evident everywhere.

At one corner, a guy came too close to us and frightened my mother. My old K & A roots flared as I threw him down and cursed his sorry ass. My mother, trembling with a slight trace of tears in her eyes, said, "Let's go home." On her subsequent visits to Philadelphia, she never asked to return to Kensington.

Signs of dementia

Beginning in her mid-80s, my mother began to show signs of dementia. It became apparent to me that she could no longer live alone in Payson, a small mountain city with few medical resources. After several hard conversations over the course of two years, I convinced her to move to New Mexico, where she could live in an independent senior community minutes from my home in Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque.

At first this arrangement seemed fine. She had her own first-floor apartment overlooking a beautifully maintained rose garden. The senior complex was just a quarter-mile from a shopping center that contained everything she might need.

Unfortunately, her dementia grew more and more pronounced. Try as I might, it became difficult for me to oversee all of her needs, including administering her medications. One day, utterly confused, she called to tell me that she had taken all of her meds at once"“ a week's worth.

Hospice care

At that point I began the process of placing my mother in an assisted living facility. After a search, we found a place that was not only affordable and beautifully maintained and staffed but was only a ten-minute drive from my home.

As my mother's condition declined, the staff at the assisted living facility tended to her needs as best they could until, in mid-February, she started to become violent. Her dementia was changing her personality.

It became clear to me that she needed hospice care. From that time on, her decline accelerated.

As my mom's dementia progressed, she seldom knew the time of day or even what day it was. Yet now she began recalling images from her life in Kensington.

Expatriate Philadelphians

Now she's gone. She spent her last three years in New Mexico, a place that held no significance for her other than the fact that she was able to be part of the family we have created there: my wife, my mother-in-law and numerous expatriate Philadelphia friends of ours who gather periodically to reminisce over dinner.

Everyone— our friends, the staff at the assisted living facility, the hospice personnel— liked my mother. She died with a quiet dignity that had eluded her for much of her life. Instead of clinging to a neighborhood that no longer existed, she took her Philadelphia memories with her. I guess I will do the same.



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