McGrath: Here’s to Mom, coach of the year
By David McGrath May 11, 2012 6:54PM
Updated: June 14, 2012 8:21AM
I will not say my mother was a modern day Ma Barker. I won’t even say she was conniving.
But I will grant that she reminds me a little bit of Jeff Van Gundy, coach of the New York Knicks in the 1990s, for the way he would concoct conspiracy theories to motivate his team.
Oh, and she is short like Van Gundy, too.
But back to my main thesis. Van Gundy once famously told his men prior to a playoff game with the Chicago Bulls that Michael Jordan was making fools of them.
He said Jordan would come up and shake their hands and tell jokes, oozing charm and charisma to get them to let down their guard. After which he would dribble and drive down their throats to score easily, beating them every time.
Likewise, my mother used pride and competition to motivate and teach her seven children.
For example, years ago in Evergreen Park, my five brothers and I used to love lying on the carpeted floor on weekends, watching cartoons and Roy Rogers and “Bonanza” on TV.
One Sunday evening, she stood in the living room doorway and said, “I’ll bet your chum Tom Booth is doing his study questions for geography right about now.”
I looked up, temporarily distracted from concentrating on Little Joe and whether he would make it out of Red Canyon without catching an arrow in the belly.
“For Pete’s sake, Mom, Tom watches ‘Bonanza,’ too,” I said.
She proceeded to plant the idea in my head that Tom only claims to watch cowboys and Indians in order to fool me into staring all night at the idiot box, while he’s hitting the books Sunday night. That’s why he earned the coveted merit pin at the end of the school year and I did not.
And, indeed, her suspicion thrummed in my head, sufficiently enough to make me stop watching and crack the books upstairs to read about the natural resources exported by Brazil.
(No, I still didn’t win the merit pin, and the Knicks never beat Jordan. But we bettered ourselves, thanks to our “coaches.”)
Or the time my mother raised her eyes over her newspaper to peer out the living room at another St. Bernadette School classmate, Jerome Kamper, who was walking down the street in his new, green hood coat.
“That Kamper boy,” she said, pretending to address no one in particular, “hasn’t he the broadest shoulders for someone his age? Must be from taking out those heavy garbage cans every week. Without even being asked.”
I got the message all right. Her style prove annoyingly effective on six hard-headed boys.
Fast forward to today — Gertrude McGrath is going on 93 years of age. Apart from the fact that it takes her longer to get up from her chair, and that she gets a little help with housecleaning and cooking, she has not changed in any substantive way.
As when I stopped by recently for coffee and conversation and a piece of startlingly pink cake she set down on the table in front of me.
“My Kev,” she said, referring to my younger brother. “You should see what he brings me.”
She commenced detailing Kevin’s apparent evolution as an outstanding chef, whose specialty is marinated pork roast that he slow-cooks on his Weber grill with red potatoes and spicy black beans. And that he delivers piping hot at precisely 5:30 p.m.
And how she and Kevin and his wife, Patti, sit down to an entire dinner’s worth of conversation — instead of the kind of drive-by coffee break chat she now was having with me, though those weren’t her precise words.
Still annoying? In a felicitous, tolerable way. Still effective? Without a doubt. Still caring? That’s a mother for you — still my personal coach after all these years.
So thanks, Mom, and Happy Mother’s Day! Oh, and next Monday, you can tell Kev he has the night off.
David McGrath is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of “The Territory,” a short story collection. He can be reached at email@example.com.