She sat on the floor with me, scissors in hand, and trimmed the paper I had written upon. The story itself I have long forgotten. It wasn't very good, of course. The longest I recall was about a dozen pages.
I drew out a cover on a thin piece of cardboard.
She helped me put holes through it all, bind it together, and voila! We had a book.
I was seven.
* * *
All of us kids were blessed twice.
We had a wonderful mom, and we knew it. And we made sure she knew that we knew it. She wasn't perfect, and she made mistakes; most small, some not. But the measure of a parent is the yardstick that is her kids. I bring down the mean a bit, but overall, we are a good reflection of this wonderful gal.
She is in every book I have ever written, edited or published, and in every piece of music I have ever written or performed. She loved that I practiced law, loved the books and publishing company even more, and taught me all about business, employees, management, accounting, and life in general sitting with her each Sunday doing the book work and banking for our own business.
Maybe there is something here that will help you with your life, your family, your kids. That would please mom.
Let me introduce you to her.
* * *
Maria T. Savas O'Brien, 84, of Mason City died Wednesday, April 1, 2015 at the Muse Norris Hospice Inpatient Unit. Mason City, Iowa. She was born on June 25, 1930, to Theodore and Evyenia Potiriades.
God blessed her with the voice of an angel, and she moved to North Hollywood, California, for her final two years of high school to pursue professional opera training. At some point she met and sang with Beverly Sills. I wish I could recall the details. We have records she made while in Hollywood singing opera, and on one she talks and wishes her parents Merry Christmas. She was 16.
She married Michael Savas in 1949 and had four children: Stephanie (Prohaski), Anthony, Theodore, and Kris (Christensen). They opened and operated "The Poodle" lounge in 1964, the "Cheers" of Mason City, for nearly a quarter-century. It was always busy, and what a place. Mike and Maria thrived in their business. My dad held court center stage (he was a very funny guy, uneducated but well read, a veteran of the Army Air Corps in WWII, and loved. He died in 2000). My mom oversaw it all. Mom loved her customers--all of whom comprised her extended family. We can't tell you how much she loved being with you every day, and how concerned she was about your individual lives. She really cared. And all of you knew it.
Maria married James O'Brien in 1986 and enjoyed a long marriage until his passing in 2011. (Jim was a WWII Marine--Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa, and then he fought in the Korean War. Boy, the talks we had, the books we read together and discussed. I miss him a lot, too.)
Mom showed her love by giving — her time, her energy, her wisdom, her compassion.
To her children she stressed love, kindness, education, hard work and, most of all, peace and forgiveness. Harmony in families, married or divorced, was her top priority. She never had an unkind word to say about my dad after they divorced in 1977, and that is why none of us kids were ever sucked into "adult divorce politics," and why we all get along so well. There are NO divisions in our family at my siblings' level, period. She would never allow it. Today, we would never allow it.
Here is a classic example: Whenever I came home from college, the first thing mom would ask is, "Have you seen your dad yet?" Usually the answer was "no." Here reply was invariably, "Go see him. He misses you. Have a cup of coffee, spend an hour. He loves you.... When you come back, I will cook dinner. But not until then."
That was my mom.
She sculpted souls gently.
Despite working seven days a week (often till 2:00 a.m., and book work, cleaning, fixing, etc. on Sundays), mom always had time for us. She was fond of telling us, "I want you kids to be able to do all the things in life I won't be able to do. And you will."
And so we have.
One of my earliest recollections was laying on the floor on a pillow watching and listening as she played the violin, her friend the cello, and my older sister the piano. And she would sing. I was about four.
She was always up to make breakfast and pack our lunch. We were never late for school. And somehow she always had dinner on the table, and baked. We were almost always at church on time, even though we did all we could as kids to knock that schedule off kilter. Sorry mom.
She had time for reading, education, hobbies, walks, puppies, horses, trips to the library and of course, music lessons. Lots of music lessons. We all had to take one year, period. None of us stopped after one year. And thanks for that, mom because your love of music has enriched every aspect of our lives--and now we get to share it with our friends and families. How she put up with our various rock bands in the basement for so many years being so tired is beyond me. (The first thing we did to her new floor was burn a big hole in it experimenting with flash pots. She had the patience of Job.)
When I was 16 and 17 and playing out of town (with adults!) and often out of state on the weekends, she would wait up all night or all weekend, unable to sleep. She would finally be able to close her eyes when we pulled in about dawn. I didn't learn that until much later in life when I would sit with her and talk about such things.
We put her through a parent's own kind of Hell. But she understood. She gave me room to breathe and the space to grow up, fall down, fail, and rise again. She taught me how to make my own decisions. She never made them for me. And mom never, EVER, micro-managed my life in any respect. However, she insisted on good manners. She was relentless on that score. These are some of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.
Mom loved California. It was her "favorite place." She was especially pleased when I decided to move there after law school, get married, and raise a family. We loved it when she visited; we cried when she left. She came out to help with newborns, clean, cook, bake homemade bread, and was never anything but generous. We used to sit on my deck, drinking coffee and watching the kids play in the yard or the pool. "I would love to live here again, someday," she would wistfully tell us.
Someday never came.
Growing up in Iowa, Christmas and Easter were times of wonderful warmth and joy in our home. Sure there were problems, and it wasn't all perfect, but what is perfect in life? The good FAR outweighed anything else. When I began having kids, hosting holidays with my own family, working long 60-hour weeks, and so on, I finally learned how hard it all is to juggle and do well. How she managed is beyond me, but she did and we all have nothing but fond memories of our family gatherings.
As a youngster, few days passed when we were not lying together on the floor flipping through "The Book of Knowledge," an encyclopedia set she scrimped pennies for months to buy for us at a time when we were very young and poor. She would make suggestions, I would find topics, and then she loved having me read the entries to her while she baked, cleaned, ironed, etc. I only learned much later in life I was helping to educate her, too.
When I wanted to collect coins or stamps, she signed me up for a mail-order club and was as excited as I was when they arrived. "This is a good way to learn about all the countries," she told me. "Write something about each one so you learn. One page on the country and coin [or stamp] will do."
Every day was an education without me knowing it. And it was fun, too.
We were very poor during my early years, but when I turned 11 we moved out to a lovely turn-of-the-century brick home on four acres (three acres of woods, one acre with 32 oak trees I had to spend 5 hours a week mowing). It was just outside town. A rock quarry, sand quarry, caves, hills, trails, horses, motorcycles, etc. were all within walking distance.
Living on Plymouth Road in Mason City, Iowa, was paradise for a kid like me.
One of the first things I wanted to do was build a fort in the woods. Within a day or two Mom got me a real (as in REAL) hatchet, handed it to me, and said, "Go get em Daniel Boone."
When I wanted a fish tank, she saved S & H Green Stamps and took me to the basement of Damon's Department store on North Federal to pick one out. Then she took me to the library to get a couple books so I could read how to care for the fish. She helped me set up the tank, and marveled with me at the babies, the colors, the wonderful life. To this day I have aquariums and I take good care of them. And I marvel, still.
When I wanted to build a tree house, she had a customer of ours haul lumber over in his truck and dump it north of the driveway. I remember being so excited when I first saw the giant stack that jumped off my bike as I rode up the driveway. Mom was standing by the back door, smiling. I built a four-decker tree house--the top a small crow's nest (it doubled as a pirate ship, of course). The affair was high in a large grouping of four basswood trees. "Don't fall off that platform!" she would yell up at me. "I only have two sons."
She let me build rafts and wild rope swings, dig real tunnels in the woods, and erect cool forts in the garage, ride horses bareback at breakneck speed (shorts only, no saddle, no boots, no shoes, no helmet), and play in the attic "as long as you don't fall through the ceiling," she chided. "That would be expensive."
She put her foot down when she found out that a friend and I were actively designing a submarine to use in the large pond. "Are you out of your mind?" she gasped. "Absolutely not." Yeah, that venture had success written all over it. Good call, mom. :)
When I wanted to put together a laboratory in the basement fruit cellar, she had another customer who dealt with such things bring me a giant box of test tubes, flasks, etc, got me a microscope, a chemistry set, etc, and took me to Carter and Gillis, a local hobby store, to buy chemicals and more. I had everything down there--bats, mice, fish, insects, etc. It was truly an amazing room. I still think about it to this day. And it was MINE. "Just don't blow up the house," she cautioned. (She had no idea how close I came to doing that a couple times.)
What more could anyone ask of a mom?
Her favorite dog was our German Shepherd Holly (1968-1979). Many reading this recall her. She was mom's dog. Her fifth child. When we had to put her down on the kitchen floor that cold and rainy November afternoon so long ago, Holly unable to walk and feverish, mom held it together until she was alone. And then I heard her tears.
Spending time with her grand kids was like gold to her, whether the Savas line or the O'Briens. She loved them all. She taught them everything she taught us--and more. She always had a game ready to enrich their minds by teaching basic math with a dice game, how to write short stories, and think critically through calm, logical discussion. She loved to bake with them, too, especially homemade bread and Greek pastry.
Taking them to church or seeing them there--well, that made her heart swell.
Ask any of her grand kids today what they think of their Yia Yia. Sometimes I would catch her with a tear in her eye and ask her what was wrong, and she would say, "I won't live long enough to see all the wonderful things they will do with their lives." My grandpa Ted (mom's dad), who I am named after, told me the same thing once about his grand kids. Funny, now I am beginning to think the same way about my own mortality.
Maria gave back to her friends and community many gifts and touched many lives in untold ways. She lifted her voice in song from the East Park Band shell on warm summer Sunday evenings in the 60s and 70s, where hundreds of cars would pull in, like a Drive-in Theater, to listen to the band and then hear my mom sing. She was a force in local music clubs. She sang at scores of weddings, and untold funerals. She taught Greek in the basement of the church, and had a ball teaching non-Greeks how to Greek dance. And let me tell you, that lady could dance.
Every Sunday for decades, she sang in the loft of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. She directed the choir and so loved it and the church . My sister Stephanie filled her shoes in the choir when mom was no longer able, and that made her very proud. Mom's church and her religion were especially meaningful to her.
Tradition was her watchword.
Speaking of "tradition," her favorite musical was "Fiddler on the Roof" (mine, too). We loved musicals. I took my mom to San Francisco in 2009 to see "Wicked." Just her and I. It was a magical evening. It was our last musical. I knew it would be even before I pulled out of the driveway.
Mom had some dementia then, and I suspected this was going to be her last "active" trip to the West Coast. As it turned out, she had one final trip left in her in 2012. "I know I am an old lady," she told me on the phone, but I am coming to California one more time." God bless her.
During that final visit we did as much as possible--dinners with my brother's family, quiet time, patio time. We even spent an hour watching Seinfeld bloopers on my laptop (she loved that show, but never had much time for TV). We reminisced about a lot of things.
"I would still like to move here," she confessed during a moment when her mind was clear.
"I know mom. We would love to have you here." We both knew it would never happen. I had to turn my head away so she couldn't see me for a few seconds.
Given her dementia, she ignored or forgot my directions and somehow managed to get upstairs and into a bath tub--but she was unable to get out. It was more than a little embarrassing for me, but she laughed. As I dried her off and helped her get dressed, and she chuckled, "It's only fair. Think of all the times I had to do this for you!"
I recall my dad helping his mom during her final days, cleaning up after an accident and trying to get her out of the bathroom. He told me he was trying hard to make up for all he failed to do for his dad when he needed him and he wasn't there. "Dad," I assured him, "You have made up for it--and more. Don't worry about it. No one else is." I hope my kids know when they look back later in life that I did the best I could for my parents.
Below is a photo, the last one with several of mom's grand kids. Left to right: Demetri (son), Rachel, Alex (daughter), and Nikkos. Rachel and Nikkos are my brother's kids. They are good kids, all, with good futures ahead.
Maria was always busy. She was a counselor to Miniature Matinee Musicale, served as past president of Philoptochos ("Friends of the Needy"), worked as office manager/seamstress/"grandmother to all" at Dance Unlimited (my sister's dance studio), and volunteered as a docent at Music Man Square in Mason City.
My son Demetri and I flew back to Iowa in January of 2015 to see her in the nursing home. She was surrounded by a few mementos and objects that whispered of the life that was now behind her--photos, a dress framed she wore to a wedding as a flower girl when she was just four, a special vase, a framed photo of loved ones. She was not doing well. She was down to 90 lbs., and could only whisper, her angelic voice silenced forever.
When she lost the ability to sing fifteen or so years earlier, she told me it was the hardest thing she ever dealt with. "It is like someone cutting off my arms. Imagine if you lost fingers and could never play piano or your bass again."
I was returning home from a scuba trip in the Cayman Islands on the penultimate day of March in 2015 when I got a call from my sister Stephanie. I was standing in customs in the Houston airport. "Mom is failing and is in the emergency room. You need to come home."
The trip from Texas back to California was the longest three hours of my life. I took just enough time to wash some clothes, book a flight, and flight "home" to Iowa. We were there, in hospice, holding her hands when she passed away. Even my step-brother Tom, who had driven up from Iowa, was there. He and mom had a special bond. She always loved Tom, even when he was about 20 and used to come into the bar for some beer.
She knew we were all there too, because she would nod briefly when we asked questions. When we finally told her it was OK to leave us, she did. Quietly. The sound only she could hear were the angels singing as they welcomed one of their own. All four of us were all there when my dad died, too. For that we are eternally thankful.
Being an orphan at 56 is an odd, empty feeling. I know many of you who have lost both parents know what I mean. We grieved, of course, but I didn't as much as I thought I would. As I think about it, I believe this is because none of us had any real regrets. I didn't even really cry. I just smiled a lot. I was thankful. I was grateful. I appreciated everything she had given me.
Family, and your love for your family is really all there is in life.
Everything else is just "stuff."
* * *
If she had a Master's in Finance, she could have run a Fortune 500 company.
If she was a school teacher, she would have been your favorite.
She never went to college, but she had the most important degree of all: MOM.
And we spell it: L-O-V-E.
--The Savas Clan