Sixty years ago next week–on May 15, 1944–the front page of the New York Times carried a brief dispatch from the front in Europe. It told the story of an American B-17, on a bombing run over Laon, France, that was struck by a bomb accidentally released by another American plane flying in formation above it. The bomb wedged in the tail of the Flying Fortress, killing the tail-gunner, but didn’t explode. “Although the plane was almost unmanageable,” the dispatch read, “the crew stayed with the ship.” Terrified the bomb would detonate during what promised to be a bumpy landing, the four surviving crewmen tried in vain to dislodge it while the pilot, Lieutenant Burdette “Buddy” Williams, guided the wounded plane back to its base in England. The bomb was still in the tail when he touched down.
For these actions, each member of the crew was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for Valor. Sixty years later, I’m typing these words, staring at Buddy Williams’s medal. It wound up with me after my mother, Leona Goldblatt–who used to be Leona Williams–died last December.
It was Buddy–not my father–who was the great love of my mom’s life.
She’d mentioned Buddy to me for the first time ten years ago, long after my father’s death. At first, details came in trickles. The fact that she even had a first husband. The fact that he was a hard-drinking, motorcycle-riding daredevil pilot. The fact that she divorced him after the war because of his boozing. The fact that she remarried him several years later when he sobered up. The fact that she divorced him again when he fell off the wagon.
Then, over the last few years, she began to open up. She talked about the time Buddy buckled her into the front seat of an open cockpit crop duster, handed her a pair of oversized aviator goggles, and took her on a series of barrel rolls–as she screamed herself hoarse with only the seatbelt holding her in the plane. She talked about the time, during the war, that she and another pilot’s wife drove from Ohio to Florida to follow their husbands–managing the entire distance, despite fuel rationing, by flirting with gas station attendants. “Just flirting,” she added.
So I knew a few of the stories. But I had no tangible evidence of her life with Buddy until I flew down to Florida at the end of November, after my mom entered a hospice. She was 80, dying from acute emphysema and from a ventral hernia that had puffed her abdomen out like a cantaloupe and forced her, in the last year of her life, to wear maternity pants. By the time I reached her bedside, she was doped up and sleeping sixteen hours at a stretch. Whenever she came to, she’d ask for a sip of water, or a taste of Jell-O–which she’d acknowledge afterward with an exaggerated “Ahhhh.” The skin of her arms, from her elbows to her fingertips, had turned purplish black, and she’d sometimes stare at her hands, as if trying to decide if they were really hers; other times, she had just enough strength to clasp my hand if I slid it under her palm.
My sister and I alternated vigils, so my mom never woke up alone. But several days into the routine, Gail showed up for the night shift with unsettling news: She couldn’t find a record of the funeral arrangements for which my mom had prepaid years before. The cemetery had no record either, so I needed to turn up the contract among her papers–or else we’d be back at square one when she died.
The job was nightmarish. My mother was a pack rat; I found grocery coupons from the 1980s, a warranty for a black-and-white television purchased in Queens in 1971, and every report card my sister and I ever brought home. (And that was just from the top left drawer of her dresser.)
I was at it for three hours when I came across a scrapbook I’d never seen before–from her life with Buddy. Anxious for a distraction, I began to leaf through it. Among the matchbooks, crushed flowers, and old photos, I found the yellowed Times front page and the war medal: proof of a life more adventurous, more dramatic, and more (no use denying it) romantic than my own.
The heartache, of course, was that I never had the chance to sit down with her and go over any of it. She slipped in and out of consciousness the next day, and died the following night–just hours after my niece Melissa had found the missing funeral contract.
So this Mother’s Day, take it from a guy who missed his chance: Set aside the flowers, the chocolates–even the coffee mug proclaiming “World’s Greatest Mom.” It’s all fine, but it’s fluff. The history is what matters: the life led, the joys, the griefs, the triumphs, and the tribulations. Sit your moms down–in comfy chairs, of course–and nag and nag until they give up their secrets.
They may have more than they let on.