In memory of my sweet mama, Rita Perkins
October 11, 1929 – August 17, 2020
Many of you recently shared precious stories with me about my beloved mama. The words that turned up over and over again were “gentle,” “sweet,” “quiet,” “kind,” “big hearted” – but also “steely,” “strong,” “tough as nails,” and “determined” (aka stubborn). As her daughter, I was fortunate to witness these admirable qualities throughout my life in various situations.
Mom always had time to listen to my long monologues about what was on my mind or happening in my world. I launched into adulthood believing that I could be anyone or do anything I set my mind to, and I know it was because of her deep unconditional love and support. Growing up she even supported my wacky ideas, like my bathroom sink chemistry experiments, my attempt to shelter a pigeon nest on our back porch during an intense freak April snowstorm, and the orange psychedelic wallpaper that I picked out for my bedroom as a young teen.
Rita was a divorced single mom long before single moms were a common demographic. Thank goodness her family didn’t withdraw their love (unlike the church) but instead kept her safe and supported during difficult times. Unfortunately, that whole debacle left a chink in her armor and she never really fully recovered. She always regretted making the mistake of marrying the wrong guy, but we both knew that if it hadn’t happened that way, then I wouldn’t have been born. Sometimes life is bittersweet. All in all, she did really well with the hand she was dealt, and I’m very proud of her.
Mom landed a good full time job at Dupont where she worked for almost 30 years. I’m sure she would have preferred to be a stay home mom. In particular, she hated going to work on snowy days because it meant digging out of her East Main Street parking spot, cleaning off her car (which is hard when you’re barely five feet tall), and white knuckle driving from Bridgeport to Fairfield in scary conditions. But she hardly ever complained otherwise and handled being a working mom with grace.
For three of my high school years, Mom alternated driving Patty Metzger and me to Notre Dame. She would drive us from the East side to the North end of Bridgeport – then swing over to Fairfield and get to work by 8:00 AM. I know that must have been hard on her, but she was a trooper.
On her days off, mom loved going places with me; sometimes John and Mike would join us. I have such fond memories of shopping together at Skydells, and also at downtown Reads where we invariable ordered turkey club sandwiches in their luncheonette after shopping. She brought me to Beardsley and Seaside parks, Briarwood’s for ice cream, Paul’s Pizza, the Greeks, the Lordship amusement park, and Old MacDonald’s Farm. She even brought Mike and John to Yankee stadium; I was too young for that trip. Mom watched me dance at Zita Corano’s (I was awful) and also enrolled me in “charm school”. Then there were vacations to Sturbridge Village and Rhode Island. A couple of times she drove me, Grandma, and Grandpa to visit Uncle Levi and Aunt Emilia in New Hampshire, and also to Sanford Maine to visit Grandma’s brother. At Uncle Levi’s I was impressed to see how effortlessly Mom could bait a fishing hook with live worms, as well as shuck peas. I also remember her on-again off-again companion Sonny driving us multiple times to the Monticello race track for a day of fun. Mom never really learned to cook because her sister Dottie had that covered, but she was a wiz on the sewing machine evidenced by all of the polyester pant suits she made to wear to work. Mom also took up ceramics for a bit, and enjoyed growing cucumbers and tomatoes in our backyard each summer. During her lifetime Mama must have played at least a million rounds of solitaire.
Mom was generally mild mannered and never had a bad word to say about anyone or anything. Well, except for three incidents that I can still vividly remember. The first was when I was five years old. I just had my tonsils out and she was driving me home from the hospital. Someone cut her off and we almost crashed, so she got out of the car and in a very loud voice gave that man a piece of her mind! I can still see the stunned look on his face. The next time was when I was a first grader in Sister Nolasko’s class. I was “naughty” and Sister made my mother leave work early to have a meeting at St. Charles. Boy was Mom livid to be called out of work especially when she learned that my infraction was hiding my rain boots under my coat instead of wearing them home (hey, the day had turned sunny). She didn’t let Sister Nolasko know how mad she was, but I certainly heard all about it on the drive home. Then there was the time I had done something really bad (I honestly can’t remember what it was) and I was hiding in the bathroom. She almost ripped the latch and hook right off the bathroom door in her burst of anger and strength!
Like many, I wasn’t a perfect child especially as a teenager. Since she was a single mom, when I acted out she had to deal with me on her own and I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I took her right out of her comfort zone on more than one occasion. For instance, there was the time my friends and I had a brief party on a school bus parked in a bus lot; the cops caught us before we really even had any fun and we got arrested for criminal trespassing. Mom stood by me, even though she wanted to kill me, and got my record cleaned as a youthful offender.
I had the good fortune of working with my mom at Dupont for about a year when I was right out of high school. This gave me the opportunity to see her in action crunching numbers and keeping inventory of the fabrics used in the plant. She was very good at her job – well except for the day that the numbers got away from her and she made a huge mistake in inventory that cost the company a great deal of money. Fortunately she got no more than a slap on the wrist because her years of impeccable service earned her a free pass. She was very well respected by her co-workers.
Jamie and I moved to Denver for about 9 months early in our years together before marrying. I’m sure Mom was worried at the prospects of us settling down so very, very far from home. But what she seemed to be most worried about was Colorado’s reputation for snowy weather. As a surprising twist, Denver had less than one inch of snow that winter, whereas Connecticut was hit with the infamous blizzard of 1978!
When I was s a young adult I stunned Mom (and myself) when I landed my photo in Playboy magazine. I’m sure she was pretty confused and upset (can you imagine!) but thankfully Uncle Babe set her mind at ease and assured her it was a tasteful magazine and photo.
When I worked as a yellow pages sales representative for the phone company, I was assigned to canvass for the Northwest Corner phone directory and was put up at the Litchfield Inn. I have precious memories of my mom staying with me at the inn and exploring the countryside. Soon after, Jamie and I had our sights set on buying property nearby in a small rural town called Morris. Mom graciously helped us with the down payment for the 2 acres, where we eventually built our home and raised our family. A couple of years later she provided start up funds to support my idea of opening a childcare center in our new community. Room To Grow is still serving the local families; this is our 30th year in operation. Thanks Mom for your generosity and belief in me! You helped Room To Grow get started – positively impacting the lives of countless families over the past three decades by keeping children safe and engaged while their moms (and dads) worked. The establishment of Room To Grow also meant that I could earn a living but still be with my own kids. It offered me the best of both worlds, something that I wish you had the luxury of doing, Mama, back in the day when raising me.
While in her early sixties, Mom once again proved her tenacity when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She stoically faced surgery and radiation treatments then lived another 25+ years cancer-free.
At one point my mom became a Nintendo buff and was really good at playing Mario. Kevin and Chris both remember being really surprised at the time; she had created a cheat sheet of sorts that apparently was quite impressive, so much so that Chris used to tell his elementary school friends about it. After Mom retired she drove up to Morris quite often and enjoyed watching her three grandchildren grow and play at our home. She attended Kevin’s and Chris’ sporting events when she could, and never missed Laura’s annual Nutcracker performance at the Warner Theater in Torrington (thanks Pops for driving my mom and Ma Tante to see the ballet each year).
About 8 years ago Mom went into respiratory failure due to complications from COPD. She was intubated and was on death’s doorstep. Instead of succumbing to her illness, she yanked the tubes out (even with her hands tied down) and eventually got back on her feet; it was amazing to watch. In these later years she had several more hospital stays due to falls and COPD, but had the tenacity to bounce back, albeit a bit weaker each time. No matter how difficult things got, this tough cookie never gave up on life.
Mama moved into our Morris home for her final 4-1/2 years. Well, Jamie and I basically had to kidnap her because she wasn’t leaving her life on Sunnybank with Dottie and Babe willingly. Right to the end she longed to go back home and would mistakingly call for Dottie whenever she needed a hand, which made sense since she spent more than 80 years living with her beloved sister, her inseparable “twin.”
I wrote a cookbook during her years in Morris, and I’ll always remember how Mom was my star recipe tester. During her years with us I swear she ate her weight in Mom’s Munchies Skinny Mint Cookies and Pineapple Fried Rice. When riding in the car she was always amazed at how many trees we have here in Morris.
Mama imagined hearing and seeing children towards the end. She often would ask me, “Where are the little children?” I’m not sure if it was a throw back to the days when 35+ Arsenault kids would stream through our house on East Main Street each holiday, or if she was revisiting the days when Mike’s and John’s kids were young playing dress up with her clothes, or maybe she was remembering when her own grandchildren were playing around her. Either way, it was sweet to see her interest in “finding the children”.
For some odd reason, Mom had a tough time adjusting to the time change each spring and fall. She would keep one clock set to the old time and one clock set to the new time for weeks claiming it helped her adjust. In recent years, while living with us, Mom would ask “what time is is?” throughout the day. She was always surprised to hear our response and would remark how “time flies.” I agree Mama, it certainly does. Your 90+ years on earth have come and gone and I’m hopeful that in your afterlife you are having a fantastic time whooping it up with all of your brothers, Uncle Babe, Sonny, and other dearly departed – as well as basking in your parents’ love once again. This is your time now, sweet Mother, to enjoy pure bliss and joy.
Thanks for taking this walk with me down memory lane! Feel free to share your memories of my mom down below in the comments.