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Zaleski: My mother went to work when dad died

My mother was a widow at age 40. She became the sole provider for my sister and me when my father died of alcoholism and smoking-aggravated heart disease. He'd had a heart attack at age 39, and several more before he died weeks short of his 41st birthday. It was a tough time. He was a hard man when he drank. A "functional alcoholic," he was violently abusive and frightfully mean. When sober, he was charming, witty and a good dad. In retrospect and introspect and in conversations with my sister and mom, we confessed his death was a relief for us. We were able to move on because my mother stepped up her game.

Mom worked part-time when dad was alive, mostly as a retail clerk, and only after we kids were in school. When he died, she took a full-time job at Fafnir Bearing Co., one of the manufacturers that gave my hometown of New Britain, Conn., the moniker, "Hardware City of the World." Her office supervised ball bearing orders for the likes of John Deere, International Harvester and Caterpillar. She was paid well. With help from my dad's printers' union, we held onto our house and stabilized the family budget.

She retired at 65, just as the city's factories were collapsing, Fafnir among them. The last time I was there all that was left was a blocks-long wasteland of broken bricks and fading memories.

Before her marriage in 1945, mom had been a World War II Rosie-the-riveter girl at one of those factories that no longer exists. Before that, she worked in an Italian immigrant-owned company that would become famous for charcoal-roasted, water-packed peppers. She and her first generation Italian-American girlfriends sorted peppers prior to processing. Mancini Sweet Red Roasted Peppers in their distinctive yellow-label jars are still in better stores. Can't walk by them without thinking of my mother.

Work was important, but family was first. After the uncertainty caused by my father's death, she created a "good house." It became the extended family's anchor, where all were welcome, good food was on the table, and her energy animated the place. She became "Rocket Lena" because she drove too fast, and because she was quick to embrace our friends as if they were family. She cherished her old friends, including the girls who had worked with her at the World War II factory and the pepper packer. They met monthly at Lena's house, a shrinking club of aging, stunning Italian-American women.

In later life, she was a wonderful grandmother to my kids and my sister's daughter. When I settled in North Dakota, she took it well, but believed North Dakota was a few miles from the dark side of the moon. Mom and my western North Dakota wife became great friends. She loved her grandchildren. I am forever thankful they knew her.

Mother's Day? It's every day. She died in 1995, but it's like yesterday when I drift back to hear her laugh, smile at her scold, and at last, understand her unconditional love.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as editorial page editor of The Forum. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or (701) 241-5521.