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What I'll Miss Most: Hearing Ma Say My Name

The author's mother. (Courtesy)
The author's mother. (Courtesy)

The week before Mother’s Day, I lost my mom.

Ma, we called her: June Octavia Oakes. She was incredibly proud of that middle name, since it was a family name.

Ma was cute and spunky. Some of that spunk was undoubtedly her way of making up for her size. She was just 4 feet 11 inches, but could sink baskets from half-court — which is why they picked her for the high school basketball team in Pittsfield, where she made some crucial shots during games.

June Octavia Oakes
June Octavia Oakes

In her own unique and simple way, Ma was a Renaissance woman, a risk-taker, opinionated and very independent. She was first in her family of eight other sisters and brothers to leave home for college. There she caused a stir when she and other women defied an order from their housemother not to wear shorts outside. (It was the 1940s.) In response, they dressed in shorts and rolled-up T-shirts and frolicked on the dorm lawn. Ma made sure they were photographed for the record and saved the photos and the story in her extensive photo albums.

She studied business and journalism, but never used the journalism until later in life. Then she wrote letter after letter to reporters and editors, critiquing stories, delighting when she received a reply, even if the reply took a shot at her. Local, state and national politicians were also in her sights, and she wrote opinions about taxes and deficits and "wrongs" she thought needed correction. Once, when informed by the IRS that her tax refund would be late, she fired up the poison pen and asked if they had “run out of money?" Sure enough, someone wrote back and apologized.

Professionally, Ma was the office manager for an auto company for decades and held off retiring until she was 75. She also sold real estate and went to a school in Iowa to become a licensed auctioneer.

For years, she and a partner ran weekly hometown auctions in a classic red barn in central Massachusetts. Frequently, she was her own best customer, which is why she amassed collections of prints, stamps, coins, canes, umbrellas, spoons and many other artifacts. My favorite is her collection of yardsticks. I found her a 4-foot yardstick once. It made absolutely no sense but it fit in.

Ma raced pigeons — that’s right, pigeons — and became a champion flyer in the former Worcester Homing Pigeon Club. Once, an international pigeon buyer came from Taiwan and paid a handsome sum for one of her champions. Her secret, she said, was to talk to each pigeon, encouraging the bird to fly home quickly. She was the "pigeon whisperer."

Her secret, she said, was to talk to each pigeon, encouraging the bird to fly home quickly.

She played a beautiful upright piano given to her by my grandmother. Ma loved to dance and had a green thumb with an enviable flower garden. She built dollhouses from scratch, gluing every little roofing shingle and piece of siding to each house. She painted, hung wallpaper, installed windows, doors, flooring and furnished each one. She built a full village of over 20 dollhouses, shops, a church, a firehouse, a tea house and more. It has amazed visitors to her home.

She loved to cook. Some of my earliest memories are of scraping the bowls and licking the spoons after she made one of her signature chocolate cakes, whose ingredients included vinegar and coffee. She made a very tasty raisin-filled cookie each holiday season. I loved them, so Ma always gave me a few dozen to take home. I rationed them, to make them last as long as possible. I finished my 2018 cookies last month. At dinner, you learned to never finish before Ma did, because if she could see the bottom of your plate she heaped more food on before you could say, “But I’m full.” We always said that trait is the Italian in her; her family name is Gaviorno.

She lived the way she wanted to live, and died the same way. She took up smoking in college and smoked all the way to her death at 87 from brain cancer. She passed away in her home, which was her wish.

If you asked what I’ll miss most, I guess it would be hearing her say my name. Ma called me Bobby. Not Bobby like Bobby Kennedy. Her pronunciation sounded like the call of sheep: Baa. Baa-bee. I will miss that.

About a month before she passed away, she retrieved two flower pots of amaryllis from her cellar. She had placed them downstairs when they died after the year-end holidays. Funny thing is, Ma found them growing and budding again. They will be in full bright red bloom on her kitchen table this weekend — Ma’s Mother's Day gift to us.

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Related:

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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