My Mom, Erma Canale passed away much too young 29 years ago at the age of 60. I still miss her and think about her every single day and especially whenever I drive by the long-closed Carmel’s Diner on Amsterdam’s East Main St. When I was a pre-schooler, she was a waitress there. She worked the night shift and my dad would often let me stay up until she came home. To this day I can vividly remember her walking through the front door often carrying a bag containing a couple of those greasy but delicious Carmel’s hamburgers, wrapped in wax paper. She’d always give me a huge hug and she would smell like a mixture of a greasy smoke-filled diner and Adorn hair spray. That may sound yucky to most of you now but to me, way back then it was the absolute nicest fragrance on Earth.
It was my Mom who taught me the most about kindness and tolerance. She had a horrible childhood, very poor with two inept, uncaring parents who abandoned her and her siblings at very young ages. One result of that I believe was was that she never ever looked down on or assumed the worst about anyone and if I ever jumped to a negative conclusion about someone else, she would always say to me “Walk a mile in their shoes buster!”
My Mom also taught me a lot about never giving up. Her life was a series of difficult challenges from bad parents, to unstable marriages, to chronic illness, but she got up every single day and did the absolute best she could. As bad as her life’s circumstances might have been she never ever stopped looking for and helping folks who were in even greater need. I can’t tell you how many people still to this day come up and tell me about something nice my Mom did for them or someone they knew.
Mom was told she had stage 4 cervical cancer when she was 49 years old and her youngest child was in fourth grade. She grabbed hold of Jesus and together they fought that damn disease off for ten years. During that time she worked full time, paid off the mortgage on her house and built her own catering business.
Her cancer made a sudden and unexpected return in 1990 and that summer, we had her back at Albany Med trying to conquer it a second time. She knew she was dying but her kids refused to believe that. My wife and I had made reservations at the Sun Dial Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine months before and we were going to cancel them but my Mom assured me she wasn’t going anywhere and urged us to go, so we did.
I’m not exactly sure when the idea came to me but I think it was while sitting on the Inn’s classic front porch and looking over at Walker Point. I decided to write a note to then President George H. W. Bush about my Mom. He and his wife happened to be there that week and I was hoping he would send her a simple “get well” wish. But I think the real reason I wrote the note was because I wanted somebody as important as the President of the United States to know what a wonderful, strong, loving, selfless person my Mom was. After I wrote it I remember having second thoughts about actually bringing it over to the President’s compound but my wife Rosemary insisted and I did. We drove up the drive toward the complex, parked in a visitors parking lot, approached the guard shed and were met by what looked like a couple of Secret Service agents who couldn’t have been any nicer. I asked them if it was okay to give them a note for the President and they said sure. As we drove away I had no idea if the note would make it to the President but I felt better for writing it.
My wife and I headed back to Amsterdam the next day, which was a Sunday and the following morning I drove down to Albany Med to see how my Mom was doing. I hadn’t been in her room more than five minutes when a nurse came rushing in excitedly with a huge smile on her face carrying a large jiffy bag envelope addressed to my Mom with a return address that read “The White House”. It had been sent via overnight express. My Mom opened it and inside was a beautiful autographed photo of the President with a card to my Mom telling her that the President and Mrs Bush were praying for her. It was signed by both George and Barbara Bush.
That moment, that morning in her hospital room was the very last time I would ever see joy and happiness on my Mom’s face. She was smiling from ear to ear and laughing and kidding with the nurse about her friendship with the POTUS.
Was she a great Mom? She raised six children including my sister Claudia, who was born with special needs and me and my siblings have all turned out to be pretty good people if I do say so myself. Remember how her parents abandoned her? There was not a time in my life when I needed courage or confidence that she failed to encourage me and have my back. There was not a single day or moment that I ever doubted she loved me with every fiber of her being. I was a lot luckier than she was. I had an amazing Mother! Happy Birthday Mom