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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Second Mother Passes Away

I read with so much sadness this afternoon that Mama D passed away yesterday.
Mama was a Minneapolis celebrity and restaurateur for four decades.
When I was a student at the University of MN, I went to the first restaurant she was associated with, Sammy D's, in Dinkytown. I had, of course, heard of Mama but had never seen her. I saw this short dark haired woman shuttling around the restaurant and into and out of the kitchen. I naturally assumed that she was Mama. She wasn't. It was her sister Connie. I found out on my third visit who that white haired woman was who talked to the dark haired woman all the time. That was Mama.

I visited the original Sammy D's (her son Sammy owned the restaurant) many times after. The original Sammy D's moved down the street to bigger digs then moved to St. Paul into the old Baker schoolhouse near Raymond and Territorial Rd. The name of the restaurant changed from Sammy D's to Mama D's, Sammy bowing to the inevitable fact that everyone was going to or asking about or referring to "Mama D's".

And the stories Mama could tell!

She told me that after her husband Gene died, she came back to Minneapolis to help Sammy in his sandwich shop. Sammy went on vacation and people would come in and see a sandwich menu but ask "Do you serve lasagna?" to which Mama replied "Come back tomorrow." Same question for spaghetti, fettuccine, veal or eggplant parmigian with the same reply. Sammy came back from vacation and his one page menu had become a two page complete menu! "Ma! What have you done to me!" he asked. So, he went back to a one page menu and then faced all the questions: "I brought my family/my office/my friends for the lasagna/fettuccine/veal/etc. What happened to..." And Sammy was taken kicking and screaming into the full restaurant business.

My Mom and Mama had never met. Mama was going to speak at the senior retirement facility where Mom worked. As Mama got out of the car, Mom introduced herself as my mother, whereupon Mama hugged her and said how happy she was to finally meet her. As Mama delivered her speech to about 300 seniors with my Mom on stage behind her, Mama said "If I were 30 years younger, this woman would be my mother-in-law."

Mama's husband Gene, as he was dying from cancer, made her promise that she would not forget the poor and hungry, so every March 19th, St. Joseph's Day, she would feed any and all who came to be fed. After her restaurant couldn't accommodate the crowd she moved it to St. Lawrence Church. I volunteered for many St. Joseph's Days. Someplace I have a video of Mama D and me dancing a tarantella in the basement of St. Lawrence's on a St. Joseph's Day. So many rich memories as I read that last sentence...

And all were equal in Mama D's eyes. All.

My first spiritual mentor, Ralph, once said never to take away someone's dignity. And it was at a St. Joseph's Day Supper that I saw that lesson: She was an old woman. Short in a heavy coat on a fairly warm St. Joseph's Day. I had seen her before at the restaurant, but didn't know her name. Mama had posted a sign "One Plate Only" to ensure that there was enough food for all. This old woman had taken two and was juggling both down the buffet line. As I watched her from the kitchen, I was going to say something to her about the two plates. I would have been right. But my decision would have been wrong. And so I said nothing, but quietly observed that Mama's generosity and faithfulness to a promise she made her husband would result in my learning a lesson about dignity.

I also believe I was perhaps the only bachelor that asked Mama D out on "dates". I met Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee on one such outing.

When my Dad passed away in 1993, Mom was talking to Mama. Mama empathized with Mom's loss when Mom told how much she missed Dad and so often cried. And Mama told Mom "If tears would bring him back, I'd cry with you." One of Mama's favorite sayings "It's the old hen that makes the best broth" come to life.

As Mama got older, her memory was starting to fail her (she was suffering onset dementia) and she suffered from macular degeneration and didn't see well at all. But, if she didn't recognize you or remember your name, you would never knew as she treated you as a good friend she hadn't seen in a while.

It occurs to me as I write and reflect on my four decade relationship with Mama D, that when I met her in 1969, she was five years younger than I am today. What will be the legacy I pass on to those children and young adults in my life? I've had a exemplary tutor.

There is so much, much more I could write about Mama D, but let it suffice for me to say how much richer I am because Mama D was in my life teaching me wisdom, humility, kindness, compassion and mercy- personified.

Plus a couple of really great recipes!

Rest well Mama.

An audio interview. It was so wonderful to hear her voice again.

3-20-09 P.S. Tomorrow Mom and I will be going to Mama's funeral.
We plan to be there very early.


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