At 7, I would not have been able to articulate the feeling when Mrs. Mitterman was around, except to say it felt like a birthday party: the music of her dialect, her interest in my boring brothers and sisters, and the way she joshed with the boys and praised the girls for a “gaw-geous” blouse or “nifty” shoes.
In the early ’60s, we lived in a newly developing neighborhood; swarms of children of baby boomers played all day in vacant lots and newly bulldozed house foundations. Mud, nails, wood, sand piles, puddles, and a paradise of adventure and imagination.
But it also meant that stepping on a nail protruding from a two-by-four, and which could penetrate the paper-thin soles of the high-top tennis shoes we all wore, was an occupational hazard, for which we had to make sure our tetanus vaccinations were up to date. And at least once a week one of my five brothers or I got a wood sliver stuck in a hand or finger or sometimes even a knee, which you could bite out if it was tiny and not totally embedded.
One Saturday while helping my pal Tom Booth carry a waterlogged two-by-six for the Alamo-style fort we were building, I suddenly dropped my end to grab my right wrist with my left hand, to examine the source of excruciating pain. Impaled in the soft pad of flesh between my right index finger and my palm was an inch long spear of wet and rusty wood. Not till I saw my own mother’s face, with a look more like horror than worry, did I begin to cry. A very bad sliver, she called it, as a red rim started to swell around it.
“I have an idea,” she said, and we walked across the street to Mrs. Mitterman’s.
“Oh, David,” she gushed , “that itty bitty thing is nothing for a big boy like you.”
And how could you not believe her, the mirth in that jazzy voice, those eyes like Christmas lights.
“But how about some refreshments first? You tough guys play so hard,” she said.
Then I watched her make some Bosco, a chocolate syrup you mixed into milk which I had always longed for because of the TV commercials on “Garfield Goose” but which we never had at home. I sipped and savored, looking around at the plush furniture, the high-ceilinged room, and the decorative flourishes of the nurse and carpenter-cellist, while barely noticing the sewing needle with which Mrs. Mitterman magically and painlessly extracted the offending wood chip.
“Got it,” she said.
In the hurricane of years that followed, during which I was consumed by school, sports, girls, and cars, Mrs. Mitterman resided in the background of my memory, like the other grownups in my world.
Eventually I turned 17, when a boy’s life changes forever. It was a Friday in May 1967, prom night for my high school. I put on my suit, retrieved the boxed corsage from our refrigerator, and walked two blocks to the home of my date, where we would be picked up by my classmate Gerald Topel and the girl he was taking, in his father’s car. Approaching the house, I saw my prom date in a beautiful pink-and-white dress posing for pictures on the front sidewalk.
“Isn’t she gawgeous?” the photographer asked, and I was surprised and confused to see Peg Mitterman holding the Kodak Instamatic. She had come an hour earlier to help my date with her hair and makeup, and to take pictures, and then see her off on an important night in her young life. For the girl I had asked to the prom had lost her mother years earlier and had been raised by her father whose job often kept him away. And here was Mrs. Mitterman, showing up when a mother was needed the most.
I remember going to the dance, and afterward to dinner at the College Inn downtown, where we all four ordered “chopped steak” and were entertained by stand-up comic Jerry Van Dyke.
But for days and weeks following, I thought mostly about Peg Mitterman, wondering what was inside her, and whether when I took my own place in the adult world I could ever also rise to the same level of kindness, selflessness, and awareness of the needs of others.
Fifty years since my prom, I have the wisdom to know that no one can.
Except for mothers.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, emeritus English professor, the author of “The Territory,” and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at [email protected]. Mick Mitterman, the son of the late Peg Mitterman, lives with his family in Fish Creek, Wis.