When Mary Ellen Holleran's first grandchild, my niece Michelle, was an infant, she had trouble wrapping her tongue around the word grandmother. Instead, came the neologism, Maga. And Maga she was anointed, for the rest of her days on the planet. She became Maga to the different neighborhoods of kids where she would traipse to take care of her five grandchildren.
Most of my recollections of Maga came from when she was still Mom, where her main station in life was being the butt of Holleran hijinx. Please see my May 5th piece on my dad, who rarely saw anything not worth embroidering with humor.
Fake excrement, hand buzzers, Whoopee Cushions: Dad had an arsenal of gags, mostly test-marketed on his spouse. All of this she bore willingly, as if this task had been included in the wedding vows.
When my brother and I took our father's mantle, she endured our guile and wiles just the same. Holleran buffoonery passed down to the next generation, too.
The Piano Man
My nephew Tommy couldn't have been more than five. For Christmas, Santa had brought an electronic key-synth-organ for the kids. Of course, Maga had no idea about digital anything. She missed her dial telephone and her little plastic gizmo to stick in the holes ("Buy Fairfield Lumber") to whirl the dial.
I stopped over to see my brother, and he winked at me. Something was afoot. He nodded to his son, who got behind the keyboard, his back to the living room. Maga and I were in the den, watching the tube. Her tastes in TV were catholic; she'd watch any channel. She would opine, "I do like that Walker, Texas Ranger, though." But I digress.
My brother then said, "Maga, listen to Tommy play."
As she emerged from the den, Tommy would hit an autoplay button of sorts on the unit. Immediately, the synth launched into a flawless, frenetic version of The Minute Waltz by Chopin. He accompanied this, his body blocking the view of the keyboard, by flailing his arms and throwing back his head histrionically. Hear it here.
Maga used her Voice, which was short of a shout; more like an exclamation point after every word. I can't think of any other glyphs to depict this other than caps. She exclaimed, "CHRIST, HE SOUNDS GOOD! WHADJA DO TOM, GET HIM LESSONS?" She remarked about his prowess for weeks to come. I don't either my brother or I ever bothered to reveal the truth.
It was better that way.
The most amazing thing about Maga was how she rebounded after Dad's untimely death. Instead of retreating into a shell, she burst forth, injecting her own brand of humor into life.
She wasn't very funny when our crabby old neighbor Mrs. Wellner came over to our place with an object on a stick. My brother blanched when he saw it was a used prophylactic. A Coney Island Whitefish, as it were. We both knew it was from his buddy, Ripi, who would use my old room upstairs (I was on the road a good deal of the time then) for his studly exploits.
Maga: "HOW DID THAT CONUNDRUM GET IN OUR YARD?!"
Some friends held a fortieth birthday party for me. No entertainment was planned other than a roast of me. My brother said, "I'm just gonna eviscerate you." Or something to that effect.
A couple of professional comedians got up. All in good fun. My brother raked me over the coals pretty well, I was about to get up and thank everyone, when Maga intercepted me.
She grabbed the mike and said, "OH, NO! WE'RE NOT DONE YET!"
Uh oh. She opened with a few potshots at me. Then my brother decided to heckle her a bit.
"AND YOU'RE NO BETTER, TOM. YOU AND ALL YOUR CREW. TOTAL [bleep]-UPS. WHY D'YA THINK DAD AND I STOPPED AFTER YOU!"
Then she went right down the list, after me, my friends and my brother's buds. She did a good 45 minutes, owning the room with all the swagger and showmanship of a Catskill veteran. People howled in the aisles. Folks begged her to stop--then entreated her for more. She was undoubtedly the hit of the night. And she knew it.
Although it's a smaller story, and not a knee-slapper, here's my favorite Maga tidbit. One of many of her shopping sagas. Read on.
Shopping with Maga
I was living in a band house, a few miles from my mom's. She called me up (a rare occurrence) and asked me stop over the following Wednesday. "I wanna getcha something for your birthday."
I knew how much she looked forward to such such excursions, so I assented.
When I got to the house, she waved an envelope in front of me. "IT'S THE SECRET SALE! AT HOWLAND'S! TOMORROW'S THE LAST NIGHT!"
Oh boy. I attempted to open the envelope to see the details. She flew into a fury. "YA CAN'T OPEN IT! IT'S SECRET! YOU CAN SAVE SIXTY, SEVENNY PER CENT, FER CHRISSAKES!"
I went ahead anyway. The letter inside explained the details of the promotional gimmick. A smaller envelope was the inviolate one. You made your purchases, and after the clerk rang up the total, she would finally open the parcel to see what additional "secret" savings you had accrued via the enclosed coupon.
Maga loved such subterfuge. And sales. She would drive twenty miles to pocket a dollar. She was Great White shopper--a savings machine. I knew the coupons would be seeded for lower percentages, with a lucky few truly cashing in.
On the way, she said, "AN' WE'RE GONNA STOP AT BONANZA FIRST FOR DINNER!" Which was a low-rent, caf-line steakhouse.
"Mom," I said, "a sandwich is just fine." I dreaded the leathery meat product, as tasty and tender as something from The Coach Store, if somewhat less expensive.
She always had a rejoinder: "But they've got UNLIMITED SALAD AND DESSERT!"
As I gnawed gristle, my mother kept her purse clutched tightly in her lap, grimly ready to fend off any attack by coupon thieves. As we finished our coffee, she opened her massive valise to stuff in a few sugars and tubs of faux-cream. She drank hers black. "They're mine," she would remark. "I got coffee, so I can take this. I paid for it." I didn't want to guess how many packages had leaked in there over the years. She managed to throw in a few stir-rods and napkins, too.
Howland's had once been a mighty department store, an anchor of downtown Bridgeport. Mall development at denuded the city center, and the store moved to the suburbs. It now offered only clothing.
The men's department was downstairs. Maga perused the wares with the suspicion of a TSA staffer vetting a Sikh. She would touch, tug, smell and test-drive anything in her purview.
"HOW ABOUT THESE?" she shouted across the store, holding a pair of ghastly Jordache product. I had to divert her from the out-of-date disco stuff.
"Maybe a sweater," I said. She scooted over to a display of steely-smelling acrylic atrocities. Most looked liked the results of a Petri dish mishap. I finally found a solid, V-neck that didn't appear Venusian.
Maga said, "Very nice goods. AND LOOK, IT'S 40% OFF!"
As if she hadn't noticed that already.
"PLUS, THE SECRET SALE!!!"
Next, the cashier. My mother grasped the envelope as if it were her Life Force. I tried to grab it from her in teasing fashion. She fouled my hand off like Wade Boggs with two strikes on him. By the rules, the clerk had to open the hermetically sealed package. Now, Maga had her well-worn Howland's card at the ready, looking like she was about to use it as a Ninja throwing star if she didn't get a massive deal.
"Congratulations," said the staffer. "You've saved an additional 40%, Mrs. Holleran."
The ball dropped in Times Square. Victory over Mr. Howland and his greedy minions. I thought she was going to dance all the way to the car. On the ride home, she said, "Well, if I'd a known that, I woulda got more. They should let you open up the envelope before you check out." Her good spirits seemed to wane.
I said, "Mom, you did great. But that's the catch. They want you to buy more, taking the chance on a big coupon. And thanks for the sweater!"
Maga bounced right back. "AND WE SAVED 80%!"
Then I erred. "Well, Mom, not exactly."
"WHAT THE HELL ARE TALKING ABOUT? FORTY PLUS FORTY EQUALS EIGHTY! ARE YOU ON DRUGS?"
I tried to dig out of the chasm I had just created. I opted for logic. "Say the sweater's original price was a hundred dollars."
"IT WASN'T NO HUNDRED DOLLARS, DAMMIT!"
"Okay, okay, let's just say. Now on the counter, it's 40% off, so you would get it for sixty."
"BUT IT WAS THE SECRET SALE!"
"I know, I know. But, you see, they take the 'secret' forty off the discounted price. So that would be twenty-four more dollars off additionally, leaving you with a final price of thirty-six dollars, which means you actually got seventy-four percent off in total."
Maga looked at me as if I had just said that Andy Williams was a Commie sympathizer and couldn't carry a tune.
"I SHOULD KNOW BETTER THAN TO TALK TO YOU! EIGHTY IS EIGHTY! WHAT'D WE SEND YOU TO COLLEGE FOR? THOSE DRUMS ARE JANGLING YOUR BRAIN!"
Finally wise, I dropped the topic.
As we neared home, I caught a glimpse of her, still holding the bag. The streetlights allowed me to spot a small smile of satisfaction on her face.
About twenty years later, Maga was living in a seniors' residence. My brother and I began to worry that she was losing her grip on basic, daily functions. He called me from her place, saying, "Tim, I think we have to consider assisted living or some alternative for Maga ..."
It was a cinch for me to hear her when she blurted out, "DAMMIT, I'M NOT GOING ANYWHERE!"
After the call, my little Ellie asked me, "Is Maga going to die?"
I said, "Ellie, she'll probably go when she feels like it."
Well, Maga's statement was spot on. She didn't wake up the next day. She just went to her last Secret Sale. I hope they have one every day for her.