My mother, christened Jaqueline Perry Waite, was a remarkable woman, and is the reason I umpire. She was a small town girl from southern Illinois who went to Columbia School of Journalism when she was sixteen, became a Copa girl, and married my father, the scion of a New York shipping family and an Air Force pilot during the Korean conflict. Mom represented American women in the Navy during World War II in her persona as "Winnie the Wave," and was a soap opera actress during the heyday of radio serials. She could have done anything with her life, but she chose to raise my twin sister Warren, our older brother Rocky, and me, rather than pursue a career in show business. Our father's untimely and unsolved disappearance in September of 1959, when Warren and I were six years old, left her the matriarch of our busy household on the upper east side of Manhattan, and she raised us with all the cultural and educational advantages New York could offer. She took us to the ballet to see Nuryev, Baryshnikov, and Jacques D'Amboise, to Lincoln Center to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the Philharmonic, to hear Ethel Merman on Broadway, and to Coney Island to ride the B&B Carousell (sic.) She was a carousel freak! She sent us to dancing classes every Thursday at the Colony Club, to Sunday School at the Brick Presbyterian Church, and made sure we were grounded in the arts by hiring private teachers to give us piano lessons twice a week, which I didn't appreciate at the time but provided me with an invaluable musical foundation for my later career as a singer/songwriter. She threw fabulous parties at our apartment and hosted formal dinners that were as likely to be attended by Tyrone Power and Larry Blyden, an actor who got frequent top billing on shows such as The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90, as by the goombahs who hung out at the Café 72 down the block from us. For our sixteenth birthday, Jack hired a local rock band and surprised Warren and me with a huge gathering of our friends and classmates outside in the garden adjoining our apartment that set all the neighbors from the buildings overlooking our yard to frantically phoning the local police precinct - not to complain, but to find out at what address the festivities were being held so they could come down and join the party! When Warren and I were studying at the Sorbonne in Paris the summer after we graduated high school in 1971, Jack met us there and took us to Rome where the three of us, two blond teenagers and a dishy auburn-haired beauty, stopped rush hour traffic as we crossed the Via Veneto. We saw Aida at the Baths of Caracalla with horses, elephants, giraffes, and tigers roaming the stage of the fabulous outdoor amphitheater. To this day, it is the only opera I have ever seen; I can't imagine any other could top that experience. We went south to Naples and the Isle of Capri where, against the feverish entreaties of our guide, we all leaped off his boat into the sapphire waters of the Blue Grotto and swam around until he threatened to leave us to drown at high tide inside the cave where the emperor Tiberius and his heir-apparent, that crazy Caligula, drank and debauched around the time B.C. became A.D.
Jack was always up for adventure; she loved to travel and enjoy different cultures, and collected art and antiques from Africa, Japan, and other faraway places. She never backed down from a fight, either. In 1963 she married an Austrian ski instructor she had met at a resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, and when she discovered, two months after after the wedding, his concealment of the fact that he had been a Nazi and was violently anti-semitic, she wouldn't be satisfied with simply divorcing him; she went to court and set a legal precedent concerning the nature of fraud in the New York State statutes in order to have the marriage annulled. (It's called the Barber/Kober precedent, and you could look it up!) Mom loved to drive and always had these little foreign James Bond-type sports cars when we were young, into which the three of us kids would cram ourselves and various cats and dogs and set off on road trips with her to Illinois or California or Florida to visit friends and family. She was a free spirit whose vitality was framed but never constricted by the conformities of motherhood, and she never regretted for an instant the choices she had made in her life.
She did regret a few of the choices I made. She was uneasy with the lifestyle into which I aimlessly stumbled after leaving college in Arizona, that of an itinerant troubadour, and never stopped hoping I would settle down, get married, and present her with grandchildren, the way my brother and sister eventually did. We went through periods, typical of many mother/daughter relationships, when neither of us understood the other and carried around a lot of anger and confusion, but it was hard for me to remain upset with her for very long. Rocky had played and refereed soccer during his school days - he was co-captain of the Stanford soccer team in 1973 - and when I started umpiring in 1981 and it became apparent I was serious about making it a "career" of sorts, even importuning my twin to go to umpire school with me in 1982 so I wouldn't be the only woman in the class of two hundred, mom liked to joke that she had no idea when she gave birth that she was spawning two umpires and a referee.
As much as she fretted about my lifestyle, she never complained when she came to any of the Mets fantasy camps or spring training intrasquads I worked back in the mid-eighties and saw me on the field with ballplayers she had, unbeknownst to me, idolized. See, I had no interest in baseball until I was twenty-eight years old, and had no idea how much my mother loved the game until my own burgeoning interest in it sparked a totally different way for us to relate to each other that lasted until the day she died, fourteen years and one week ago. I've always been a trivia nut by nature and one day became determined to beat my friend Barry Bell at baseball trivia, so I went to a bookstore and picked out three volumes at random from the baseball section. From the moment I first started reading about the people and the lore that give baseball its unique hold on the American psyche, I was hooked, and just kept reading and reading for more than a year until I had exhausted the shelves of the Palm Springs and New York Public libraries of most of their baseball-related selections. Palm Springs was where Jack had moved in 1972, and I found myriad excuses to visit her there and then stay for months at a time; such is the flexibility of the frequently unemployed. One day she saw me reading Larry Gerlach's The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires, and did something only a mother could do. She made the leap from seeing me read that book, which I had picked from the library shelf solely because it was, quite literally, the last one having anything to do with baseball that I hadn't already read, to deciding that it meant her daughter must want to be an umpire. How or why she made that connection, I'll never figure out. All I know is she saw something in me that I could not see in myself, and as much as it must have worried her to point me in a direction that augured mostly rejection and financial instability, she swallowed her fears in favor of helping me find something with which I would, immediately and irrevocably, fall totally in love.
I found a notice on my pillow one night when I was staying with her during the late spring of 1981, just a few weeks before the players' strike looming malevolently on the horizon would shut down major league baseball for most of the summer. At that point, we were driving together almost every night to see either the Dodgers in L.A. or the Angels in Anaheim, and the thought of not having any baseball to connect me to the universe or my mother was unimaginably horrible. So when I found this ad Jack had cut out from the local paper and deposited on my pillow to ensure I wouldn't miss it when I got home, about how a local little league needed umpires for the season, my first thought was definitely NOT wow, what a great idea, I'm applying for the position first thing in the morning! It was more along the lines of, what the hell is this? When I asked her about it the next day, she told me, "Well, I thought you were interested in umpires. You wrote a song about one." This was true; I had been introduced to National League umpire Ed Montague a year earlier after a Phillies game at the old Veterans' Stadium, and he had made such a profound impression upon me that I composed a paean to him titled The Umpire Stands Alone. "I saw you reading a book about umpires too," Jack continued. I gave her a look. "You've seen me reading books about serial killers," I countered.
The upshot of it was that I did indeed call the league and sign on. I amplified my qualifications a bit to get the job, but the administrator who hired me must have been desperate because before I knew it, I was holding one of those old-fashioned balloon-style chest protectors in front of me on a field full of six-year-old peewee players whose initial reaction to my presence was not exactly receptive. ("Is she going to umpire?" was the unifying thread among most of their comments.) Because I had grown up in Manhattan and hadn't even learned to drive until the summer of 1980 and certainly didn't own a car, my mother kindly chauffeured me to my inaugural assignment in Indio, a town about thirty miles east of Palm Springs. I was twenty-eight years old, and my mother drove me to my first little league game.
She sat stoically in the stands and told me after the game that she had almost come to blows with a woman behind her who had been just a bit critical of my competence (or lack thereof,) but by the time I signaled the last out Jack had her eating out of her hand, called me over, and introduced me to her as if they were best friends. The next day, several letters in the local paper excoriated me and raged about how atrocious I was, didn't know the strike zone, let the game go on for three hours, etc., all of which was true, but for some reason the sting of this criticism didn't detract from my enjoyment of the experience, as harrowing as it had been to suddenly find myself the object of so much unrestrained contempt and loathing. All my life I had been charming, witty, socially sought after, good at whatever I did, praised and petted, and now I was a lamb in the lions' den, facing one of the biggest emotional challenges of my life: not to cry on the ballfield just because people were saying mean things to me. None of what came before in my life mattered to me once I put on a chest protector and shinguards, and I learned quickly that being scintillating and conciliatory on a ballfield is an invitation to chaos. What my mother discerned in me long before I recognized it in myself was that, through umpiring, I could become the person I really was, strong and free enough to face what I feared, unfettered by concerns about what people thought of me or what I looked like, things that until I learned the ways of the umpire, were foreign concepts to me. In retrospect, I think perhaps she steered me in the direction she did because they were things she might have wanted for herself too, but in the time and the setting in which she grew up and reached adulthood they just weren't as achievable as they are now. So she set me free by maternal proxy instead, and it is because of her that twenty-eight years later I still go out there every game, thankful I have the physical stamina and emotional fortitude to participate in such a meaningful and illuminating way in the game I love so passionately, and eternally grateful she was my mom. Everything wonderful about me, I got from her: her sense of adventure, her enthusiasm for the known and the unknown, her love of fun and good cheer, her dedication to more serious undertakings - she did lots of volunteer work for charitable agencies and drug rehab facilities, and served as a longtime auxiliary cop here in the city - and her inextinguishable zest for life, no matter how sick she was. She spent her last twelve years battling a rare autoimmune disease called Wegener's granulomatosis that eventually ravaged her lungs and kidneys until she finally slipped into a coma in April of 1994. Typically, she didn't even leave the decision to disconnect her from life support to those of us whose choice it had become; she just started winding down like a clock one night and peacefully, without any fuss, faded out of this world on May 3rd, nine days after her seventieth birthday.
Happy Mothers' Day, Jack, and thank you for everything.
Your loving daughter,