My mother was a petty thief. Her favorite targets were my father’s brother and random uncles in her family. Back in the 60s, you could charge things at certain stores with the mere mention of a name. So my mom would buy me fancy outfits at Saks Fifth Avenue and charge them to an uncle, a grandparent. There were no questions asked since she had the same last name, and these people had established accounts. One day she summoned the name Henry Ford, and I froze. Even at the age of nine, I knew this was risky. Henry Ford was her great-uncle, and we never saw him so I didn’t think he would pick up the tab. It worked.
I have to give my mom credit for the next one. She opened up an account at the dry cleaners across the street, using a cousin’s name. She sent EVERYTHING there to be cleaned. I am surprised our jeans never cracked. They came back with perfect lines down the front and back of our legs. She got away with this for a year.
Her most brazen theft took place at a small restaurant in upstate New York in the summer of ’76. Two friends and I had a job at their uncle’s amusement park. We were living in a one-room basement apartment, and we were short on utensils. As soon as we were seated, my mother opened her purse and swept five sets of flatware inside. My friends thought it was funny. The best my dad had to offer was, “Rita, what are you doing?” I was petrified, waiting for us to get caught. I sat with a frozen stomach and let my chicken Parmigiano go cold. Then my dad said to me, “Why aren’t you eating?” That pretty much summed it up. My dad was clueless, and my friends were unfazed. As we walked out, the manager asked my mom to give the flatware back. She did. Mortified isn’t a word people use much these days, but it is the best word to describe how I felt that moment.
The list of my mom’s petty thefts is pretty long. These days my aunts and I laugh about her escapades because they were so crazy and unbelievable. I like to think of her as a wacky Robin Hood, and not a petty thief, because she gave things away as easily as she took them, and she always championed the underdog. Two of her brothers and one of her sisters lived with us when they were struggling teenagers. This is significant because she was a single mother in her twenties and always strapped for cash. As adults we try to make sense of our parents and find ways to forgive them. My mom doesn’t need my forgiveness, only my acceptance and willingness to find the crumbs of humanity in her misdeeds.