I’m a big fan of moms. And I think it’s because I learned the true meaning of sacrifice through my own mother’s selflessness. My wife feels the same and often sobs when reflecting upon what her mom went through raising her as a little girl. Moms are just awesome.
There’s a great quote about how teachers affect eternity because they can never tell when their influence ends. I think you could say the same about artists and also moms. It’s hardly a coincidence that Mary Immaculata is all three.
Mary Immaculata was born in 1951 Manhattan but grew up on 17th Street in Brooklyn. I asked her if they called it Windsor Terrace back then and she said, “They didn’t really call it anything.” In most all first-generation Italian-American households,the daughter is basically hired help once she can see above the sink.
To wit, my mom started cooking when she was 11 years old. By day, Mary Immaculata was a well-mannered fifth grader at Holy Name but after school she was breading chicken cutlets and preparing dinner for the whole family. “I was only allowed to help prepare dinner when I was 11,” my mom clarified. “It wasn’t until I was 12 that I was allowed to start frying with the hot oil.”
She recalls feeling bashful going to the market for weird Italian things. Little Mary Immaculata wanted to fit in and feel like a typical New England American girl eating brown bread in a can. Instead she would whisper when asking for a bushel of broccoli rabe and radicchio.
Mom and dad met in 1972 and rented an apartment on Third Street. Park Slope circa 1978 was a far cry from how it is today. Every few weeks my parents would find their beloved Volkswagen Beetle next to Washington Park, relieved of everything but its steering wheel. At the time, dad was a record salesman working solely on commission when they learned they were pregnant. I’m told I attended a David Bowie concert while in utero. That explains a lot.
Mom and dad had about five dollars between them when I was born. Regardless, mom decided to leave her job as a teacher so she could stay home and raise me the way she wanted. “We literally lived on rice and beans,” Mom remembers. I bet Mom was pining for the days when she was sent to the market for broccoli rabe.
When I was barely a year old, they moved to Bay Ridge. They’d fallen in love with the neighborhood after coming here for Lamaze classes. They could barely afford the $175 monthly rent in Park Slope and now they were looking down the barrel at a $365 apartment on Shore Road!
Mom started teaching at Our Lady of Angels in 1984 and she’s been there ever since. Over the years she has taught generations in Bay Ridge. Soon she’ll be teaching the grandchildren of students she taught years ago.
That’s why I love being with Mom when she bumps into one of her old students on the avenue. Seeing a 30-something with kids of their own, light up and embrace my mom because they remember her as their kindergarten teacher is a beautiful thing. I know my mom is special but I’m biased so it’s very cool when others tell me how she truly touched their lives.
One of my first tattoos was a Diego Rivera drawing of a mother carrying her child on her back. At the time, I think I just liked the image but years later it makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure where I’d be without my mom. Losing my dad was impossible but it made us even closer. She’s always been in my corner, supporting my every crazy whim.
Mary Immaculata Brannan, I know I gave you a few heart attacks growing up – especially during junior high school – but hey, at least I kept things interesting. You are one of the coolest, funniest and most compassionate people I know. I’m incredibly lucky to have you by my side and in my corner through thick and thin. Most importantly, you make a mean ravioli and still put up with my nonsense like a saint. I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!
And happy Mother’s Day to all of the smart, engaged, and hardworking moms who call Bay Ridge home. You may not realize it but you are the ones who make our neighborhood the place to be. If you grew up here and stuck around to raise your family here too, thank you! If you’ve recently moved here, I’m so happy you found Bay Ridge just like my mom did.
Justin Brannan is a community activist, born and raised in Bay Ridge. He and his wife Leigh own a small business on Third Avenue.