The following article originally appeared in the Newark Star Ledger
A tribute to my mom
By HARLAN COBEN
Sometime in the early Seventies – I can’t remember the exact year – my mother became the first female umpire in New Jersey Little League.
My mother was known to one and all as Corky. Like that. One word: Corky. Like Cher or Fabio. And as befitted a one-word moniker, Corky was fabulous and flamboyant. She was provocative and, yes, kooky, but it wasn’t forced. She crackled with energy. People wanted to be around her. You never knew what she would do next.
At the Stoloff’s bar mitzvah, circa 1978, the temperature rose to ninety degrees, so Corky – yes, even I called her that – took her blouse off. No, I’m not kidding. Ask Jean Stoloff. She still has the picture of my mother sitting at the head table – this would have been post-candle-lighting ceremony and pre-Grandpa-saying-the-prayer-over-the-challah — in only her bra, a mischievous smile spread across her face. My father sat next to her, still eating, unruffled, his tie still perfectly windsored, used to it, half amused, half eye-rolling.
Corky was also an early feminist. She marched with Gloria Steinem. She burned her bra (thankfully not the one she wore at the Stoloff Bar Mitzvah) at rallies. She wore slogan t-shirts that read stuff like “A Woman’s Place Is In The House… and Senate.”
Corky liked to pick fights. If you cut her off, you got the finger and an earful. If there was a long line at the Chicken Nest to pick up Passover Seder, Corky would cut it. If you called and complained too loudly at her place of business, she’d give you hell.
She was also frustratingly jammed into that paradox that strong women of that era too often found themselves. One moment she was a strident Betty Friedan, the next she’d be like Golda in a bad production of Fiddler On The Roof. She was a nonconformist and a liberal and a Burnet Hill Elementary School PTA president. She had a head for business, creating and running a prestigious travel company, but she stayed on the sidelines and let her father pathetically take all the credit.
So when my mother saw that no woman had ever umped in Little League, Corky, never one to duck a controversy when she could create one, decided to correct this outrage.
I don’t remember all the ramifications anymore. I know that the baseball powers-that-be were not happy about this. But eventually they agreed. I remember my mother proudly modeling her dark blue umpire t-shirt — intentionally choosing one a semi-obscene size too small across the chest — and raising high over her head one of those cute balls-n-strikes counters as if it were a black fist in the 1968 Olympics.
There was only one problem with Corky’s crusade, which I will try to spell out without overstating it:
Corky was the worst umpire in the history of the world.
Her vision was terrible. She wore contact lenses but because she was legally blind, she had no depth perception. She would also get mixed up all the time. A youngster would slide into second base and she would stick out her thumb and yell, “Safe!” The Livingston Little League coaches, many of whom made Vic Morrow in The Bad News Bears look like Dr. Phil, would go nuts.
My father would sit in the rickety stands of Meadowbrook field and laugh.
After two disastrous Corky-umped games and the ensuing near-riots, the Little League officials came up with a truly inspired idea. They teamed Corky up with beloved umpire Harry Neugold, an offensive lineman drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, a man the approximate size and dimension of Branch Brook Park. Whenever a coach would go nuts at a bad call, Harry would glare. The coach would sit down. Peace would rule the land.
I still drive by my old house in Livingston. It was built in 1962 in what was then considered the farming boonies. I slow as I pass. I picture my father and Corky pulling up to it for the first time, both of them young, one small child, my brother, on my mother’s arm, her pregnant with me, planning their future.
I wonder what my mother and father saw on that day, what they imagined their lives would be like, how this split-level structure would hold their hopes and dreams, how fast it all went by, how they are both gone already and now a new family lives there and worries about the lushness of the grass. I wonder if their ghosts linger here or elsewhere.
How did such an ordinary dwelling in such a nondescript neighborhood manage to hold someone like Corky?
I can still hear my parents in their bedroom, my father quiet, trudging home from work, my mother more animated: “So, Carl, to make a long story short–”
“No, Corky,” my father would interrupt, “you never made a long story short. You’ve made plenty of short stories long, but you’ve never, ever, made a long story short.”
I miss them.
The therapy is in the books, especially the Myron Bolitar series. Myron got to keep his parents. I didn’t. So I have a habit of overwriting and being too sentimental during the scenes with Myron and his parents. Tough. Skim them if you wish.
Corky, the Auntie Mame of Livingston, was also a beautiful woman. She went through fashion stages. There was the Headband Stage, where she lassoed her long blonde locks like a Native American. There was the Purple Stage where, well, she only wore purple. There was the suede-fringe stage, best forgotten, and the Horse-Riding Stage, where she wore riding clothes everywhere, this from a woman who couldn’t bet on a horse nonetheless ride one.
And lastly, right before Corky died much too young, there was the Wig Stage.
The chemotherapy had robbed her of the blonde locks, though it could not smother that wacky spirit. Nothing did. Not even the too-early death of my father, though there was an unmistakable dim in her eyes after that. Her straight man was gone. What was the point of being so outrageous if she couldn’t share it with the man she loved?
So towards the end, Corky bought a bunch of different wigs and after each chemo session, she would don a new one – redhead, brunette, blonde, afro, straight, curly, whatever — and no matter how sick she felt, she went out that night. Corky would not be denied. She was so brave in the end. I wish I could have matched her courage. But I couldn’t.
One night, about two weeks before she died, she called me to her bedside. “I want to write my own obituary,” she said. But I wouldn’t let her. I told her there’d be time later. There wasn’t.
Corky was around sixty years old when she died. I say “around” because she constantly lied about her age. Pentagon secrets should be so well kept. Visit her tombstone today in Hillside and you will see no birth date. One of her final requests.
Fiction is lies well told. And memory is often the greatest fiction of them all.
I’ve set my novels primarily in the suburbs of New Jersey, mostly because of Corky. Her life taught me that gripping stories don’t have to be about the rich or the famous or the powerful. You don’t need serial killers or big weapons or conspiracies reaching the White House.
There is drama – the best drama, the most relatable drama – in the everyday. There is beauty and outrageousness out here, in the plain-vanilla New Jersey suburbs, in the battleground of the American dream.
And mostly, there is remarkable heroism.
I know. I’ve seen it. Corky was my mother. And maybe now, almost ten years after her death, she finally got the chance to write her own obituary.
Harlan Coben is the author, most recently, of ”Promise Me.”