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Mother of Invention

How My Mother Continued to Prank Me 15 Years After She Passed Away

A photo of me with my mother circa 1990
A photo of me with my mother circa 1990

My mother, Anne, passed away in December of 1993, taking with her a great sense of humor. She exercised it with discretion however, unlike me, her son, who has been known to don hillbilly teeth and dangle a string of rubber snot after a fake sneeze.

To each their own.

The story I’m about to relate is one that I think of often, especially in May around Mother’s Day. It starts during my senior year at Villanova University in the mid-1980s. The fact that I was in college in the first place, I should point out, was attributable to my mother. In my last year of high school, I had decided that I didn’t need any additional matriculation.

“Ma, I don’t need to go to college, I’m smart enough already,” I announced in our kitchen one day. I honestly believed it.

My mother wisely disagreed.

I don’t know why, but she had determined that Villanova was the right college for her “Sonny,” as she often called me for no discernable reason. 

I felt strongly that if I was going to be forced to pursue higher education, it should be in a warm climate, like Florida or California.

My mother would have none of that, however.

By employing a series of subtle psychological maneuvers, the likes of which the CIA has still not seen to this day, my mother, a devout Catholic, tricked me into choosing Villanova, a Catholic university. Not only that, but I went believing that it was my idea in the first place. That, however, is a story for another day.

One of my college roommates, Steve, came from Maryland to visit me at our home on the Jersey Shore for a few days over our senior year Christmas break in 1983. Steve had been an Orientation Counselor for the incoming freshmen that previous autumn.  Orientation Counselors were generally outgoing and personable upperclassmen (and women) who were chosen to help assimilate newly-arriving students to life at Villanova.

Orientation Counselors were expected to follow a list of written rules and, I believe, some unwritten ones as well.

Chief among the unwritten was: Do not take advantage of your status as an Orientation Counselor and Upperclassman by dating freshmen in your orientation group.

Steve must’ve missed the discussion of the Unwritten Rules. When the orientation dust had settled, he was dating a freshman.

I can feign righteous indignation at his actions now, many years later, but had I been in his shoes (for which I applied, but was not selected), I probably would’ve done the same thing.  But I digress.

Steve’s freshman girlfriend, whose unique first name I’ll omit on the off-chance she reads this, was from Summit, New Jersey. One night during his visit, we were returning home from a bar at 2 a.m. when Steve noticed the “Summit Avenue” sign three blocks from my house.

“Hey, can we steal that sign for my girlfriend? She’d love it,” he said.

We were in college, it was the 1980s, and having street signs in your dorm room was cool.  Honest.

“OK, I have an idea,” I said, never being one to turn down a challenge, especially at two in the morning.

There was a length of sturdy boat rope in my trunk, and a trailer hitch on the back bumper.

“We’ll tie the rope to the hitch and wrap it around the sign and pull it off the pole,” I said.  We were MacGyvering before there was a MacGyver (the show debuted a year later).

Being familiar with the mission-critical considerations of committing mischief at night in a car (which differs from other types of nighttime mischief), I turned off my lights so that any potential witnesses wouldn’t be able to read my license plate.

We circled the block, arrived at the sign, and fastened the rope around it. Nobody was in sight, after all, it was 2 a.m., all decent and law-abiding suburbanites were asleep.  It was a calm and clear night.  Great conditions for stealing a sign.

One…two…three…

I gunned the engine and lurched the car forward about ten yards. The Summit Avenue sign exploded off its perch and shot under my car.  However, there was an unforeseen consequence: In the process of liberating the sign, we pulled the entire sign pole almost flat to the ground. 

Uh oh, major damage. The kind a town would make you pay to repair if you were caught.  

Steve fished the sign out from under my car using the still-attached rope and we high-tailed it out of there.  I drove the three blocks to my house with the headlights still off. No sense taking chances on getting caught, I thought.

About a week later I was back at school when my mother called.

“A policeman came to the door this afternoon,” she said.

My heart stopped momentarily.

“For what?” I asked, pretending to be shocked.

“He said that someone stole the Summit Avenue sign last weekend, and that a neighbor saw a car with a Villanova sticker on the back window pull away. The officer said that the only car in town with a Villanova sticker is yours. He’s seen it parked in front when you’re home.”

“What did you tell him ma?” I asked, knowing that I had a problem on my hands.

“I started screaming at him, I told him that my son would never steal a sign and that he should get off my porch and go bother someone else!” she said.

My heart, which had briefly re-started, stopped again.

I didn’t know what to do, but somehow the instinct to tell the truth kicked in. I figured my mother, who apparently thought so highly of my honest nature that she would angrily shoo away a police officer, would understand.

“Uh, mom…uh, I actually did steal that sign,” I confessed.

“What?! What are you talking about?” she asked.

“When Steve was visiting, he wanted it for his girlfriend, she’s from Summit. We hooked a rope around the sign and pulled it off with the car. I can’t believe someone saw my Villanova sticker. It was dark out and I had the lights off. I can’t believe this, it’s bad luck.”

“I don’t know what you’re going to do, they’ll be looking for your car when you come home,” she said.

“Well, anyway, thanks ma, I appreciate your sticking up for me. I’ll figure something out.”

Immediately after hanging up, I went out to my car and scraped the Villanova sticker off the back window. This was Step One in my plan to throw the police off my trail.

That semester I was taking a course in play writing at Rosemont College, an all-female school near Villanova.  I hit upon what I thought was a brilliant idea: I bought a Rosemont College sticker and put it on my car’s back window, right where the Villanova sticker used to be. This, I thought, would throw the police off my trail. They were over their heads when dealing with this master criminal!

From that point forward, every friend of mine who saw my car asked why I had a Rosemont College sticker on the back window. I’d explain about the Sign Theft Caper. My friends were generally sympathetic to a maneuver designed to keep the cops away.

That sticker stayed on my car for well over a year, until, finally, I got tired of telling everyone the story in Boston, where I had moved for law school. By then, I figured, the statute of limitations on sign theft had run out.

For about 15 years I had been telling that story whenever a related topic would arise in conversation, such as sign theft (a popular topic among my friends), police visits (ditto), car window stickers, or the like.  Then, one day, my sister, for the first time ever, overheard me telling the story at a barbecue.

“Don’t you know the truth about that?” she asked with a disbelieving air.

“No, what?” I replied.

“There was never any policeman at the door. Mommy made up that whole story to scare you into not doing anything like that again. I thought you knew.”

I was busted, BIG TIME.

More than 15 years after she passed away, my mother was still getting the last laugh on me.

Somewhere above, I’m sure she’s looking down and getting a good chuckle every time her Sonny tells the now-complete version of this story with the newly-discovered ending.

This is a good weekend to take some time to reflect upon, and appreciate, your mother, living or not. She no doubt made a lot of sacrifices to get you to where you are today – maybe even a few involving a white lie or two. All for your own good, of course.

Here’s wishing a very happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there, and up above; you deserve it!

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