No Girls Allowed Writers Club

Since 1418 A.D.

My Mother The Con Artist

Katherine McHale “Kate” Huber

October 26, 1917-September 6, 2012

I first met my mother when I was about five years old.  Of course, I’m sure we said hello  passing in the hall. Or attempted small talk at the dinner table. But I have no real recollection  before that. The world , when it came into focus at all , seemed  like a giant movie set in full swing while I stood  in the wings like a  drunken extra.   Carnival folk call such people  “rubes,” con artists call them “marks.” Oddly enough ,  my mother suggested  Mark, after St. Mark– second string  gospel writer and patron of notary publics– as my confirmation name a few years later. Odd ? I wonder. .

            You see, I always felt  my mother was a brilliant con artist. And like all truly gifted practitioners of the trade a model of  elegance , grace and , yes, vanity. She was striking looking. Tall, thin, long of leg and well proportioned  , she had all the best features of a classic Irish beauty : raven hair,  luminescent skin, high cheek bones. But  her big  blue eyes held the  magic.  They were  so filled with  energy and intelligence they seemed to be powered by a ferocious inner fire, which they were.   She could fix you with a stare that felt like a slap on the head and  make you laugh with no more than a sidelong glance. Or just as  suddenly  her blue irises would turn gray, cloud up and become totally unreadable– a look valued by  river boat gamblers,  especially  ones  holding inside straights . 

My first memory has her sitting  between my brother’s bed and mine  reading stories. Not Hansel and Gretel,  by any means, and  certainly not Winnie the Pooh or Dr. Doolittle.  To her, the only Doolittle worth reading about was Colonel Jimmy  Doolittle and  his daring  raid on Tokyo in the early part of World War II.  Typically ,  when the gripping tale  grew to its life or death climax  — slowed down somewhat by her  personal reminiscences of the cowardly, lying sons of Nippon and their war crimes–  she would yawn, close the book and tell us she was too tired to go on. We could read the rest  at our leisure , or wait until she got around to reading it for us.  Of course, she’d say with a sad expression and a sigh , we’d find out soon enough how far behind we were  in our reading.  While we seemed content reading the tedious biographies of Raggedy Ann , Dick and Jane ,   the rest of our contemporaries by first grade –including the girls– would be already discovering the joys of  Shakespeare , if not  translating Caesar from the original Latin.   Con artists call this   “the hook.”

            Successful  con artists  know that knowledge is money in the bank  The number of books my mother read at any one time was astonishing. True, she was raised in an era when the novel was very alive. When  not particularly literary people read John  Galsworthy , Edith Wharton , Willa Cather, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster for their entertainment value alone.  But for her that was just the starting point. Her habit was to have five or more  books going at once : everything from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to The Meditations of S.J. Perelman , and  every fiction writer worth reading , with a particular fondness for the Russians , an undying loyalty to the Irish, and a grudging appreciation for the English and French . She could sit in a chair for three hours and read a book, but  had no patience for movies. For years, she didn’t trust television news  until she could confirm what was reported  in a magazine , journal or newspaper. “Getting your news from television, ” she once warned , ” is like getting your  philosophy from comic books.”   With someone  knowledgeable she could talk  about books with  insight  and  the enthusiasm of a newly minted English  professor. But here’s the remarkable thing. She had hundreds and hundreds of friends, most of them women, many of whom unburdened themselves of their innermost thoughts , instinctively and correctly understanding that what they told her would go to the grave  But most, including friends of many years, had no idea she read anything more challenging than Vogue magazine. To her way of thinking , “Some people are very clever, but not clever enough to hide their cleverness.” If you think about it, not a bad opening line  for   How To Be A Con Artist For Dummies.

            On the other hand , she had this strange , unshakable belief that the motion of  moon and stars ruled our fates and fortunes and that their influences  were accurately reported everyday  in the Astrology section of the paper.  Reasoned arguments could not shake her , nor evidence that fortunes varied from paper to paper, or that it seemed improbable that there were only twelve different fates for everyone on the planet on any given day.  Still , one had to wonder about the strength of her faith . Some of her prognostications seemed a bit too good to be true, as in , “Your chart says that if you listen to people today , instead of talking all the time, you might learn something.” Or, “Your horoscope says that it is the ideal day to  take a math exam , you’ll probably score the highest grade in the class.”  

            She had , however, one big flaw as a con artist  She simply could not pull off the practical joke. She had a laugh that started out as a lovely lilt,  grew to a low rumble and then would  explode in a high pitch like pennies scattering on a tile floor.  It was so infectious that a few bars  could make a chicken smile or break up a funeral service . It could be a great encouragement to amateur comedians and  as seditious as a whoopee cushion in an ethics  symposium . But it betrayed her whenever she schemed to put rubber meatballs in  spaghetti sauce, sponges in pancakes  or hairy spiders in  beds. Or any one of hundreds of “jokes” she never grew tired of, but  could never quite pull  off because she had the worst “tell” in the book : uncontrollable laughter.  

Once my brother and I created and disguised  a deep  pit of mud of which we were justly proud. Then by some misfortune—certainly not with our encouragement–  a couple of little neighborhood girls in starched white dresses happened to fall into it. Their red faced mother stormed  over to yell at us . My mother soon joined us looking  apologetic and very unhappy. She sternly  agreed with the woman  we were uncontrollable, her greatest sorrow  and  acolytes of  Satan. But then disaster. The sight of  four children head to toe in mud proved too much. She started giggling  and then laughing so hard  she almost fell over . The more the woman screeched, the more my mother laughed . The picture of her sitting on the porch, faced buried in her hands , rocking with laughter and waving the woman away with a handkerchief so she could catch her breath, is an indelible one.    

We moved more often than gypsies or army personnel , but without the support system. A few years ago I asked my mother to put together a list of all the places we lived and  was amazed to learn that by Sixth Grade, I had gone to  twelve schools  . I do remember  packing and unpacking so often that we seemed to be training for careers in   Macy’s shipping department, but moving just seemed a fact of life

Moves were part ritual, then drill. The ritual began with the assemblage of all interested parties—that is, me, my two brothers, the dogs, the cats, the mice , bird and fish —  with the announcement that we were moving to much nicer parts : a place where the water was cleaner, the people smarter and better looking , the children all scholars, the landscape and beach  nature’s answer to  Beethoven’s Ode to Joy .  The new house was going to be at long last a residence befitting  people of our station. Or , at least of her station. Unfortunately in this  new  Garden of Eden –if we didn’t make marked improvements, and soon– our ungainly appearance , lack of manners and willful ignorance  would  be all the more obvious, if not glaring.

For the drill—the actual move—my mother transformed herself into a no-nonsense top sergeant , interested only in precision steps and quick time march . My father  invariably had to go on ahead, so the considerable undertaking fell completely  to her. My mother never traveled light , hated throwing out anything, so every item was marked and packed , from the flimsiest Christmas ornament to the most misbegotten science fair project. At a time when pro football players  were paid the equivalent of auto mechanics, my father had an arrangement with a management guy with the Rams, who also owned a moving company, to use retired or off season players for the moves. My mother had more energy than the lot of them and it must’ve crossed more than one mind that  working with her was harder than training camp. My mother liked to tell the story of how one of our Airedales took a large  bite out of  a huge offensive lineman named Roosevelt and she apologized profusely. “No need to apologize, lady,” the man said laconically, “I think he know he do it again, he be dead.” It was one of her favorite stories.  

My mother’s formula for moving into new neighborhoods was simple : keep up appearances at all costs, charm everyone, be entertaining but not too funny. It was her correct opinion that comedy introduced too soon is often construed as eccentricity, if not  insanity. Taking an interest in strangers and complimenting them whenever possible made life so much easier in a new place. The Tao of Con ? Maybe, but  every day we were told in breathtaking detail her new discoveries : the most brilliant butcher on earth, an electrician who compared favorably with Tesla, a milk man who had personally touched a cow, a  neighbor with a collection of clam shells unequalled in the free world. Within weeks the new house was filled with all sorts : everyone from country club types to neighbors bearing casseroles, to the postman ,  his wife and their relatives  

As a public service to class comedians and bullies, teachers always made new kids stand in front of the class , say and spell their names , tell something fascinating  about where they were from and then to prolong the agony,  relate something interesting about themselves. My brother Dick usually gave his correct name .  But sharing my mother’s belief that truth  should never get in the way of a good story , he once  told  his Third  Grade Class our family had just moved from Korea where my father earned his living as jet fighter pilot attacking Chinese Communists, Koreans  and the occasional Jap. Adding detail to lend credibility , he then let drop his bombshell : the family had just received word that he had crash landed in a spectacular flame out. The following week , my father and mother—the former dressed in a business suit rather than ace pilot gear —showed up at a Parents/Teachers meeting. The teacher was naturally  shocked  that my father had not only been rescued from the Korean prison camp, but that he  seemed in such  remarkably good shape after  being the target of so many howitzer,  machine gun and mortar attacks.  After that, according to my mother, the discussion  about Dick’s progress in class was an anticlimax, almost desultory.

Other stories she liked to tell about Dick included his expulsion from Miss Peggy’s Nursery School for throwing rocks at school windows and calling the principle Miss Piggy. And then there was  the call from the candy store owner that he had caught Dick shoplifting. For the latter crime , my mother prevailed on a police lieutenant to come over to the house and strongly imply that his investigation into the matter might easily lead to an arrest and  a  stretch in the big house . But instead of scaring him  into reforming his ways, Dick grandly saw himself as James Cagney in Public Enemy .”You don’t have a solid case against me , copper,”  “The jury will laugh this beef out of court..” And , memorably,  “The fuzz will  never take me alive.”  At that moment , according to my mother , a jury decision to have his tongue removed and hands lopped off, would’ve gotten her strong support.

But while it was her often voiced opinion that my behavior and Dick’s would drive a saint to take refuge in strong drink, my brother John was another story entirely. He was the youngest –he came along five years after Dick—but also the friendliest and happiest. Mostly, he had two of my mother’s gifts in spades: the ability to see life as a great comedy and the  belief you should never miss an opportunity to laugh especially at yourself.  Of course, this made him the butt of every joke Dick and I could pull . Not because he was more gullible than most,  or the perfect foil –although he was both– but because if the joke was good ,  he would be the one laughing hardest.

  In the early 1950’s , at a time when everyone smoked,  drank hard, ate lots of red meat and no one– including pro athletes– exercised, my mother worked out strenuously an hour a day listening to a work out record. Her routine  was a combination of isometrics and aerobics long before anyone knew those words. She ate little  —mostly salads, very few carbohydrates—but she certainly  was no health nut. She smoked and liked her cocktails at night. Nor did she try to win over converts. Her exercise program and eating habits were her secret, something  she never talked about until, that is,  years later when everyone else in the world  finally caught up . She  was a  good cook, but truth be told cooking was not something she really enjoyed.  Taking care of yourself gave you an edge, pure and simple.  Thinner people had more energy, thought faster. But really most  of her health program was about appearance. She loved clothes, especially shoes and hats, and she had extraordinary color sense and a practiced  eye : she always  knew exactly what was in fashion and how to improve upon it to her own advantage. As far as I know, she never willingly threw out an article of clothing and her greatest requirement was closet space. Everything comes back was her motto. The only math formula I ever heard her  postulate was, “If you divide the decade of an original style into the decade of its revival, you’ll discover how many times it has been revived before.”

However, she emphatically did not have that  sense—or any sense– when it came to what we three kids should wear . At the time, I didn’t   know if she had a missing screw or if it was  one of her more mysterious cons. But I do remember exactly when  I realized she was dressing us funny. It was  the day of my fifth grade graduation from an institution known as Miss Pringle’s Day School.  That morning she laid out what I was to wear : a seersucker suit  with shorts  and knee socks,  and –hard to believe, even now — blue and white  two toned shoes . It was a death sentence.  I panicked. Short of being  escorted by armed guards  to the graduation I would be murdered in broad daylight  by bullies and friends alike ,  and rightly so. How could this have happened ?  I  vaguely remembered being measured for clothes weeks before by an overly friendly man in San Francisco—in retrospect, an  obvious pedophile.  But that he’d taken a dislike to me and had swindled her in the bargain was something she refused to  see.  When I tried to make her understand the full measure of her folly  , she simply shrugged and said that all my clothes were packed for our move to Detroit and therefore I could choose nudity or suicide , but those were the clothes I had for the foreseeable future. You’re not  proposing , I said eying her closely, that I wear what amounts to  girl’s clothing to the graduation and then the trip to Detroit ? Your brothers are wearing the same things, came the retort. Now, the full horror of the situation was upon me. We three chumps, dressed like members of an badly managed midget  dance troupe,  were not only going to fly  across country but be introduced to our new Detroit neighborhood— no doubt the home territory of the notorious Purple Gang —in these humiliating outfits. We survived, but barely.  

In retrospect, I think I understand. What we were witnessing was my mother’s newest creation : herself as artist . Our house in Marin County was  the first my parents had ever  owned and she had thrown herself into fixing it up and decorating it with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new convert to amphetamines . She was then in her late thirties , had spent her life studying  fashion, now  her tastes could expand. And if there was ever an area where house decoration and personal expression were encouraged it was San Francisco ,  even way back then.. Martha Stewart would’ve had a hard time against  the competition. In fact, there were many men in the area  who got so caught up in the excitement of decorating they actually didn’t find time to marry.. Including , apparently, the one who recommended our tailor

My mother’s enthusiasm for fixing up houses grew to become a great asset. Over the next twenty years the family moved into eight houses throughout the Midwest, the South and finally the East. At every stop she learned a bit more how to increase the value of each new house with  her sense of style and increasing craft. She wasn’t technical. “I really don’t know how a radio works,” and “If I had to teach a primitive tribe about modern technology , I could probably show them  how to string up a clothes line.”  But she knew more about materials and  making a house better looking and more functional than anyone. Although, it should be said, it wasn’t always easy living in the middle of an ongoing “creation.” We weren’t really required to wear surgical smocks, masks and slippers when entering the house ,  but there’s no question she thought about it.

The culmination of all her work finally came when my parents  retired to York, Maine in the late 70’s. This was to be their last stand , according to her, and everything she learned and all the treasures she’d accumulated were to go into the “new” house, which had been built in 1790. It was a big, rambling , clapboard castle on a golf course  that was structurally sound but looked haunted .An ideal place to retire to if you  had the energy of a pro hockey player  and the vision of  a renaissance painter.  Within  a year the place looked bright and cheerful, and after two it was gleaming from every window. In its final form it was a decorator’s  showplace, a house where tourists stopped and gawked.  

 Maine people are known  to be leery of strangers, and proud that it takes a generation or two for new people to be even slightly accepted. That was because Maine people had never known someone who had spent a life making friends and cheering up strangers.   It took her less than six months to know everyone in the village, a little longer to know every item of  gossip and  be the center of all  social life.

So it was stunning news to everyone, but especially people in  the village,  when my parents  announced  they had decided to move to California after five years. Maybe it was the cold winters and the humid summers neither of them actually ever grew accustomed to,  but I think it was  something more basic  :  they simply  had never lived in one place as long and had never known what it was like to see the same faces against the same landscape  all the time. Maine was beautiful, life  was great , the people kind, but  it all seemed so…, well,  permanent. And if there is one true characteristic of California it is its  movement, and permanent  impermanence. But whatever their reasons they left in triumph, with the whole town turning out for a parade to see them off. It was an honor as old fashioned and warm as a Frank Capra movie.

Interesting to me , at least, is that the place where they finally settled in California and where they lived the longest in their lives together, sat on a hill overlooking a freeway, a train track, and  the ocean  where they could watch trains, planes, boats and  cars whizzing by — and the occasional Space Shuttle overhead–all day long. They also lived next to a hotel where visiting friends from every point in the  globe  stayed, or where they could always strike up a conversation in the bar with interesting looking transients.

Reading over what I’ve written so far, I realize one might easily get the impression that, all in all, my mother had a pretty carefree life. Not true. As in every life , there were many ups and downs, equal doses of good times and bad. But if there was one overriding principle in her con artist’s credo , it was : don’t let the bastards get you down and never, ever give them—or anyone– the idea you’re beaten.

But there was a time when all her bravery and strong front deserted her. The death of my brother John was brutal , unexpected  and heartbreaking. For those of us closest to her , the hardest part of the loss was to witness her unbreakable spirit so cruelly  broken.  John was not only her youngest, he was an adoring presence,  always a minute away if she needed anything, always good for  a long conversation and more than a few giggles   She had lost her truest friend. The  recovery process was painful and slow, but never completely successful . Forever after there always seemed a little less brightness in her eyes, and times when one would catch her staring off at some distant void.

The news of  John’s death eventually reached all her friends and brought forth hundreds and hundreds of long, thoughtfully written letters from people most of us had forgotten about , including :  the most brilliant butcher on earth, the milkman who touched a cow and the neighbor with the largest clam shell collection in the free world.  We knew she wrote  and received letters every day, but we really had no idea the number and diversity of her correspondents until then. Or really, how genuinely interested in the lives and fortunes of others, and in turn how much they cared about her.

My father once said that the most amazing secret about my mother was that she was deeply shy. That she had a fear of meeting new people which approached , at times, almost a phobia akin  stage fright. Ridiculous , I thought –at first. And then I thought back over all  the years and began to laugh  Maybe my suspicions were  true. My mother  really was a brilliant con artist.

William Benson Huber

Contact: Ask Around Grand Central

Ad Altare Productions 2024

All Rights Reserved

801 Stokes Mill Road 

Stroudsburg, PA 18360

Attn; William Benson Huber

Need A Laugh?

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *