In the last months of her life, even as she had lost most of her cognitive abilities, my mother was described by the professional caregivers at Grace Manor as “feisty”. Until she began to lose her ability to speak cogently she could inspire or infuriate even the most experienced among them. She could wax philosophical and hold court with words of wisdom, or launch into a withering verbal assault targeted directly at her victim’s Achilles heel, even at a stage of her Alzheimer’s that precluded her comprehension of where she was or who she had just attacked. It wasn’t that my mother was a particularly cruel woman. It was just that the cantankerous nature that this particular illness bestows on its victims was enhanced by her overly outspoken nature as well as a superior intellect that seemed little affected by her inability to remember anything. It wasn’t for nothing that my siblings and I often referred to her at “The Irmanator.”
Irma Pedrogo Cordero was born on February 18, 1926 in Playa Ponce, Puerto Rico. Her mother, Rosa, had been the eldest of 14 children born to Angela Bernard Lavadie Angela Cordero Bernard a French woman (Angela’s father was Julio Esteban Bernard, and her mother was Hermina Ursula Lavadie), and a Puerto Rican man named Ramon Cordero y Matos. Irma’s father was José Ramon Pedrogo Rubert.
Among her 13 maternal uncles and aunts were a number of teachers, and both the Angela Cordero Bernard school and the Bernadino Cordero Bernard school in Ponce are named for two of the Cordero siblings. The Corderos remained a strong community oriented family for many years, and my mother’s first cousin, Rafael Cordero Santiago, ultimately became Ponce’s most beloved and iconic mayor. The seaport in Ponce, the deepest in the Caribbean, is named for him.
At some point after Irma’s birth her family left Ponce for Cataño, a small town across the bay from San Juan. She was the youngest of three (or 4, depending on how you count, but more on that later), was exceedingly bright, was a gifted singer, and endearingly cute, the result being that she was always the center of attention. It took no particular gift of persuasion to be able to convince my grandmother to allow her daughter to sing at public gatherings, and Irma performed on a children’s radio show, Mi Abuela Borinqueña. Later in life she would admit to identifying with Shirley Temple, and although I cannot attest to whether her talent or popularity warranted such an affinity or whether these were delusions of grandeur, I do know that she was quite special and was doted on as a result.
Sadly, my mother’s youthful singing career came to an abrupt halt when a case of diphtheria made a tracheotomy necessary, resulting in damage to her vocal chords. Her illness was in some ways transformative, but in other ways was consistent with the kind of childhood she had, and it could be argued that ultimately the trajectory that her life took was altered not a bit. Her exceedingly large and doting family circled the wagons and saw to it that the hospital in which she was treated provided her with a private cabin – not a room, a cabin – which they oversaw in ways that would put any 21st century helicopter parent to shame. Her cabin had to be disinfected from floor to ceiling on a daily basis, and the family refused to entrust such an important task to a stranger, instead taking turns on alternating days to clean the room meticulously. In all likelihood their obsessive care saved her life. Lesson: obsession is not always bad.
As I mentioned, my mother was exceedingly bright, and she graduated from her high school in Bayamon, (Cataño had no high school) as the valedictorian at the age of 16. During that time she had fallen under the wing (and spell) of the charismatic Puerto Rican poet, journalist, essayist, novelist, and scholar, Pedro Juan Labarthe. Labarthe dedicated a poem to my mother, which he published in his collection, Relinatorio Acetre y Corazon; Poemario En Azul y Castano. The title of the poem, Busca las Cumbres, is engraved on my mother’s gravestone. Labarthe also encouraged her to pursue a post-secondary education and helped her secure a scholarship at Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburg. That school, in keeping with the trend away from gender specific institutions, is now known as Chatham University and is, of course, coeducational.
Mother was, as I’ve indicated, accustomed to being the center of attention – something of a little princess, and unfortunately the scholarship came with a string attached. She was expected to wait on tables in the dining hall. She soon wrote home to her mother that she couldn’t fulfill this expectation and would be coming home post haste. Her mother and her brother José (known to all as Pepi from the diminutive “Pepito”) agreed to pay for her education in full. In her older age she would talk resentfully of her half-brother, Modesto, who had said she was the apple of his eye but never contributed to the cost of her education. (And, in truth, why should he have?)
Modesto was the product of a rather obscure affair between my grandfather and Clara Cila Lago, who seems to have married my grandfather on April 15, 1911. According to my mother, her father got Clara pregnant and married her in order to give their issue his last name, and immediately filed for either an annulment or a divorce. I don’t know how true the story is, but I do know that Modesto was considered part of the family, although his name does not appear in the 1920 or 1940 censuses, and I know that my grandfather did subsequently marry my grandmother and to my knowledge it was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. This would imply either an annulment of the prior marriage, or that the prior marriage was a civil ceremony and was therefore not recognized by the Church. According to my mother, Modesto as an adult was a gambler. She relates a story that at one time he owned a casino in San Juan. My uncle Pepi was working in the casino office doing the book keeping. One day Modesto walked into the office and told Pepi to clean out the contents of the safe because he had just lost the casino in a bet.
In Pittsburg Irma was a young and immature college student, and home sickness eventually prevailed. She returned to Cataño and then went to Antigua where she was in the secretarial pool for the commanding officer of the naval air base. She was among the younger group of the secretaries, and the more mature women kept a protective watch on the younger women, seeing to their well being as well as their virtue. Based on my mother’s account of that time in her life, as best as I can determine it, one of those women may have been Maria Isabel Polo, the sister of Maria Carmen del Polo, who was the wife of the Spanish dictator Generalisimo Francisco Franco. Mother also spoke of those occasions when pilots having just completed their training would take off from the air strip, flying to aircraft carriers in the Caribbean. The commander of the base would at these times become morose, admitting that it broke his heart to know that he was sending many of these young men to their deaths. I know little else of that period other than the photos of her on dates with various officers that my siblings and I found when we cleared her personal effects out of the storage facility that contained the remnants of her long life.
Not surprisingly, that storage included a decent number of musical films and compact discs. Music played an important role in the life of the Pedrogo family. My grandfather played flute, and often traveled to various towns in Puerto Rico to play private engagements with his friend, Pablo Gomez, who played violin. They would travel on horseback, and were known as decent musicians perhaps, but also as irredeemable pranksters. There is a story of them playing at a wedding reception in a private home, where they put baking soda in the chamber pot in the women’s dressing room. They waited outside the room until a woman would relieve her bladder, they delighting with the knowledge of a prank well played as she shrieked loudly at seeing her urine effervesce.
They also accompanied the choir in the local Catholic Church in Ponce. One early Sunday morning my grandfather and Pablo went crabbing together before mass. They couldn’t resist releasing a bag of live crabs onto the floor of the choir loft, creating, from what my mother has told us, quite an uproar. It was in this church that José met my grandmother, who sang in the choir.
My mother claimed to have sung well and played the violin badly. But her brother Pepi played violin exquisitely, and her sister Rosita could play nearly anything on piano after hearing it once. Neither of them pursued careers in music, however. There was also an aunt of theirs who played piano for the silent films at the local cinema.
My grandparents were both active in the community in Cataño. My grandfather owned a typewriter shop, where he sold and serviced all manner of office equipment. He taught my grandmother Morse code, which she used to make extra money by installing a telegraph office in their home. The dots and dashes that were so familiar to them became a secret language that they often used in order to communicate silently when out in public places, tapping out their messages on the backs of each other’s hands. My grandmother was also the head of the Red Cross in Cataño, and my mother often spoke of the canned food and the blankets that became hastily warehoused in their home whenever a tropical storm or hurricane would tear through the island.
In the mid-1940s my grandfather added a new line of products to his typewriter shop – reading glasses. He quickly recognized that there was much more to visual acuity than selling over-the-counter readers, and could see a potential career for his youngest daughter. With his encouragement and that of her dear mentor, Labarthe (who was a Columbia University alumnus), Irma applied to and was accepted at Columbia University School of Optometry. I’m always amazed and humbled by the fact that as a young Hispanic woman my mother was able to gain acceptance to the school and to the circle of colleagues that she encountered there. Many of her fellow students were older than she, having previously put their educations on hold to serve their country in its greatest conflagration. And, she was the only woman in the school!
It was at Columbia University that she met my father, Robert Warren Phillips. He was a bit of a Beau Brummell in his distinctive attire, and right up until their respective deaths each of my parents insisted that the first thing that attracted her to him was the argyle socks that he habitually wore. They were married on June 3, 1950, shortly after graduating from Columbia. My father practiced optometry in his late father’s optical office, and my mother applied for and secured a job as an optometrist but quit after her first day on discovering that her duties would include making coffee and performing a number of other “secretarial” tasks. It was her opinion, and my father agreed (as do I) that they would never have asked a man to perform these tasks, but regarded them as “women’s work” regardless of her professional qualifications.
On July 3, 1952 Irma gave birth to a premature boy that they named Robert Warren Phillips. That child died the following day and was buried in Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY. Just barely over a year later, on July 26, I was born. A few months after that we moved to San Juan, PR.
Eventually we would move back to the States, taking up residence first in the basement apartment of my father’s sister, Julia, then buying a house in Deer Park, a hamlet in the town of Babylon in Suffolk County on Long Island. Through much of my childhood my mother worked as an optometrist, she and my father having two offices. My father typically worked at the office in Bay Shore, NY, and my mother maintained one near our home in Deer Park.
Mother could be mercurial. She was a loving mother, but would anger quickly with what seemed like little provocation. I can recall receiving disproportionately severe scoldings (she never believed in corporal punishment) for things like leaving my bedroom closet door open, forgetting to bring home a text book that I needed for a homework assignment (which I realized almost as soon as I got home from school – we only needed to get back in the car and drive half a mile to the school to retrieve it.)
She was supportive of my ventures, and encouraged my musical pursuits with great pride. The experience of losing a child made her over-protective, and there were many things that most normal children do that I was prevented from doing, including things like class trips (unless she came along on the trip as a class-mom, which was most of the time.) She was always a bit too concerned with what other people thought about her, probably because she had strong opinions of other people – what they did and how they did it. Many was the time that she would embarrass me when in a public place she would tell another mother – a stranger – that she wasn’t parenting correctly. The idea that she might be wrong about how to do things, or that there might be other correct ways than the ones that she employed was completely foreign to her thinking, indeed, never even entered her realm of thought. And if one were to point out that there might be another perfectly legitimate way than hers to do something she would disagree vehemently. I do not believe I ever witnessed my mother showing the least sign of self doubts.
My mother was, as indicated, very intelligent and very well educated. And yet, she had no interest in learning more than she already knew, showed no curiosity about the world in ways that might expand or challenge her world view, and held tightly to her customs and ways, secure in the belief that this was the way all correct people behaved and believed and had always been so, and would always be so. Even her fashion sense seemed to cling to whatever was the norm in the 1940s, and she adhered to the belief that all decent people knew that these fashions were the correct ones.
In what would seem like a contradiction to all of this, Irma could be crude at times, using profanity freely among her adult friends and among us once we had become adults. She drew the line with vocabulary that related to sex or sexual anatomy, being of the belief that sex was a dirty necessity that we had to employ for the purpose of reproduction, but was under all other circumstances disgusting. She was uncomfortable with the correct words for parts of the anatomy, being rather shocked that my toddler son knew the word “penis” and didn’t have some cute nickname for it. She was disgusted by the idea of breastfeeding, and couldn’t comprehend why any mother would resort to such primitive means in the day and age when science had developed more sanitary methods of nourishment. Besides, to her way of thinking there was no way that a mother’s body could produce a milk that would provide all the nutritional requirements that a “scientifically” produced baby formula contained.
In 2002 my parents retired to Pembroke Pines in South Florida. They arrived just in time to be able to attend my graduation from the doctoral program at the University of Miami. They retired to Florida and to the couch, becoming sedentary and slowly, very slowly deteriorating. After a lifetime of not only meaningful employment but volunteerism and engagement in the community my parents stopped everything. In Deer Park Mother had been on the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, a president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (BPW), and an active member of Lioness International. This past BPW Woman of the Year, a woman listed at the turn of the century as one of the Town of Babylon’s 100 most influential people of the 20th Century now was content to finish out her days watching television shows, reading books, and doing crossword puzzles. Lord knows, she and my father had earned that right, but I found it alarming to think that they appeared to be biding time waiting to die.
Eventually Irma would be diagnosed as having Parkinson ’s disease and Alzheimer’s. My father did a great job of helping her as she became less able to cook, then to dress herself, then to find her way around their house. And he did so in a way that no one in the family seemed aware of how far the illnesses had progressed. We only discovered it when he entered the hospital in June 2015 with congestive heart failure, never to return to their home, but rather to live out his final 5 months being moved back and forth between hospitals and rehab centers.
We moved my parents to Lakeland, FL to be near me. My father passed away that November, and my mother, who lived in my house briefly but hated it was moved to the assisted living facility that had originally been intended for her and for my father. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, we eventually had to move her to a memory care center where she would be, if not happy, then at least, safe. The sale of their house had provided enough of a nest egg that we were able to provide additional caregivers to make up for the inability of the staff to provide the level of personal care she required.
During her last few months my mother deteriorated to an almost unrecognizable point. She seemed unaware of where she was, often insisting that the staff phone me because she had no idea how she got there, and feared that I didn’t know where she was. She would have no recollection of the last time we had visited or called, and so felt that she had been abandoned by her children in a strange place that she failed to recognize on an almost hourly basis. Her fear made her increasingly angry as it gave way to real terror. When, on the recommendation of her doctor, we put her on hospice care, all medication except for those providing comfort were withdrawn. It was felt that she was in the last months of her life. We were warned by the director of the facility that withdrawing one particular medication might accelerate her deterioration. After consulting with a dear friend whose many years of Methodist ministry made him wise and well versed in the ethics of elder care, we decided to withdraw that medication as well. Within a few weeks we saw her lose her ability to speak, walk, eventually to swallow, and under the care of hospice she spent most of her last days in a morphine induced slumber.
On January 19, approximately a month short of her 92nd birthday, Irma Phillips passed away. My mother was an extraordinary woman. From her I learned to strive for excellence, to not accept anything less than the best that I could do. I did not often agree with her, and I did not often feel that she truly understood me as an artist. Many times she would ask why I played music that “most people don’t understand” rather than to go with the tide of poplar/populist music, the music that she actually preferred. I always thought it ironic that she demand that I push myself to fulfill my potential, and yet didn’t understand that to be more entertainer and less artist would be to betray that very standard. But her achievements as a woman in a time when most women are fighting against that all too real glass ceiling are truly inspiring.
She may not have fully grasped my artistic choices, but she was always supportive. Of all the repertoire that I’ve played over decades as a classical guitarist there was only one that she truly loved, a piece that I performed at her funeral, and fittingly enough is a piece by Miguel Llobet who stands near the head of my extensive musical family tree. That piece, El Testament de n’Amelia I present as taken from my album, Lo Mestre, the Music of Miguel Llobet.