UP HIGH, closer to the angels, in the choir loft of St. George R.C. Church, I could spot my grandmom's head, babushka or not, in her pew 150 feet away.
While other grannies had heads of silver or white (or even blue) hues making them look like a row of soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones, Mary Emma Kozlowski was the one with the maraschino cherry on top. She had a crown full of fire-engine-red hair that could make Lucy send Ethel out for the box of hair dye for a touch up. Her red head is how I knew my grandmom was there. I called her the Lady in Red.
She raised four children, two boys and two girls, with my grandfather Luke, and sold shoes out of the front room of her white stone rowhouse on Richmond Street.
From the bo-bo sneakers on the feet of kids running the streets, to the rawhide heavy-duty workboots of the dock workers at Tioga Marine Terminal to even my first-grade nun, Sister Aurelia, almost everybody in our neighborhood bought their shoes from the redheaded Mary Emma on Richmond Street.
One late summer afternoon, with the rush of back-to-school shoe sales clogging her front living room, me and my cousin Fred went into her back yard and proceeded to take our grandfather's case of Frank's Vanilla Cream soda (back then, still sold in glass liter bottles) and empty it into a hole in her garden, creating the sweetest smelling mud puddle ever made. We then proceeded to sling mud at each other, and, even though he had the better aim and arm with the mudpies, I had a good 40 pounds on him and sat on his head as he gurgled for air. To this day, we believe cousin Jenn ratted us out.
When Mary Emma caught us, I'll never forget seeing her standing in her housedress with her hands on her hips, staring out her sliding kitchen door. If she were our mother, our backsides
would've been as red as her hair, but with one swoop, like an eagle preying on a field mouse, she grabbed our legs, and hung us upside down and dipped us in her bubbly kitchen sink, calling us "sons of britches" (yes, "britches") and "bags of rags."
As I grew up, and Grandmom Mary Emma got older, the red hair grew out gracefully. On birthdays and Christmas, she would ask me, "What do you want, Patrish?" And I'd tell her I wanted her red hair back. I wanted the grandmom who looked like Maureen
O'Hara. While her other grandkids bought her robes and slippers and flowers for her birthday, I'd slip her a box of L'Oreal in the color of Heinz 57 or Wilma Flintstone. This year, Mary Emma turned 88 and informed her family she'd never been to a Phillies game.
What? With two sons playing for the neighborhood Venango Bears and a roster of grandchildren playing Little League, how could that have happened?
How could she have not gone to one of the Phillies games in all those years? Turns out she was at church, selling shoes and bathing her mud-covered grandkids.
So, on her 88th birthday, the same cousin Jenn who ruined our mudfight 30 years ago had a stretch limo pick up Grandmom Mary Emma and whisk her and her family to Citizens Bank Park, where she sat in the Diamond Club behind homeplate and rooted for her Phils. She wore her Chase Utley shirt, her Phillies hat and jacket, and a set of red and white pearls that she told us she bought for 98 cents about 30 years ago. (Probably her deposit money from the Frank's Vanilla Cream bottles).
Her name was put up on the Phanovision, and I think the Phillie Phanatic thrusted his pelvis in her direction.
With over 40,000 fans in attendance, all wearing their Phillies finest, I leaned over and once again lobbied for her to dye her hair red with the argument of how will I find her in this ballpark if I get lost and how I really need to see her red hair.
"Patrish, I'm the grandmom with my arm around you," she replied.
"That's how you'll find me."
And so, as the Phillies beat the Mets in a nailbiter of a win with a walked batter, bottom of the 9th with bases loaded, I was in the arms of the Lady in Red, for her first Phillies game. *