The Joyce Machine!

The Joyce Machine was my mother, Joyce Cuccia Wautlet. My friends called her the Joyce Machine because her motor was always revving. The woman was colorful, complicated, and tough.

She was born in 1923 in New Orleans, the second of six children. Her mother was an orphan of French and German descent who had a former Louisiana Governor as an ancestor. Her father was the son of Sicilian immigrants. He was a commercial painter, house painter, bar room owner, checker champion, and possibly a loan shark. She grew up during the depression in the Irish Channel.

I’m not sure exactly when my mother quit formally attending school but I heard she left St. Theresa’s after the fourth grade for disciplinary reasons. Apparently a classmate had a nickel pickle and she made the mistake of taunting my mother over it. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you don’t taunt the Machine. When mom was punished for separating the girl from her pickle the end result was an inkwell being thrown at a nun.

I know Mom went to the local public school for at least a year but after that she entered the work force. It was the Depression so all had to chip in. When she was thirteen she lied about her age and got a job driving a truck for the Light House for the Blind. She promptly wrecked the truck, which was full of brooms, by hitting a public service bus. Riding with her was her blind supervisor.

My mother was married three times, all to midwestern men. Maybe the New Orleans men she knew were afraid of her, her three brothers, or a combination there of. The first husband was a war time romance. It wasn’t uncommon for bonds to form quickly during World War II. That marriage ended the day it began in South Bend, Indiana. Instead of tending to his spousal duties later that evening husband number one went into the corn field and started killing Nazis. When the Machine called home for rescue her father said you got yourself up there so you get yourself back. My mother then found work in a local bowling alley until she could save enough for bus fare home.

Husband number two was a law student from Detroit. He apparently was too close to his mother. The Machine wasn’t one to share and she wasn’t one to coddle. He lasted a couple of years.

Husband number three was my father. My dad was a merchant seamen originally from Appleton, Wisconsin. He was living in New Orleans in an apartment above a bar in the French Quarter. He fell down some stairs and crushed an old metal Singer sewing machine. He looked up, saw my mother standing over him, and remarked that he must be dead because he was looking at an angel. That was all it took for the Machine. My dad never had a chance. He was an interesting man in his own right. He left home at age seventeen and joined the Merchant Marines. He had the pleasure of being sunk not once, but twice, by U-Boats. He also was world traveled,having visited ports such as Rotterdam and Shanghai.

They were married ten years before I was born. My dad had since gone to work for Kaiser Aluminum. No way was my mother going to let him go to sea for months at a time. He was transferred to Ravenswood, West Virginia and I was born across the river in Gallipolis, Ohio. I am extremely proud of that birth certificate. It says place of residence… trailer park! We moved back to New Orleans shortly before my second birthday. And yes we moved into another yet another trailer.

In 1970 my father was transferred to Duesseldorf, West Germany. At age forty-five my dad was in poor health. Cigarette smoking combined with the toxic air he had been breathing in the pot rooms at Kaiser had given him emphysema. My mother was against the move. She had let him go to India without us a few years earlier, but this time with me lobbying to go as well she gave in. I was eleven. Four months later my dad died suddenly. My mother was now a forty-seven year old widow with no real job skills or formal education. She also had to take care of me.

With a modest amount of insurance money we returned to New Orleans. Prior to my father’s death my mom had worked at various jobs before with little success. The Machine didn’t care for authority too much. Invariably she would quit  a job before she got fired, to the relief of her employers. No one liked confronting the Machine. She instead bought a run down apartment house on Prytania St. in Uptown New Orleans and commenced to renovating it. We would live in one apartment and rent the others out. We would survive on the rents and our social security check. She could then be her own boss and a stay at home mother.

The Machine never made me party to her struggles. Many nights I went to sleep with her sitting at the dining room table in front of  a stack of bills. She would often go to garage sales, buy things , and then flip them for a profit. If we needed carpet or furniture she would look for hotel liquidations. She battled everyday.

While not formally schooled she knew the importance of an education. Our conversations never included the phrase if I went to college but rather when I went to college. 

There were hard times. Having lost my dad the Machine focused on me a lot. She followed me around in the car, got involved in my playground disputes, and generally was making a kid grieving for his dad miserable. At one football practice as an eighth grader I had gotten into a fight with a sophomore. I had come to the rescue of  fellow eighth grader and now I was getting the worst of it. That is until I felt my opponent being lifted off of me. However it wasn’t a coach who saved me. It was the Machine, now proceeding to beat this kid senseless. I soon switched to basketball because our practices were closed.

I remember climbing onto the roof of St. Stephen’s Church. We would hide a kid in the confessional and then he would let us in. We would climb the stairs to the bell tower and then go out on the roof. Once up there we would watch my mom’s car circle the neighborhood looking for me. The constant surveillance became unbearable. In addition I was struggling in school. So I decided to leave home.

I enrolled in a seminary called St. Vincent De Paul. It was in Beaumont, Texas. The Machine agreed reluctantly to let me go but she she was determined to get me back home. In the mean time one of my grade school class mates had enrolled in a school called Metairie Park Country Day. It was one of the finest college preparatory schools in Lousiana, if not the country. After my friend approached my mother about me going there too The Machine went into action. She read about the school and visited with the Headmaster. She had decided I was going to go to school there, even if the school adminstration and myself still had to be convinced.

Country Day was and is exclusive but somehow I was accepted and I found myself coming home after being away almost three months. I played varsity basketball for three years and she missed a total of two games. My senior year we won the state championship and she cried like a baby. When it came time for me to pick a college she said that I was to go where ever I wanted and to let her worry about how we would pay for it. After I graduated from college I moved home and she promptly gave up our biggest apartment for me to live in rent free. I stayed there for six years. By the time I left I was married and had a son.

The Machine was always at her best during a crisis. When Hurricane Betsy destroyed our home,( yes we finally got a real house), in 1965 she was one of the first to go back in. Alone in a pirogue, passing looters in better equipped boats, she dove again and again into the filthy water retrieving items that were precious to her. The ordeal made her ill to the point wher she had to be hospitalized.When the water receded she was back at the house tearing out rotted sheetrock and pulling up carpet. We ended up being the first family on our block back in our house. Remember there was no flood insurance and no FEMA. She got it done, as my father was not strong enough to help much.

Her driving skills, or lack there of are legendary. One time in Naperville, Illinois we hit an embankment and went airborn. She had been trying to beat another car to a light. Other wrecks included plowing into the foot of the Greater New Orleans Bridge and getting spun around twice from a collision with a cab. She would tout that she was an “excellent driver” but I always had my hands over my eyes when I rode with her. She drove fast, always with a lit cigarette, and gave all forms of salutes to those who shared the road with her and got in her way.

The Machine’s interpersonal skills were a combination of sugar and cement. She was always bringing food to the 2nd District police station, our assessors office, and our city councilman. But she also had an acid tongue and quick fists.

One day as a young child I was riding in the back seat of our car. We were going down Decatur St. in downtown New Orleans heading towards Canal St. My grandmother was in the front seat. A car in front of us was driving slowly and pausing at every intersection even though there was no stop signs. My mother rolled down the window and leaned her head out the car. First came the sugar. “Darlin this is a thru street. You don’t have to stop at every corner.” The driver in front responded with a hand gesture that said my mother was Number One. Yeah he gave her the finger. Big mistake.

The Machine roared up behind the driver while his car was still paused at the corner. She jumped out the car and ran up to his window. Unfortunately for him his window was down. He turned his head and got a punch square in the face! You don’t like the sugar you get the cement! He hit the gas and peeled off! My mom then turned around and walked back to our car, which now had several vehicles lined up behind us. She stared back at them and not one car honked a horn. Upon getting in she began spewing numerous expletive deleteds about how no sorry so and so was going to give her the finger in front of her mother. I concluded that swearing must be confined to those you love.

One night years later I was playing cards with some friends in mom’s apartment. She enjoyed the company of  my friends and was always showing off and making jokes. On this night she decided to walk down to the convenience store two blocks away and get some milk. Now it was well after ten o’clock and we all offered to go for her but she would have none of it. 

A short time later she returned holding her plastic milk jug. It was empty and had a gash at the bottom. She informed us that at the corner on our block a mugger had confronted her. She said she kicked him in the groin and began beating him with the milk. Once he was down she then lectured him on why a young boy should not rob or steal.

We promptly flew from our seats and ran to the corner. Milk was everywhere but the mugger was gone. Getting beat up by a lady in her sixties was probably a bit much for him and we all concluded that he either gave up crime or committed suicide. The Machine wasn’t done. She came up behind us. She told us that she was going to make the convenience store replace her milk. And they did.

As tough as she was the Machine was very feminine and vain. Her voice bacame raspy over the years from cigarettes, age, and a lot of yelling. As such she was often mistaken for a man over the phone. When this happened, with as much dignity as she could muster I would hear her say ” Last time I looked in the mirror darlin I was a lady!”

The Machine was an incredible dancer. For years she would go to the Jefferson Orleans ballroom in Metairie and dance in their various contests. She swept all the big competitions and our little apartment was decorated with awards. However her favorite trophy was one given to her by my classmate and basketball teammate Mark Haynes. He worked at Security Sporting Goods and was so impressed with her dedication in attending our games that he had a trophy made declaring her Mother of the Year and presented it to her at our athletics banquet. 

The Machine and I had our differences. She was loud,harsh, and physical at times, but I never doubted her love. She could wield guilt like a sword and was very successful at scaring the hell out of many possible female relationships I might have been cultivating. But in the end she did what she was supposed to do. She sheltered her child, provided for him, and raised him to be ethical and moral.

She died in July of 2001. She had a heart attack a year or so earlier, having walked six blocks to the Touro Infirmary emergency room in one hundred degree heat once she started feeling chest pains. Two years later a nagging cough was diagnosed as lung cancer. But she went out fighting.

While in the hospital she blocked the door and started calling 911. The hospital called me and asked if I would intervene. I told them I would do my best. When I got on the phone she asked that I bring her home. When I explained I could not she told me where to go as only the Machine could. But she did unlock the door.

When she passed away she was one month shy of her seventy-eighth birthday. Her belongings in the end were modest. No heirlooms, no antique furniture, no expensive jewelry. I pulled her credit report to see if there were any debts that needed to be addressed. Her beacon score was 797. That is damn near perfect! This woman had survived on her own almost her entire life and not shirked one creditor, even while battling cancer. But she wasn’t done.

The Machine was very close to my oldest son. Both of my children are autistic but my oldest had a special bond with his Maw Maw. It was the first words he ever said and he loved going to her apartment, riding the streetcar, and visiting Audubon Park. Maw Maw always had treats for him, but given that he had a propensity for over eating she would hide them and parcel them out carefully to him.

My wife and I knew at some point we would have to bring M.C. to the apartment and explain as best we could that Maw Maw was gone. Upon arriving there it started badly. He went throught the entire apartment looking for her and once he could not find her he began calling her name. Then he began to cry. My wife and I were in agony ourselves, trying in vain to stop his tears. Then it happened!

He suddenly stopped crying and his head was cocked as if he was listening to something. In an instant a smile appeared on his face. He turned, went to a cabinet in the dining room, opened it, and began groping behind some jars stored in there. He suddenly produced a bag of tootsie roll pops! He pulled one out, unwrapped it, popped in his mouth, and put the bag back in the cabinet. From that point on we were able to come and go from the apartment with no problem.

Now you have to understand that my wife and I had gone through every nook and cranny of that apartment after she had passed, paricularly the cabinets and drawers,  and never found any candy. In addition my mother always hid sweets from M.C. , so he never knew where they came from when she did give them to him. But then I realized that nobody could tell the Machine what to do. With her grandson in distress apparently even the Creator decided it was best to let my mother have her way.

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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