Ronnie Polaneczky: Woman offers slice of kindness for cellar victim

Jodi Mallon, outside the Tacony house where four people were locked up in a basement, is on a mission to bake a birthday cake for victim Derwin McLemire.
Jodi Mallon, outside the Tacony house where four people were locked up in a basement, is on a mission to bake a birthday cake for victim Derwin McLemire. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 25, 2011

JODI MALLON called with a strange request. She needed to find out where the rescued men and women of the Tacony house of horrors were staying. Because she wanted, badly, to bake a cake for victim Derwin McLemire.

Like anyone with a working heart, Mallon had recoiled at reports of the torment that mentally disabled adults and children endured at the hands of monsters allegedly ring-led by Linda Ann Weston. The breadth of the sadism left Mallon, a sales assistant at Dietz & Watson, too numb to cry.

Until she saw McLemire interviewed on TV. He had moved into Weston's Florida home a year ago, and he described a life of hell. He'd been beaten, locked in a closet. And he'd been left to heal on his own after a dog - one of Weston's, he said - chewed off half his ear. After Weston moved her alleged satanic operations to an apartment house in Tacony, McLemire was chained to a boiler pipe in the basement. That's where he was found during last week's rescue.

By then, McLemire had so thoroughly lost track of time, he didn't know that a significant day was upon him.

"I have a birthday coming up Friday, and I didn't know it was coming up," McLemire, through tears, told a CBS3 reporter after he was safe in a personal-care home, far from that fetid dungeon.

"I'll be 42," he said softly.

When Mallon saw the news report, she lost it. McLemire thought of the vagrants she and her kids saw on the street.

"You have to have compassion," Mallon, 45, would tell her son and daughter. "You don't know their story. Do you think, when they were little, they wanted to grow up to be homeless? Every one of us started out as someone's baby, full of promise."

The way McLemire had. And he deserved a cake in recognition of the day all that hope and potential burst into the world, no matter what had happened in the years since.

Mallon didn't even care that, by the time she contacted me yesterday, McLemire's birthday had already passed. Belated wishes are as good as on-time ones in her kind, inclusive view of the world.

It comes as no surprise that honoring birthdays is Mallon's passion. It was born seven years ago, when she joined Dietz & Watson. One day, she made a birthday cake for a co-worker. Then, as another worker's birthday approached, she felt responsible to whip up a confection for that person, too.

"Once you do for one, how can you not do for another?" Mallon asks.

And so, like yeast, her birthday project expanded. Now, she bakes about 60 cakes a year, using a 2-by-2-foot pan so everyone gets a wedge. She keeps a birthday calendar that includes the cake preference of each honoree. Chocolate is an obvious favorite, followed by carrot and banana. But so is something called "Jell-O Cake" - a crowd-pleaser infused with liquid Jell-O that firms up and is then topped with Cool Whip - that gets scarfed before the candle smoke clears.

"They're not fancy at all," she says. "I use box mixes except for the banana. But everyone seems happy with them."

The birthdays for the pitiable victims mattered only as proof of identity, so that Weston could cash their government checks, as police allege. Mallon hopes that baking McLemire a cake will return his birthday to its rightful purpose: an acknowledgment that his life matters.

Mallon didn't know how to contact McLemire, so I tracked him down for her. Sadly, though, a spokesman for the personal-care home where he'd been staying said that McLemire is now in the hospital. He didn't share anything beyond that.

Together, Mallon and I will find McLemire. We'll give him Mallon's cake, and we will sing. His life is complicated and heartbreaking, and God only knows if it will ever feel normal to him.

But the most normal thing in the world is to celebrate your birthday.

It's a start.


Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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