Pondering Mothers on Mother’s Day

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Or at least, pondering my mother (that’s her above, with me, a photo taken by my father). She lived to be eighty years old. She gave birth to me, her third and last child, when she was 35. My two brothers, one sixteen years older and one eleven years older than me, both from a different father than mine, I barely knew until I was an adult.  She loved me. I do know that. And she did her best to raise me, not just let me scramble on my own. And I loved her and I still miss her in many ways.

And it wasn’t easy for her. I wasn’t easy for her. My father died when I was eleven and my happy childhood – and it was happy – disappeared at just that moment. My mother loved him enough to change her life for him and her fury and chagrin and misery at his death never really left her. She was 46, she was homeless (although I didn’t realize it at the time), and she was desperate. That summer, my father had quit his job and my parents had put all our things in storage. We took a long driving vacation, ending in Wisconsin where we stayed with friends in the town of Appleton. My dad’s plan was to go back to the University (at Madison) and get his Ed.D. To this day I have no idea what my mother really thought about that idea, but pondering it now, it can’t have been fully what she wanted even if she agreed. I don’t have any inkling that she didn’t agree. She and Daddy had a lot of fights – more like spats, I’d say now looking back – and they both seemed to enjoy the process. A friend of mine now, after I’d described my memory of one of the occasions of watching Daddy watch Mama slamming around the kitchen, laughed and said “foreplay”. Being ten at the time and it was an innocent time, I had no idea, but listening to my friend laughing, I realized that must have been so. They deeply and physically loved each, but I would bet now, looking back, that Mama spent a lot of her time being talked into something she probably didn’t really want to do. That reads way too strangely in our modern day awareness of coercion and abuse. As carefully and objectively as I can (which isn’t very of course, I was a child and a happy child of happy parents), I don’t see my mother putting up with anything, nor my father insisting on anything that wasn’t positive and good. That said, my memories seem to center around my father proposing, creating, organizing – deciding – and my mother reacting, negatively, positively, having some but not much veto power, and finally and often being happy the way things turned out because she agreed with my father’s ideas.

But of course not that time. The damned fool hadn’t listened to his doctors, and up and died on her, of a sudden heart attack (okay, there are mostly no un-sudden heart attacks), left her, an eleven-year-old daughter, and a dog stranded in Appleton, Wisconsin, staying with friends that, face it, weren’t that good friends, and no actual clue what to do. He didn’t have a will, he didn’t have insurance, there was some money in savings and he had a military pension that stopped when he died. Face it, as both my mother and I had to  do over time, although I think we both resisted with all our might and main, my father was a grasshopper, a dreamer, a feckless happy man who was convinced that everything would work out. And it always did – until it didn’t.

My eldest brother, then an adult with a good job in San Diego, took leave, flew with us to Washington, D.C. for my dad’s funeral at Arlington, and then drove us back to Colorado. And then my mother had no blooming idea what to do.

What she did was find us a house to rent in Estes Park (cheaper rent for more and better space than any other place she looked) and got the furniture out of storage (the movers had come before she’d been able to defrost and scrub the refrigerator and I remember our mutual horror when we opened the damned thing in the new house), and set up to begin a new and very unwelcome life without the central reason for living her life.

Looking back now, I’m startled to realize it never occurred to me until today to wonder why she didn’t go “home”, back to Oneida, New York, where she’d lived until after WWII, married once, where her sons were born, where her father still lived. Or back even further, to her relatives in Richmond, Virginia. Why did she strike out all alone, except for a sullen daughter and a spoiled cocker spaniel, to a new home in a place of happy memories (Daddy had loved visiting Estes Park and it had been a favorite picnic destination, but so far as I know, he didn’t have any idea of ever living there) where she literally didn’t know a soul. There is so much about my mother, about her thoughts and dreams and plans, I never knew.

And that is a lot to ponder on this Mother’s Day. Does it mean that with childhood selfishness (and later, adolescent angst) I simply assumed she was on this earth to be my mother, to keep me from doing stupid (or wonderful, sometimes) things, bedevil and nag me, insist I learned what she felt to be important for a young lady to know? Or does it mean that in spite of her voluble tongue and her quick and verbally violent temper, she never really revealed, at least to me, what she deeply felt about it all. It feels like a combination of those, and I suppose it was. It wasn’t until after her death that I found out from a friend of hers that she had spent all the years in between 46 and 80 in a rage at God and at my father for dying. It made perfect sense. She and I had talked when I was growing up and after I’d grown up (sort of) that she had met my father when she was fifteen, that her mother (interesting, that, isn’t it? she never mentioned father ever having any say in her life except for the unforgivable moment when she did marry and her father refused to let her take any money at all into the marriage) forbade her from seeing him because he was unemployed (and this was the depths of the Great Depression), and that she, in spite and fury, married the next man who asked her just to get out of the house.

Odd isn’t it how generations repeat? Her mother had done the exact same thing, married my grandfather, and they definitely lived unhappily ever after, or at least until my grandmother died, tragically, of peritonitis when she was 38. Thirty-eight! And my mother couldn’t then even have what her mother had forbidden her to have – she was married to someone else, with a son, and my father had gone back into the army, and in a spite of his own, married someone else. So there they were, stuck. At least for a while.

During the war years, my mother and her first husband became estranged for reasons she never explained, and my dad came back into her life. I have a bracelet he bought for her in Persia (Iran now) – he was stationed there as an officer of the Quartermaster Corps helping to build a highway across Iran to get materiel to Russia during the buildup to D-Day. The bracelet was inscribed “Mary”, and “Art” (their names), and the year 1943. She never explained the bracelet either and oddly she never wore it, but it stayed among her treasures where I found it after she died. In any event, in 1946, she got a Nevada divorce, Daddy divorced his then wife, and they married. After his retirement from the Army, they moved to San Francisco where they had an apartment in the same building as Daddy’s brother Jack and he planned to go to some college there with an eventual idea of going to law school. He had been retired from the Army for permanent disability resulting from wounds he suffered in a Bedouin attack. I’m leaving so much out of this account, but it’s a book, not an essay – and that’s only the parts I know.

I was born two years later (I’ll let my readers do the math) when they lived in Greeley, Colorado. What happened between those two places and times I’m unsure of, although my brother David, who lived with them until he was eighteen and went to college and later joined the Navy, has some wonderful stories about those years after a glass of wine or three . . . .

In any event, my dad wanted to get an education and he had finally decided he wanted to teach, and so the three of them and a cocker spaniel moved to Greeley. He went to the then titled Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado, but it is now and was then the state “normal” school – that is, the college that was designed by the legislature to train and educate future teachers), and that’s where my brother went to his last year of high school and his first year of college before transferring to Colorado University in Boulder, and that’s where I was born, while my parents were living on his Army pension and while he established residency and was earning his BA in Education. After he got his MA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (my first memories are from living there), he started his career as a high school principal at the high school in Evans, which is a smaller town just outside of Greeley. We lived there so happily, simple family life with a cocker spaniel (there was always a cocker spaniel, just not always the same one), sitting down to dinner at six, bedtime for me at 7:30, picnics in Estes Park, trips to the A&W Drive-In after supper for a root bear float, drive-in movies, me running wild in the summertime. A red letter day always when David visited, first from the Navy and then later from his time getting his own MA in mathematics at Colorado University. We were happy.

And I remember my mother being truly happy to be a housewife (this is definite – she never liked working outside the home), sewing, cooking, reading (constantly), reading to me (constantly), insisting I practice my piano (I hated practicing, I was a fidgety child), house training the pup, being chivied by my dad into going to school (we were back in Greeley, so to CSCE) to get her BA (he did that by saying he knew she couldn’t do it, which made her mad). I remember her teaching me to cook and to sew, I remember the time I was whining about having to practice and she said she’d practice for me if I did the ironing for her and I called her bluff. (I discovered but was too stubborn to admit that I hated ironing worse than practicing the piano, with the results that she probably had in mind: I learned how to iron really damned well (although I never liked it and haven’t ironed anything in years) and I learned the real lesson, that if you don’t practice, you get Hail Columbia from your piano teacher, which is no fun.) That also had the unexpected benefit of her getting back to playing the piano and singing popular songs with Daddy.

She loved getting lots of presents on any present-giving occasion, and since they never had any real money, Daddy managed by getting multiples of small things. Sheet music for songs they both loved from the movies was one of those multiples, and I still have sheaves of old songs transposed (is that the proper word?) for the piano, with lyrics.

Was it idyllic? I have no idea. I was happy, Daddy was blissful being with her, and I know she loved him, but I found out much later how much guilt she carried around about the choices she made – both to marry somebody else while still loving him and to leave her then husband to be with my daddy.

I have so much more to say, mostly about the choices she made after he died, choices that put security first (never Daddy’s priority) and led to her marrying a third time, choices about what was best for me, which never seemed to be aligned with what I wanted or, as it turned out, genuinely needed to be the best possible me – I’m still working on that. And about that deep rage and sorrow she always carried with, let’s be honest here, so much grace. She had that. Grace. And she was charming. Everybody said so even if a daughter wasn’t likely to see it or appreciate it. And I did finally see that, not in photographs (she did not photograph well and hated having her picture taken), but in how friends, acquaintances, strangers would simply light up in her presence throughout her life. And she was tough in a very lady-like way, making decisions, not going home to her family (even though she never could understand why I never came home to her after great pieces of my life fell apart), making the best of things, and never letting on (that was the Southerner in her) any of the ugly little secrets best kept swept under the rug.

And she was ruthless sometimes. In order to be with my Dad without having to have her choice made public (in New York at that time, the only grounds for divorce was adultery, not even insanity or abuse could get you out of a marriage, which led to many people making up things to get divorced), which she could not have borne, she agreed that her then husband could have custody of the children so long as he agreed to her getting a Nevada divorce. My brother David was asked by the court and told the court he wanted to stay with our mother, but my brother Robert was too young and stayed with his father. Or so I was told. She and Robert (called Chaz) never connected until his father had died and he was into adulthood. He wrote her and that started a correspondence (he and David had maintained a connection over the years, thank heavens), but Chaz and our mother never actually met – the guilt cut her too deeply. But she made the choice and she lived with it.

She cut my father’s family completely out of her (and thus my) life after Daddy died, and she more or less lost contact – and the choice was hers – with most of her family. She made up her mind and she refused to look back until she was old and the anger and sadness she had lived with silently sometimes overwhelmed her. She was ruthless with herself too. I’ll close this exceedingly partial (in both senses of the word) essay with the close of her life. She was sick and tired, as she tried to laughingly put it, of being sick and tired. She’d had it. She was hospitalized once again for the always recurring hiatal hernias that plagued her last years, and simply would not put up with it. The on-call doctor and the nurses told me after she died that she had simply pulled the IVs out of her arm and folded her hands and turned her face to the wall and willed herself to die. I didn’t make it back to Estes Park in time to say goodbye and that was so damned hard. But I guess she knew I would have done my damnedest to talk her out of dying and she didn’t want to live any more. She didn’t see the point and she cut to the chase as she always did.

And now, pondering on this Mother’s Day the mother she was, the mother she wanted to be, and the mother I wanted her to be and never really got, that she was far more complex as a human being than I was ever able to see. I don’t really have the resources to find out what was in her heart all that time, only the resources to find out the facts that can be found on paper and in records, and that’s, I realize more and more, not at all who she was. On this Mother’s Day, I salute and remember with tears and a little laughter and a lot of complicated love, the mother she was, the woman she was, the human being she was, and wish with a heartfelt longing that I could actually know who she was.

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4 responses

  1. Has there ever been a mother-daughter relationship that was not fraught? I know of only one person who has a great relationship with her mother. Sigh. Happy belated Mother’s Day.

  2. I didn’t know anything about Mama’s first husband except that he existed. Mama and Daddy knew well how welcome a previously divorced couple would be in a small Colorado town with him applying to be a high school principal, so I didn’t actually know Mama’s first husband existed until I was seventeen. Sometimes Chaz (who grew up with him) tells me a bit, but it’s still awkward. We’re getting there and I got a lovely response from Chaz to my post. OM could hear very little and really couldn’t take part in conversation. I remember those lovely dinners well, too. LOTS of conversation in that nice dining room. I remember sitting over coffee and usually pie for hours!

  3. What memories. Cathartic, I suspect, for you to write. I heard you tell stories of your Dad, but do not recall anything about Mary’s other husband. Of course, we knew “O” although I do not recall him talking much!

    We remember well those wonderful dinners she prepared, and the “secret” bottle of Chivas Regal she kept hidden in the buffet just for me! At least I know of no one else who partook of that nectar.

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