My earliest memories of Mom were framed by the ’60’s. I’m not talking about the late 60’s, Vietnam, Nixon, Hippies, but the earlier post-war boom, rise of suburbia, shopping, passenger trains, cool cars, Beatles, Beach Boys, NASA, Kennedy’s, when everything seemed shiny, new and above all with promise.
She thrived in that era but didn’t choose sides. Not too conservative, nor too progressive, straddling the line, taking the good from each. Later, when the Hippies came into fashion, she borrowed stuff that she liked. Peace symbols, make love not war, happy faces, bell-bottom jeans, sandals (not the casual sex and drugs part). Again, the good stuff.
As the 60’s turned into the 70’s things changed. Some of that promise turned hard. Wars, political strife, etc, started to bring us down. Along with that Mom and Dad persevered, and tried to make the best of it, for all six of their children.
Some of those early memories, bringing home lizards, snakes, sometimes alive, sometimes dead. She didn’t much care for either. Those early days, with so many babies in the house, she was all business. I loved her, of course, but also sometimes feared her. I feared crossing paths either when in the wrong, or when she had a vacuum cleaner in hand.
Boy did she clean. The house made spotless on a daily basis. I didn’t appreciate how much work that was until later, after realizing I would never live up to her exacting standards in that regard.
Her care for us was near perfect. Every day before being sent off to school was a careful inspection. We were expected to have combed hair, brushed teeth, serviceable clothes, ample supplies in hand. Getting out that door was a business transaction and non-negotiable. That continued all the way until high school graduation. My last year, she literally dragged me out of bed on a daily basis. Would douse me with cold water if necessary. I Was Going To School. (Although I might not stay there). If there was a big ballgame, concert, play, recital, any kind of award, you can bet she’d make it. Same goes whenever trouble came. Trips to the principal’s office, tickets, citations, summons, tardies, unauthorized absences, always routed through her desk first.
In dealing with sickness or injury, it was under control. So many disasters, one of my siblings has made a career in the emergency management field, has literally written a book on the topic. With six active, willful, rambunctious kids, things sometimes went haywire. All the trips to the emergency room, with broken bones, teeth, dislocations, sprains, stitches, gashes, punctures, bites, concussions, black eyes and contusions. Trips to the fire station for help getting a finger, hand or foot dislodged and/or unstuck from a gate, pipe, railing or nut. There was jaundice, appendicitis, meningitis, flu, fevers, infections of endless varieties. Fist-fights, injuries on the playing field, and various corrective surgeries. Once even alcohol poisoning. That was her job. Dad only brought in when critical which thankfully was nearly never. She would have made a damn good doctor. Calm, collected, thorough, decisive. Could administer a cold compress (to suppress bleeding) with one hand, a baby in the other, all the while calmly conferring with a doctor on the phone.
She was attentive. When in conversation, it was about us. Never about her. Those stories we told her never got turned in her direction. She was happy to discuss it as thoroughly as we pleased. Never admonishing us for blabbing on or to get to the point. Even when at our worst, she always thought the best, and because of that, eventually, we were able to live up to those expectations.
She was that way with everyone. With Dad, she would happily watch him carry the room. That she did for most of her life. She stood in the background. An elegant presence.
I can remember one day, must have been 2nd or 3rd grade. She came to my classroom to bring cookies (or something). It was a HUGE deal and I was bursting with pride. The other boys, catcalled and hooted (which she ignored). Probably had on some kind of groovy dress, with stylish boots, hair was always perfectly done. This in Perry, Kansas, a town of 499 (491 after we moved away). A bit of Hollywood glamour in the middle of the cow pasture.
She excelled at everything and worked (out of the house) when we got older. One of her big questions, what if she hadn’t got married at a young age, continued past college into the workforce? My answer, she would have had a sensational professional career, if only born twenty years later.
As it was she flourished in things there was time for. Art was a particular strength, progressing to the point where she ran the art program for a local retirement community.
I was always proud of her, but I feared her judgement. In my teens, as I went through a rebellious phase, she approved of just a few friends. Those she did, I found out later were gold. Those she didn’t, not so much.
She did not suffer fools, everyone knew where they stood with her.
She and Tim came to our wedding. Just those two. It didn’t matter, having her (with Tim) was good enough for Cindy and me. Her endorsement rang clearer than a wedding hall of thousands.
And then when the babies started coming, she was there. Grandma on the train, my kids called her. In those early days, before Dad and she remarried, she’d come by Amtrak. The kids adored her. She was fabulous with them and we had such good fun.
Later, with Dad, it was more of the same. Always about us, never them. They brought strange and wonderful things. Once, a hamster, Goldenberg he was called. Fully outfitted with the hamster trails and what not.
But there was more. Bikes, toy trucks, dolls, puzzles, legos, books, clothes, and lots of love. We’d eat out, go to the park, zoo, hike, bike, bowl, swim, dig, dive, drink. Didn’t much matter where as long as we were together, it was all good.
In many of her last years was a dysfunction that slowly robbed her vitality. A GI tract ruined in a botched procedure, by an incompetent surgeon. Most of us (in the first world) eat too much and she could hardly at all.
Near the end, as her body wasted away, she soldiered on. Weight down to just 70 pounds and still a brave and dignified face. Making the most of what remained.
I feel cheated. We should’ve had another ten years. She held up her end of the bargain. The graduations, weddings, great-grandchildren that will never know.
But, the time we had was more than we could have asked for.