Posts Tagged ‘mothers’

My Mom

My mother on a camping trip to Zion National Park. She spent most of her time at a nearby motel but was always ready to sit around a campfire with her beer in the evenings. Afterward someone would drive her back to her warm room. This trip, by the way, became known as the camping trip from hell because we got rained on, snowed on,, our tents blew down, and half the park was closed because of a land slide. We all remember it fondly. — Photo by Pat Bean

 I was at the bedside of both my mother and father when they died. My father simply turned over and went to sleep, as if he couldn’t be bothered with dying any more than he was bothered with providing for his family during life.

He was a gentle man without any meanness, but his drinking and own affairs were always more important to him than being home for dinner or seeing that his growing children were adequately clothed. As a child, however, I adored my father and hated my mother. He never hit me and he spoke softly. I forgave him, even forgot the many times he failed to show up for me when promised, or the times I went to school with cardboard in my shoe to cover up a hole.

But I didn’t forget a single wrong my mom ever committed, not even if that failing was only in the mind of a stubborn, difficult child who defiantly wanted her own way. It was my mother’s screaming that woke me in the early morning hours when my father finally did straggle home. I would try to shut out the sound but my mother’s voice had a shrillness to it that penetrated deep beneath any pillow. 

My mother’s anger never seemed to cool. I still remember the time she threw a beer bottle at my dad and knocked him unconscious. I thought he was dead. The incident became part of our family’s history and everyone, including my dad, laughed when it was retold. Everyone that is but me.

I rarely saw my father. He was gone in the morning by the time I awoke. As long as I could remember he worked for the same auto body and paint shop in Dallas, but most or all of his weekly paycheck was long drunk up or gambled away by the time he made it home. Those payday Friday nights, usually early Saturday mornings, were the times my mother was at her worse.

By the time my father died, I had married, moved out state, and had children of my own. I was only 16 when I got married. My mother signed the papers for the marriage because I was a minor. Her consent left me thinking she was glad she no longer had the responsibility of an ungrateful, difficult child. I swore I would never be like her, and had high expectations I would now get the love I so craved. It was an illusion I stubbornly maintained for years and when the call came about my father’s stroke, I could no longer deny my marriage was in crisis.

I drove alone to see my father one last time, planning to use the solo drive as a time to sort out my life. Instead, I began to see my father in his true light and to get a glimmer of the demons that had so long plagued my mother. 

When I arrived in Dallas, my father was lucid, even joking although he was blue from lack of oxygen. He could hardly talk and coughed a lot. He mimed for a cigarette and I told him the doctor said he shouldn’t smoke. “To hell with the doctor,” he scribbled on a bedside pad. So, I held a cigarette to his mouth and he took a few puffs before motioning it away.

Two hours later he was dead. 

It was a very small funeral. Dad had come from a large family of 11 children but he had estranged himself from them. Even if we had located them, they might not have come. I sat through the funeral dry-eyed, remembering all the times this man had never been there for me.

There was no question that I loved my dad, but it was simply because he was my dad. Try as I would, I could not recall a single time he had ever walked across the street for me. My own children, who had stayed with him and my mom for two weeks once, had more of his attention than I did in 16 years. By then, however, he was sick and his gallivanting days over, and his boss had also started giving his paycheck to my mother.

My mother stayed with my dad to the very end, but I finally chose to end my own marriage. While I still had younger children to provide for, I walked away with nothing, preferring to start fresh with no ties to the past. I quickly found myself thinking of my mother in better and better light. It was she, I realized, who had held our family together, and she who had worked long hours to see that we children never went to bed hungry. She did it all under the most difficult of circumstances.

When I found myself a single parent, I had skills to fall back on as I had worked during my marriage. My dad wouldn’t let my mother work outside the home. Why she gave in to this pronouncement until after we kids were grown, I do not know. It was just one of her few concessions to the standards of society at the time. When she finally did go to work as a desk clerk for a laundry, my father joked that her job cost him more in taxes than she made.

 Not true of course, but it was a way for him to salve his macho image. Besides, for the first-time mother had a decent car and my parents were able to buy a home. Mother could squeeze a penny, when she had one, to the moon and back.

My early image of my mother was that of a small woman who smoked constantly, wore socks with high heels and had bad teeth. That appearance was shockingly different from a picture I found of her before she married my dad in 1938 when she was 23. She had been a secretary and in that photo was dressed to perfection with a neat cap of waved hair.

 I never knew that woman, and to my discredit I was ashamed of the woman she had become. I often hid notes that invited parents to school events. I know I hurt her feelings more than once, especially the time I told her I wanted to go live with her sister who wanted to adopt me because she couldn’t have children of her own.

When my grandfather died, my father moved us into my grandmother’s home over my mother’s protests. I was about 3 at the time and still an only child. My grandmother adored me but she and my mother, both strong-minded women, were often at odds. My mother put in long hours in a garden, then just as many hours in the kitchen canning its output. We lived on that bounty, along with the chickens and rabbits and pigs my grandmother raised. The work of taking care of them was just another chore loaded onto my mother. My father, of course, was never around. 

When my grandmother broke her hip, the job of taking care of her fell solely on my mother.

While we lived with my grandmother, my mother gave birth to two sons less than a year apart. Taking care of them with all of her other chores often left me to fend for myself. While I thrived on the freedom of being out from under my mother’s eye, I did a pretty poor job of dressing myself for school and my unkempt appearance prompted my schoolmates to accuse me of having cooties. Added to that was the fact I was a know-it-all brat. They called me Cootie Brain. It was a hurtful title that often made me cry. When I was much older and reading Anne Lamott’s book, “Bird by Bird,” in which she talks about having to be very careful during your early school days or you’ll find yourself being that kid standing alone by the fence, I realized I had been that kid. And that kid blamed it all on her mother.

The one thing my mother really enjoyed was crocheting. I don’t think I ever saw her sitting down without a crochet needle in her hands. She made potholders and afghans and laced and ruffled dollies, which she starched and ironed so they stood up like a picket fence To this day, I’ve never seen stitches so perfectly the same size as her tiny hands made.

It was my job, one of the few I had growing up, to take these handmade items around the neighborhood and sell them. I hated doing it but could never talk my way out of it, and so another stab of hate for my mother went into my personal pin cushion. I now understand that the small pittance she got for her crocheting usually went on food or clothes for us kids. After we had to move out of my grandmother’s home after she died, her crocheting, and my selling skills became even more important. We now had to pay rent and we had no garden, yet my father’s way of life did not change.

It was during this time that my mother had a miscarriage. The baby had been an accident but she was so hurt and sorry she had lost it that she immediately got pregnant again. I was 12 when my youngest brother, Richard, was born. He gave my mother more heartache than any of us other three children who amazingly were always straight A students and became self-sufficient at young ages.

Richard barely made it through school and afterwards would disappear for months. When he finally did show up, always down and out, Mother would always let him move back home, right up to the end when he died of AIDS. He had been a gay man during a time when the only way to survive was in a closet. Looking back, I now believe that he was the best of us siblings. I never heard him say a single bad word about anyone.

I, however, saw little of either my mother or brother because I lived out of state. And when I did see my mother, once or twice a year, I was perfectly polite to her and hid my true feelings behind a false front, because I at least had the decency to be ashamed of them.

But at some point, I realized my own children adored my mother. I had never told them about my own childhood or what I considered my unnatural hatred of my mother. This left them free to see her with a clean slate. They came to love her because she cooked special dishes for them when we visited, because she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, because she didn’t talk down to them and because she asked nothing from them. My mother never asked anything of anybody. She was a fiercely proud woman who kept her own counsel.

I was nearly 40 before all the hatred in my heart for my mother melted into love. I realized that all the time I had spent determined to be as opposite of my mother as possible had been in vain. I had vowed that my children would never suffer the same hurts, or feel as unloved as I had been. Instead, they suffered different kinds of hurts and pains, some of them because I hadn’t been strong like my mother.

Toward the end of her life, my mother lived 1,500 miles away because my work had taken me to Utah. At my insistence she began coming to visit for a month in summer and a month at Christmas. During those times I tried to make up for all the hurts I had inflicted on her in my younger days. She loved Jackson Hole and the Tetons in Wyoming, and since they were only a few hours away from my home, we went there every summer. My mother, being who she always was, sometimes even threatened not to come unless I promised to take her.

When she visited, I made sure she had a beer at 10 a.m. and one at 4 p.m., which was her daily limit as well as her established habit. My mother was still no angel and could get cranky as hell if she missed her beer, or heard a barking dog, or a mailman interrupted her nap, or her favorite baseball team, The Texans, lost a game. I think her day wasn’t complete if something hadn’t annoyed her. It meant she had something to tell me the second I walked in the door from work.

My friends, like my kids, came to adore her. She was a 99-pound package of uniqueness that defied conformity. There even came a day when I realized her frequent rants and raves amused more than irritated me. 

The last Christmas she came for a visit my youngest son, Mike, escorted her on the plane because of her frailty. Even so, she wouldn’t agree to be transported to the airplane’s door by wheelchair. It hurt her pride to even have to use a cane. I instinctively knew this visit would be her last and became determined not to let her return to her home in an Illinois assisted living facility. Before she arrived, I fixed up my guest bedroom to meet her needs and did all in my power to convince her to stay. One day she agreed. I breathed easier.

The next three months we settled into a routine. Before I left for work, I would fix her coffee and try to get her to eat something and urge her not to forget lunch, which often she did. On returning home, she would greet me with some complaint and in the same breath ask if I was up to a game or two. Usually it was Yahtzee, Rummy or Scrabble. Although my mother’s body was giving out, her mind stayed sharp to the end. On weekends I would usually take her for a drive but the last month of her life even that was too much for her.

Then came the day I returned home from work and found her lying on the living room floor. She had fallen and couldn’t get up. With my help, she limped into bed. I fixed her some dinner and brought it to her but she said she wasn’t hungry. She had bumped her head when she fell and I asked her if perhaps we shouldn’t take her to the emergency room and have it checked out. Looking me straight in the eye, and using her shrill voice as loudly as she could still manage, she said: “No doctors! No hospital!” 

I agreed and sat with her until she fell asleep. I stayed up late worrying about what I was going to do. I knew she shouldn’t be left alone any more but I still had to go to work. When I went in to check on her in the middle of the night, I discovered her again lying on the floor. She had tried to get up to go to the bathroom. She was now a dead weight in my arms and could barely talk. I spent the remainder of the night sitting in a chair and wondering what to do. It was the loneliest time of my entire life.

When morning came, I phoned a visiting nurse agency and then called my oldest son’s wife, whom I knew would have the word spread as fast as an eye blink. When the nurse came, she explained my options: Take my mother to the hospital, keep her home but put her on intravenous feeding, or simply do nothing. I chose the latter, knowing that my mother would haunt me to the end of my days if I did either of the other two. She had been a sickly child and all her life she had hated needles.

Mike, my son who had escorted my mother to Utah, was at my house by noon. He heard the last words his grandmother spoke. She looked at this favored grandchild who had always understood her and said; “It’s time.” Shortly after, she went into a coma from which she never woke.

 My brother, Robert, arrived that evening and my oldest daughter, Deborah, the next day. She and I daily bathed my mother and often tried to coax a little water down her throat. Toward the end, the visiting nurse said not to offer the water unless she asked for it. It was becoming clear that my mother’s body, if not its will to live, had already died.

  My friends, her friends, popped in and out for the next eight days. We played the card games which mother had always loved and we laughed and talked about the woman whose every struggled breath echoed throughout the house. Her son, grandson and granddaughter took turns sitting up with her at night, until the last one. That night I sat with her, often finding myself matching my breath with the labored one of my mother’s. The stubborn determination of her frail body to keep breathing was a final testament to the strength that had propelled her through a difficult, hard life. As I sat by her side, I realized every strength within me came from this small woman.

Mother lingered through the night but we all knew the time was close. A game of cards was in progress in the dining room when something compelled me to get up and go to her side. As I stood there, her bony hand in mine, the room suddenly became quiet.

I have missed her every day of my life since.

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 “A woman is like a tea bag, you can not tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” – Nancy Reagan.

Travels With Maggie

Photo of my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother with my grandmother, Iva Mae, on the left, and her younger sister on the right. I never met any of these people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother, my mother’s mother and the only grandparent I ever knew. She died when I was 11. Now, for some strange reason, all the things I don’t know about this person, the only one in my young life whom I was sure loved me, frustrates me.

The little I do know of Mamie Truesdale Lee, who died in 1950, is that she divorced her first husband, for which the Catholic Church excommunicated her, then later married my grandfather, Charles Forrest Lee, who died when I was only two years old. My mother tells me he was gentle man and that I inherited my love of travel from him, that and my middle name of Lee, which is why I dubbed my RV Gypsy Lee.

But it’s my grandmother’s spirit, the person who they say made bathtub gin during prohibition, and the tiny spitfire of a women who was my mother, Kathryn Lee Joseph, that travel with me and Maggie

The two stuffed birds I've named to remind that I come from strong women stock when Maggie and I are traveling down the road. The condor on the left is Mamie, after my grandmother, and the chickadee on the right is Kathryn after my mother. And yes, it's OK if you want to laugh at my foolishness. I have tough skin. I came by it honestly. -- Photo by Pat Bean

Both of them were strong women who survived tough times and fought the genteel images society expected of them in their days. To remind me of the female strength in my genes, I have reminders on my dashboard to help me through travel emergencies, like a blown tire, or a snowy, slick canyon road.

Laugh if you will, it’s OK. But the reminders are stuffed birds – ones with squeakers that imitate their calls. There’s a condor, purchased at Idaho’s wild Birds of Prey Sanctuary, named Mamie because my grandmother was a large imposing woman. And then there’s a stuffed Chickadee named Kathryn that I found at a Yellowstone National Park gift shop. Chickadees are tiny, but loud, and that is how I best remember my mother.

I started thinking about my grandmother a week or so ago when my son, Lewis, who lives in Texas, sent me a picture of my father’s mother and her mother, both of whom had died before I was born. He’s been researching our family history, and was all excited about the discovery.

I started this blog to tell you about these two women, but then I realized that I had nothing to say because all I know about them is what I can seduce from the photograph my son sent me. While it does stir my imagination, I find the story of the son of a Portuguese sailor who jumped ship in New England and propagated my Texas roots more fascinating.

Tune in tomorrow for that story.

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