This is not the post I intended to write this week. I was in a store and noticed Mother’s Day cards and thought, with a sigh, “it’s that time again.” My mother passed away 7 years ago, and I’m not a mother (except to dogs), so Mother’s Day is usually a non-occasion. This post is a tribute to my mother, with whom I had a “complicated” relationship for most of my life, and parts of this post were written and delivered by me at her memorial service. Since I am an only child and never had children of my own, it took me years to understand why we just didn’t seem to connect. It was only in the last few years of her life, after my father died, when I was her primary caregiver, that we became closer and began to appreciate each other’s strengths and quirks.
My mother’s purpose in life was to make others’ lives more comfortable, safer and healthier. It was that simple and that profound. Everything she did was for others. Even when she was close to death, she awoke one morning at 4 a.m., asked me what I was doing there and told me sternly to go home and get some rest so I wouldn’t get sick.
Her childhood was an interesting one. Until she was 10, she and her brother boxed in local vaudeville shows. She would convince him before the shows to fake the punches, then hit him hard once they got into the ring. He never seemed to catch on. She entered St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. It turned out to be the perfect career for her, although at the time she just wanted steady work that would provide extra income for her parents. After graduation, she worked as a private duty nurse and assistant supervisor on children’s ward; she sent home most of the $45 a month she earned. Before antibiotics were invented, many children died in her arms, so when I came along, she lived in fear that I would die, and every little ache became cause for alarm.
She met my father on a blind date and married him in 1942. She continued to work for a surgeon who kept long office hours, doing triple duty as his nurse, bookkeeper and personal assistant. My father finally made her quit because he said he didn’t mind cooking dinner but was tired of eating alone. She never returned to paid work, but nursed everyone in the family; she was almost never sick.
When I came along she threw herself into being a mother, homemaker and world class worrier. As a child I was sick a lot and very skinny, so my mother made nonstop attempts to fatten me up and send me outside to play in the sun. My cousin and I nicknamed her the “eagle eyed food pusher” because she was so relentless about everyone getting enough to eat.
Mother never learned to drive, despite numerous permits, so when the weather was bad, she would walk to the school grounds to make sure I had an umbrella and other foul weather gear. Of course, the other kids made fun of both of us. She kept doing this until I was a senior in high school, and one day I had had enough. It was raining hard, and I knew she’d be waiting for me on the corner so I ran home another way and left my mother standing there getting soaked. When she got home she was really angry and vowed never to do that again, even if I drowned—and she didn’t. I’m not proud of my behavior that day.
She had a passion for antiques. She and her sister went to auctions in the 1950s and bought dishes and furniture with pocket change. In her later years she delighted in staying up past midnight to watch the Antiques Road Show on TV so she could tell me how much her 25 cent chair was now worth.
She loved to entertain guests so they could enjoy her baking and homemaking skills. Mother was a perfectionist when it came to baking cookies and pies, and I still remember her throwing out piles of pie dough that didn’t come out right, or calling the local dairy about a cream that wouldn’t whip. She was horrified when I showed no interest in baking. Sometimes, however, antiques and entertaining were not a good mix. Once when we hosted the church youth group, one of my friends sat on a delicate cane chair and broke it. He was very embarrassed even though my mother assured him she could have it repaired.
Sewing was another of my mother’s passions; she bought material like some women buy shoes. The only thing she ever bought for herself was a new sewing machine. The salesman came to the house and was showing us how it zigged and zagged when a bat came out from behind the dining room shutters and began flying around the room. Mother and I screamed and ran out the back door, leaving the poor salesman to deal with the bat. He finally chased it outside and Mother bought the sewing machine because she thought it was the only fair thing to do, considering what she had put him through.
I’m sure over the years Dad and I tried her endless patience with our ambitions and passions that she didn’t share. She silently endured the abused horse Dad and I bought when I was 10, his 1949 Jeepster (in which we would drive around town with the top down, waving at everyone), the travel trailer they hauled to Florida several times, his dance band gigs most weekends to pay for my college, my ongoing dinner table debates with Dad—which she would interrupt by urging us to eat before our dinners got cold, my summer in France at 16. Her friends were amazed she let me go on that trip; she spent most of the summer crying, particularly after I wrote her to send my clothes because I had decided to stay. She put her foot down and told me to come home.
She reluctantly said good-bye when I moved to Baltimore in 1974 and was surprised when, 2 years later, at the age of 27, I announced that I was getting married. She thought I would be single forever. When we married, she didn’t lose a daughter, she gained another patient to nurse and feed. She and Dad would arrive at our house with numerous bags of food because my mother was convinced we would starve otherwise; it took my husband a while to understand that her gifts had nothing to do with his breadwinning ability. Once, they arrived when my husband and I had the stomach flu and he was on crutches from an injury. Mother wanted to stay and take care of us but was afraid my father would get sick also, so they left for Florida and she cried halfway there. When my husband had a cardiac arrest in 1998, she immediately came to the hospital and took charge because I was in shock.
Her favorite expression was “I must have gotten the wrong baby at the hospital because you don’t look or act anything like me.” She would wring her hands over my housekeeping skills and attempt to put things in order when she stayed at our house. She once proudly announced upon our return from a trip that she had cleaned out our refrigerator and thrown out “those old dried up things in the jar,” which were sun-dried tomatoes.
She nursed Dad through many illnesses and kept him alive far longer than if she had not been a tireless advocate for him. One time when he was in the hospital, she was running to get back to his room from the cafeteria and fell. She was in her 80s at the time and the hospital staff insisted she go to the ER to be checked out. She told them in no uncertain terms she was not leaving Dad until I showed up to watch him so he wouldn’t get out of bed and fall.
The two shows my mother watched most often on TV, other than the news, were “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune”. The last week of her life, when she was in a nursing facility, she was watching these in her room and loudly belting out the correct answers, much to her roommate’s astonishment. She remained mentally vital right up to the time of her death.
Although I’m an only child, Mother had many children and grandchildren. She was a second mother to my cousins and their families. She insisted on going shopping to buy candy and toys for friends’ and neighbors’ children for Christmas, Easter, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. She was “grandma” to several of our dogs through the years and loved to doggy sit when we went on trips. When she moved to an assisted living facility, she adopted the staff and would talk to them late at night and feed them homemade cookies.
She and I grew much closer in the last few years of her life when I helped her clean out her home and move to assisted living. It was a painful time for both of us; she knew her life was narrowing and accepted it with grace and strength. It was a privilege to care for her and give back at least a small portion of what she gave to me. I realized, almost too late, what a remarkable woman she was. Mother always wanted me to be a nurse, and she finally got her wish in those last months. A few days before she died she wanted to know, “Who will care for you when you’re old?” I can only hope it’s someone with my mother’s compassion and gentle spirit.
I closed her eulogy with this poem, which faithfully captures my mother’s heart and my family’s perception of her:
by Margaret Widdemer
She always leaned to watch for us
Anxious if we were late,
In winter by the window,
In summer by the gate.
And though we mocked her tenderly
Who had such foolish care,
The long way home would seem more safe,
Because she waited there.
Her thoughts were all so full of us,
She never could forget,
And so I think that where she is
She must be watching yet.
Waiting ‘til we come home to her
Anxious if we are late
Watching from Heaven’s window
Leaning from Heaven’s gate.
Originally published at marywilsonsblog.wordpress.com