My mother was born 95 years ago this month. She died twenty years ago. In this season of honoring mothers, I wish to honor her.
We didn’t have the kind of relationship that inspires men to tattoo, “Mother” on their upper arm. It’s not that our relationship was bad. It’s more like it was tertiary. My relationships with my authoritarian dad and my brother – who was my teacher, protector, and friend – took priority.
My mother was born two-and-a-half years before the Great Depression began. Though I am sure her family had to deal with its privations, they were probably better off than many of their peers. They had a farm in the hills of southern Kentucky, a rich vein of coal on their property, and acres of woods in which to hunt wild game.
My mother was a twin. She and her brother were the last of ten children. Her father died when she was nineteen. When, at the end of the war, her brothers and sisters moved north to find work, she went with them.
My mother waitressed in various restaurants in the Cleveland area, then moved to Florida for a time and waitressed there. In Florida, she did not receive a salary, just tips. I remember hearing that she had to pay the restaurant owner for the privilege of working. That didn’t last long and back to Ohio she moved.
She and an older brother opened a diner-type restaurant two doors down from my dad’s barber shop, and it wasn’t long before he invited her out. He took her to a nearby beach, which was a hangout for all the young people, and preceded to get soused. He disappeared and she didn’t see him again that evening. She had to get a ride home with someone else.
He later apologized and asked for the chance to make it up to her. They went out on a second date, and then a third. He eventually asked her to marry him, and she said yes.
I only learned about how he proposed after he died. According to my mother, he said: “If you’ll marry me, I’ll change.” When she told me this, I blurted out, “And you said yes? What were you thinking?”
Her life with my dad was undoubtedly trying. He did stop drinking, but things did not improve as quickly as we might have hoped. In fact, they got worse. Doctors diagnosed my brother with a terminal illness.
There followed a year-and-a-half of hospitalizations, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, fears, hopes, and more fears. And then my brother died. My family had no medical insurance at the time – my dad had impetuously quit the union weeks before the diagnosis – so my mother went to work in a local factory to help pay bills. I don’t remember ever hearing her complain.
My mother went through seventeen major surgeries, including an arterial transplant, cardiac bypass surgery, and a radical mastectomy. And then my dad, who had become a kinder, gentler man – indeed, an indispensable one – was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died, and she grieved.
Six years, one heart attack, and several surgeries later, my mother died. Her life never had been easy. Sometimes it was painfully difficult. As I think of her now, I think of a woman who resigned herself to life’s difficulties without complaining and without losing her determination to do right by others.
She became a woman of faith, trusting God despite her hardships. She never stopped loving my dad or me, though we both gave her reasons to do so. As she aged, her faith grew stronger. I have two of the Bibles she used, and her marginal notes reveal an intellect alive to God and to spiritual realities.
My wife and I were fortunate to be with her for the last week or two of her life. She kept her sense of humor. She remained thoughtful of others. She did not rage against the dying of the light, as she had not raged against the hardships of her life. She died with a peaceful mind, and with confidence in a better future.
She was and is worthy of honor, I am grateful to call her my mother.