We all have stories of our moms. If things go right they are the first to nurture us. We are totally helpless when we enter this world and our mothers are the first bringers of food, smell, touch, and sound we become accustomed to. But we knew them even before we took our first gasp for air in this world. We were held inside of them for nine months and through a glass darkly we were able to perceive their lives and even their characters.
My mother’s mother had died from childbirth complications when she was ten on Mom’s birthday. Her little brother, whom she loved dearly, would share her birthday. But now birthday cakes and celebrations would always have an after-taste of grief over the loss of a mother who died way too young. Her father, as was customary in that day in the rural areas, buried his first wife and left to go to town to find his second wife. He was a farmer and though he loved his children, he knew nothing about how to care for them.
He brought home the woman I would know as Grandma. She would always be to my mother a second class mother. It would have been disloyal to her birth mother to make her more than that. And Grandma would have her two children. Try as Grandma might even if she was not biased, my mother would always look for the slights to her and the favoritism to her half-brother and sister. My mother would hold a place of grief for the mother she lost for the rest of her life.
She loved her father and clung to him mightily. He was the source of her feeling of place in the world. She lived her life to please him. She picked cotton, fed the hogs, shucked the corn, checked the chicken houses. She also was homecoming queen and valedictorian of Horton High School. She was a looker said all the boys in the class but she was also going places. None of them, try as they might, could catch her eye.
It took the tall, forever boyish Marine to sweep her off her feet. They were going places. Horton would always be home but they were going out into the big wide world to stake their claim. He would become a military bodyguard for Jackie Kennedy, serve in two wars, become a decorated hero, and in his day a legendary soldier. The military life was different from the farm. Washington DC made life big for someone who grew up on a farm in a community with less than five hundred people in it. They may have lived in small military apartments but they were close to the corridors of power.
Life went on for her; she became a mother. Three boys who were the pride of her life. But death always lurked around the corners of her life. Her older brother Dean, who drank too much, shot and killed himself. Suicide was a forbidden topic. By the time she knew better than to obey those social mores she had nothing to discuss only a puncture in her heart. Her father had an unexpected heart attack in his sixties. The farm would be sold to her half-sister and her husband. They would lose the homestead as farming became a way of life that had come and gone for most. Her home was lost forever. The last place her mother could be found was now only in her childhood memories.
She was the good military wife. They made friends; he regaled her with stories of his Drill Sargent day. She raised three boys who would be her gift to the world. She taught Sunday School for couples and would be the guide for them through hard times. One even would live with us for a few months as she divorced her husband. Everyone was amazed at her compassion and her wisdom. She would run a daycare out of the church that helped financially struggling families. The daycare became so popular people who had financial withal wanted entry. She fought and kept the place for those who were struggling.
She ran restaurants. At one time she and Dad ran four different food businesses at the same time. Everyone sought her out. She was the life of the party. She was the nurturer and she was the wisdom. My friends would come to my house after dates and we would play cards. If we did not have enough players for a game or sometimes even if we did they would demand I awake her to play with us. They loved her. Everyone sought her out.
She was a conservative Christian. Yet she lived to not judge. She did not agree with the gay life of her employee but was determined to treat her fair. Mom made her manager even after she was alerted by concerned citizens of the employee’s gayness. She thought gayness was a sin but God was the judge not her. She was to love her neighbor as herself.
She kept a strong faith in life and God despite the Vietnam War delivering her a broken husband, who would wake up in the night screaming in anger or terror. A broken husband who would have a scandalous affair that broke her heart. A broken husband who would disappear without a trace for a few months. A detective and some unusual phone calls led to her finding him in a small trailer in rural Arkansas. He was broken and battered but she embraced him and nurtured him back to health. Of course none of this left her unscathed. She developed a bitter edge to her. Her life was not as perfect as she thought when she set out from Horton those many years ago. But she pressed forward. She would say that in the last twenty years of her marriage my Dad became the man she married.
But then life delivered her death again. Her oldest son, who seemed in good health, died when an aorta burst from an ulcer and he bled to death. She never intended to outlive her children. This broke her heart. She would struggle to be the same but she could not understand why God would be so ruthless. She had always been the good daughter, wife, mother, friend, and worker. She lived her church and faith. Why so many untimely deaths? She never came to a conclusion. She just struggled through it.
Dad would die a few years later. She no longer understood why she was left. She loved her grandkids. Gave hell to her two remaining sons. She still sparkled and loved to play cards. She was always the darling of the assisted living facilities. But she was ready to move on and this life kept clinging to her.
She never lost her mental faculties but her mind, when she was tired, would on occasion visit unseen places and times. She thought she was having friends over for dinner. She would be worried about the health of someone long dead. Asked for Dad and then, an apparent realization that this request was somehow wrong. But when she was not tired she ruled. She was the mother supreme, homecoming queen, valedictorian as always.
She died in a hospital. I was not there. I, who had been there for so many others at death, was not granted the privilege of being present for her. My brother, who lived in the same city, in denial or confusion, assured me she was going home the next day. I was taking vacation to visit her the next week so I waited. But time waits for no one. My nurturer died without me. For an observer who did not know her Mom’s life may have appeared as if it was in shambles. Her mother died young. Her brother committed suicide. Her husband had a scandalous affair. Her son died too young. But to those who knew her she was always the feisty, smart, homecoming queen, and loving mother dealing gracefully with the ruthlessness of life.