The following is the uncut version of an essay I wrote about my mother that aired on WVTF Public Radio on Friday. For some behind-the-scenes details on the writing of and recording of it, see Things That Make Me Need Extra Deodorant. You can go to the WVTF webpage to hear me reading it.
Last December a co-worker came to our home on the Blue Ridge Parkway bearing a festive basket of Christmas fruit. Our tree was up and Christmas lights hung from the windows. Upon stepping through the door, she glanced around once before settling her eyes on the white-painted bookcase where a collection of framed photographs was displayed.
“Who’s that beautiful woman?!” she gasped. Picking up a photo of my mother as a young woman, she said, “She looks likes a movie star. Is it Natalie Wood?”
The image my friend held in her hand was similar to one in my mother’s high school yearbook, which my siblings and I leafed through as children while giggling at the “old fashioned” graduating class of 1944. And when we found the boy my mother had a crush on whose name was Jake, someone, although no one ever confessed to it, wrote “Jake the Snake” next to his picture in loyalty to our father.
My mother, Barbara, the oldest of three children, came from a family of divorce, which was very uncommon during the time she grew up. She was raised by her father in a repressed German Lutheran home in Squantum, Massachusetts, and from an early age she carried a heavy weight of responsibility, which became a theme in her life. First, as the hardworking eldest child in her father’s home, and then as the mother of 9 children and the wife of a man who struggled with alcoholism for most of their married life.
When my mother met my father, the youngest of 11 from an affectionate Irish Catholic home, she was as interested in his family as she was in him and would later say, “I’m surprised I was even able to recognize what a loving family was.” Although, she was deprived of a mother for most of her growing up years, she must have received her mother’s love as a baby and toddler. I believe this because of the way she loved her own babies. Babies brought out the best in my mother. But soon we were a brood…. One of us wet the bed. One was afraid of the dark. One had temper tantrums. Another would only eat cucumber sandwiches, while yet another was failing in school.
My mother was the physical center from which everything happened in our family. To use her own manner of speaking, she “doesn’t miss a trick.” Although it wasn’t easy as a child to get one-on-one time with my mother, when I look at an elementary school picture of myself, I see now that it was her hands that buttoned up my dress, brushed my hair, and hung a string of pearls around my neck so that I would feel special for school picture day. And she cared for each of us that way.
As children, we thought homes stayed clean on their own and didn’t recognize all the work my mother did. It was only when we got older and went to other people’s houses or had homes of our own that we realized how lucky we were to have a mother who cooked and cleaned so well. One of the benefits of her father’s German work ethic, I suppose.
The trait I admire most about my mother is that she continues to learn and can admit her own past mistakes. I also admire what she does for others, such as driving my uncle Vinnie back and forth to his cancer treatments years ago, planting flowers in other people’s gardens to cheer them up, and taking care of her last two grandsons so my sister could go back to work. It was because of the bond forged with her youngest grandsons that she was able to express regret for some missed opportunities of quality time spent with her own children when they were young, probably because there were so many of us.
This year my mother turned 80. She’s still a stunningly beautiful woman, even though when I asked her why she doesn’t go to the beach, 4 houses down from her house, she told me she won’t put on a bathing suit because, “Who wants to look at these old legs?”
Now that my own children are grown, I have more time to spend with my mother. She likes to travel and in the past few years we’ve taken short trips together, short because she hasn’t wanted to leave my dad home alone for too long. This past summer, my sister, my mother, and I drove to New Hampshire to visit an aunt. It was then, while driving through New Hampshire’s White Mountains that I was surprised to find out that my mother had been skiing before. “I’ll try anything once,” I remember her saying.
Four months after our New Hampshire trip and 2 months before my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary, my father died unexpectedly. We were all heartbroken, and our grief was complicated by the previous loss of two of my brothers, just 4 years before.
It was hard to imagine my mother without my father; but as the months passed by, her new life began to emerge. In the midst of loneliness, she carries on, and after caring for others all her life, her time now is her own.
I recently called her to see how she was. Her news was exciting. After reporting that she now knows how to use the TV remote, VCR, and copy machine, all things that my father wouldn’t allow anyone to touch, I learned that she has a new kitten, is planning a trip south with girlfriends and to attend my youngest son’s wedding here in Virginia in July. I was most surprised to find out that she has plans to get a computer. I didn’t know my mother cared for cats or was interested in learning to use a computer.
I told her I loved her and hung up the phone, knowing that her “try anything once” attitude was seeing her through. I smiled as I relished the thought that it’s never too late to get to know my mother better and to learn something new about her.
Post Note: With the encouragement of my father, my mother was re-united with her mother as an adult. Both she and her mother suffrered the loss of each other, but fortunately, because of their re-union, my siblings and I were not deprived of our grandmother's love. You can read more about my grandmother in a tribute my sister wrote here.