June 29. It's my mother's birthday. Were she still alive, she'd be 94 today. She was a fairly amazing woman, though our relationship was anything but simple.
Mary was born in 1913, in Caspar, Wyoming, and shortly thereafter her father, an Army officer, left to fight in World War I. He was injured by mustard gas in the war, and never fully recovered, even though he did return home and live for years afterward. Her earliest years were spent on her maternal grandmother's ranch in Wyoming -- one of those "40 acres and a mule" homesteads. Her mother and grandparents were Canadians who immigrated to the US in order to take advantage of the land settlement offer from the US government. Of course, immigration was much easier in those days than it is now! She was 6th of 7 children, having 5 brothers and a sister she adored. Here's my little mama, on the ranch.
I do not have any other childhood or early adult pictures of my mother. Somewhere, somewhere, I remember a picture of her with a group of friends, looking like a typical 1920s flapper, but I do not know where that picture is. How did she manage to avoid the camera? Why? I don't have any wedding pictures of my mother, either -- though I do have her Belgian lace wedding cap. I remember her removing that piece of lace from the cedar chest (home of many wonderful items and stories) and telling me that her daddy carried it home from the war, tucked inside his uniform as he fought on the battlefield. As I searched through my photos today, looking for choice shots to scan, I was struck by the lack of photos I have of her. She was often, I guess, in the background. Be that as it may, besides a couple of much-too-blurry snapshots, this is, chronologically, the next clear picture I have of her:
Remember this shot? Taken the same day as the one of my daddy and me alone, in my previous Father's Day entry. I think it was the day of my baptism at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Terre Haute, Indiana. She was 39 in this picture (1952), and looks more grown up than I do now, at 55.
Well, she raised her boys during the Great Depression, and then raised me as a relatively young widow (she was 47 when Daddy died). Having grown up mostly with brothers and then raised 3 boys, I'm not sure that she knew what to do with a girl, but as always, she rolled up her sleeves and gave it her best shot. She took me mushroom hunting, camping, strawberry-picking, and bought me a dog. She worked as a secretary in a lumber-treatment plant (they applied creosote to things like telephone poles and railroad ties), and even though we had very little, she made do and we survived. She always worried about money, and sometimes our situation felt rather grim and desperate, but we never went without food on the table or shoes on our feet. I didn't always have all that my friends had, but I learned resourcefulness, strength, and originality from her.
Here she is with my daughter, in 1969. I don't think she looks much older than she did in the picture with me, above.
Look at that baby! She was a talker, just like her mother; just like her grandmother! After I got married, mama really was able to blossom. She found herself a boyfriend -- one of the two great loves of her life. After he died, too, she became very active in her women's groups, especially the Order of the Eastern Star. An old boyfriend of mine called this next picture "The Queen."
This shot was 10 years after the previous one, 1979. I honestly think the woman barely aged! This was her first installation as Worthy Matron of her Eastern Star chapter (she served twice, two different chapters). Part of their ritual was memorization of long parts about the women who represented each of the 5 "points" of the Eastern Star. She had them all memorized, and could always substitute on the spot if a "star point" failed to show up for a formal meeting. I remember only a few years before she died, that she could still recite those really long parts almost perfectly. It was before seminary, and I asked her about Jephtha, and she recited the whole story from memory, just as it was written for the Order. Amazing.
This is a woman who loved reading (she could enjoy the same books over and over again), crossword puzzles, crocheting, camping, and mushroom hunting above all other things. This is a woman who gave me her strength, but who did not love herself very much, and I also inherited that characteristic. This is someone who did not know how very special she was. She was an extrovert who did not understand her introverted daughter. She could make friends on a 15-minute bus ride, but could not, until her last years of life, tell her children that she was proud of them. She was a complex, strong, but fiercely loving and loyal person.
Here is another shot of her, nine years after the previous one (1988). This is my second wedding. She is finally showing a little age and wear, but is still in pretty good form!
Not bad for a 75 year old woman. Now that I look at myself, I'm not bad for a 36 year old woman, either!
Mama lived on her own in a senior apartment until 2 years before she died. She became increasingly blind and deaf, and as that happened, she became more and more cut off from the reality of friends and family. It was no longer possible for her to take care of herself, and a long series of TSAs (mini-strokes) left her more and more impaired. Here is a picture taken 5 years after the one above:
This was still about 6 years before she died, and she managed to look pretty natty in her red and white, with the hat. She always could wear a hat well. It was probably around this time that she visited me in Buffalo and we climbed the wooden stairways behind the American Falls at Niagara Falls. She was an adventurous spirit (another trait I inherited). At one point, as she wheezed and gasped her way up the wet staircase, I asked her if she was okay, and told her that we could turn back if she needed to. She responded in a tone of triumphant glory: "I wouldn't miss this for the world!"
My relationship with my mother was so complex -- we were two strong women who tried not to clash, but often did. And for me always, guilt and grief are so closely tied together. I wish I could have enjoyed my mother more. I wish I could have appreciated all she gave me -- and communicated that appreciation to her. I think she knows now -- I'm certain that she knows now how much I love her, and I also know how very much she loved me.
I'll just close with a little story that took place 3 years ago. For whatever reason, I woke up one spring morning in 2004 (she had been dead 5 years) with a memory of a dinner my mother made me once when I visited her back in Indiana. I arrived in town from Buffalo, and I had made dinner plans with a friend. Mama, meanwhile, had prepared my favorite dinner in the world -- pot roast with vegetables. Oh, yum. But when I got home, I snapped at her, only thinking of myself, of course. How could she be so thoughtless and inconsiderate of my plans, etc. My friend and I did end up eating with mama, but still -- what a jerk I was. So I woke up 3 years ago, thinking of how she had prepared that meal with such love and anticipation, knowing how much I would enjoy it, and how she would enjoy sharing it with me. I felt such grief and sadness that morning in 2004, and said out loud, "Mama, I'm so sorry." That morning when I walked my dog I found 6 morel mushrooms (my mother's passionate hobby was hunting these woodland delights) -- growing right in my side yard, in front of the lilac bush. Even as I picked them I said, "Just enough for a sandwich -- thanks, Mom!" And I knew it was her way of telling me that it was all right. She always could say and do just the right thing to calm my youthful sorrows.
Oh, Mama, I miss you so -- more now than when you died (8 years ago; that was blessed relief and release at the time). And I owe you so much. Most of who I am is because of you -- for better and for worse -- but far more for better. You would love it so much here in Tennessee, and would love this little church that I pastor. You would just be the Queen Bee here. I do know you are in a good place, however, with so many of the people you have loved. And I know you are still with me from time to time.
Happy Birthday, Mary! I love you, and am humbled to have known you.