March 23: A Memoir

Today is my mother’s birthday.

She should have been ninety-six years old today. She should have lived that long; she had the genes. Her mother, my grandmother, lived to be ninety-seven. Mother would have lived to see seven precious great-grandchildren, some of them now almost grown up themselves. But she didn’t live. She died of uterine cancer in 1985, when she was only sixty-five, so young by today’s standards. Had she gone to the doctor sooner, it’s possible that she might still be here, but she ignored the signs that something was wrong. She was too busy taking care of my grandmother, who had had a stroke that fall, to take care of herself. The way she’d neglected herself to look after my father.

In February 1982, my father had died of a heart attack and the bottom dropped out of my mother’s world. They were married forty-seven years. She was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married–an unlikely pair, but they adored each other. A couple of months after his death, Mother hemorrhaged, and her cancer was diagnosed. She underwent horrible treatments: radium implants in her uterus that kept her in bed for a week in the hospital, unable to move, then surgery, then more radiation. And after, she suffered from various complaints, strange swellings and numbness, odd neurological symptoms nobody seemed to be able to explain, weight loss. But she persevered. I can see her now, doggedly walking the block of broken sidewalk in front of her house, back and forth, back and forth, to get in her “mile” for the day.

The thing is, she lost the will to live. I asked her once, when she seemed particularly down, “Why aren’t we enough?” By we, I meant me, and my sons; why weren’t we enough to make her want to live? She had no answer.

I read a piece this morning in The Washington Post about depression and suicide. I don’t believe my mother ever contemplated suicide. She would have believed that suicide was wrong, sinful. But I know she suffered from depression, and periodically, when she felt “low,” she would go to her local doctor for a B-12 shot to pick her up.

motherme 1
Mother and me

When I look at photos of her now–her pretty blond hair, her blue eyes, her smile–I think about how those photos belie her real nature. She was often sad and insecure, even though she was smart and beautiful. When she was dying, the nurses in the hospital talked about how beautiful she still was. But she had a complicated and difficult relationship with her own mother, and much of her insecurity must have sprung from that. I remember one day when my grandmother made a cutting remark to Mother and stalked out of the room. My mother stood with her back to me, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter. She was already sick by then, but it wasn’t the sickness that spoke when she said, “Why is it that nothing I do is ever good enough?”

I don’t remember what I said to her. I was too furious with my grandmother and if I recall correctly, I followed her to her bedroom and told her so.

Today I’m remembering the complex dance of three generations of women, our lives bound together by blood and place. Long after my mother’s death, and my grandmother’s–she outlived my mother nine years–I  still feel my mother’s presence. Sometimes when I laugh, I’m startled because for a second, it’s my mother’s laugh I hear. Because she did laugh. She grew roses. She entertained her garden club. She was active in her church. And she loved my father and me and my sons so very much.

One last memory: when she was getting sicker and could no longer drive, she would get a friend to drive her to meet me half the distance between our towns so that my two younger boys could spend a few days with her. I wonder how they spent that time together. I’ve never asked them. They were old enough to understand that she was ill, but they went anyway, willingly. I think she was determined to spend time with them so they would remember her, and they do. They loved her.

As do I.

The Sisters’ Story

I have never “reblogged” one of my own posts before, but here I am, on the eve of Mother’s Day, thinking I should write something about my mother, and I just ran across this post I wrote back in 2012. My mother is long dead; the women I write about here were still around at the time this piece was written. One of them, Mother’s best friend, Eleanor, died not too long ago, which makes this piece, especially the ending, all the more poignant for me. So Mother, this is for remembering you: your beauty, your fortitude, your laughter, your sadness. Your love for my dad and for me. Your sacrifices. Your truth.

Gerry Wilson

Enter a room with four elderly women–all in their nineties–in various stages of infirmity and alertness. They are sisters, and all of them grew up with my mother in a small town in north Mississippi. This means they were all born within a few years of 1920. They were girls during the Great Depression, young women around the time of World War II. I’m visiting with them just before Thanksgiving. They are having a grand reunion, and I’m grateful to be included for a little while.

I have driven to the family farm on a gorgeous late fall day, caught up in my own memories, a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect. One of the sisters, the one I see frequently and have stayed most connected with over the years, has Alzheimer’s and is declining. I’m relieved to see that the others–Julia, Eleanor, Genevieve (what beautiful names!)–are in fair…

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Age Three: Some Life Lessons

A dress my mother made for me

When I was three years old, my paternal grandmother died just days before Christmas, almost a year to the day after her husband had died. What awful Christmases those must have been for my dad, but I never knew it. As I said earlier, I have no memory of my dad’s father. I don’t remember his mother, either, but I remember the wake. I remember being carried into that little house that felt close and hot (it was late December, after all) and seeing a big box placed against the back wall of the living room. The room was dimly lit, but there was no avoiding that box. My grandmother was inside it. I remember wondering why she was sleeping there. I didn’t associate her stillness with “dead.” I had never seen anything lifeless. I didn’t know what dead was.

I filed that image away in memory. Many years later, thinking maybe I had dreamed it, I finally asked my mother if she and Daddy had really taken me to the house after my grandmother died.

She looked at me sort of funny. “We did,” she said. “Why?”

“Well, I remember it.”

She shook her head. “That’s not possible. You were too little.”

“But I do.” I described the room and where the casket was placed against the wall and how it seemed like I was looking down at my grandmother.

“It’s because your daddy was holding you,” Mother said, looking stunned. “That would explain why you were looking down.” I don’t remember whether Mother asked me if I was afraid. I was later, with other deaths, but I did not see another dead person until I was ten years old.

“There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead . . .”

An only child, by the time I was three, I was used to playing quietly by myself. I was a girly-baby doll kind of little girl. I had already begun to collect storybook dolls. Each time my dad went to Memphis on business, he brought me a “surprise”–sometimes a little doll (Bo Peep, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood . . .), sometimes something very special, like the rabbit fur hat and muff that made me sneeze. I loved pretty dresses. My mother was pretty, and I wanted to be pretty, too. (She did her part, rolling my hair in pin curls to try and tame it.)

I loved playing dress-up. I could make a playhouse out of anything–under the table, outside under the willow tree or even under a shrub!

Early morning dress-up time

About this time, the first thing I did every morning was put on a pair of my mother’s slingback heels and a hat and stash a big purse under my arm and head out to the garden. Never mind that I was still in my nightgown or that my hair was in pincurls. Nothing stopped me!

Meanwhile, in the house, there was sickness. But that’s a story for another day.

Maybe I was already learning to escape.

I still have some of those dolls, by the way. What childhood mementos do you have? What brings the memories back?