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.

Today or Tomorrow, Noon or Evening

Today, another assignment from Blogging 101: use a prompt from the Daily Post and make it my own. Here’s today’s prompt:

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

Bruce tells it like it is.

By many people’s standards, my days are not “hard-earned.” I have a good life, not without its problems and sorrows, but relatively easy compared to some.

My dad’s days, on the other hand, were hard-earned. He came up poor, and after high school, he went to live with and work for my uncle, who had a car dealership in a nearby town. When my uncle decided to move back to Pontotoc, the tiny town in the hills of north Mississippi where they had grown up, my father moved with him. In those days, Daddy  followed the big bands that traveled the South. He was quite handsome, and I have old photographs of the pretty girls he knew. But my mother put an end to what seemed to be his confirmed bachelorhood. When they married, she was eighteen and he was thirty-two, and the love affair that was their marriage continued until his death forty-five years later. For the rest of his life, he worked six days a week, from six in the morning until six at night, to provide for my mother and me. Maybe we were his reason to believe.

Do I believe in providence?

Daddy @ 1937
my father, about 1937

Yes, I suppose I do. I’m not certain how my parents met. I do know that my mother’s best friend lived across the street from the little service station my dad ran. I imagine her walking past the station, blushing, never looking his way. Did she and her friend watch him from the friend’s front porch? Did they giggle? Did she write her name as his–“Mrs. G______”?

I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t. What a shame I never asked.

I can only speculate, just like I can speculate about the coincidence of meeting my first husband at a college party. We were both there with other people, but he cut in and danced with me. Later, I ran into him on campus and he offered me a ride back to the dorm. Still later, he called and asked me out. And that was the beginning.

Or much later, some twenty-five years ago now, a phone call came from a man I didn’t know, the man who is now my husband. He needed a judge for a high school literary magazine contest; would I do it? When I said yes, he offered to bring the materials to my house. And soon, there he stood, on my doorstep, this man I would eventually marry. He says he remembers I served him iced tea (it was July, maybe August). What if I’d offered him coffee? Or lemonade? Or nothing? What if I’d said no on the phone? I so easily could have, but I didn’t.

Today or tomorrow, noon or evening.

This restaurant or that one. Why are we in particular places at particular times? Five minutes, or less, even seconds, and the turns our lives take could be so very different. Call it providence. Call it fate. Call it God-ordained. Our lives unfold in mysterious ways.

What is my reason to believe? My best answer is how can I not?

I’ve lived long enough to look back on the days of my life–some of which were indeed hard-earned, heartbreaking days that I thought at the time would surely break me–and see how they didn’t. They shaped and matured me and made me a different person from the one I might have been. That evidence is my reason to believe. No, I can’t prove it. But it sustains me, and that’s what matters.

Have you experienced a particular moment in your life when you felt something larger than yourself at work? I’d love for you to tell me about it here.

 

Reason to Believe

A Clean, Beautiful Place

The Day 8 assignment in Blogging 101: Meet the neighbors, which means we Blogging 101 participants were to visit new blogs, ones we haven’t visited before, and leave comments. Day 9’s assignment is to take the gist or spirit of a comment and make that the seed of a new blog post here. I’m running a little behind (Day 10 assignment is already posted), but here’s the result of 8 & 9.

I visited several blogs, all of them strong, and then one in particular struck me: a clean, beautiful space called Timeless Wheel. I skimmed the posts, and one drew me in.

The writer is several months post-breakup. My heart ached for her, and her account brought back a difficult time in my life. I left some comforting words for the writer without being too cliched, I hope, because when someone is hurting, the last thing she needs to hear is “you’ll get over it” or “the hurt won’t last” or “you’ll find someone better.”

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Lonely Road / Gerry Wilson

And no, I did not leave that sage advice, “Just be glad you didn’t marry him.” After the breakup of my marriage, I was a mess, totally preoccupied with my hurt and anger. Because of my children, I managed to get up in the morning, get dressed, get them dressed and fed and out of the house and to school. Somehow, I functioned, too. I’d started a new job that fall, teaching in a preschool, which was a good thing. How could I be a sad sack around four-year-old children?

My own kids were sad and scared. One put his fist through the wall. One retreated into himself. One had night terrors. The youngest clung to me. But somehow the days passed and I muddled through, crying at the slightest provocation, calling my ex at all hours of the night. Then one day, a good friend took me aside. I’ll call her *M*.

*M* never hesitated to speak her mind, and that morning, she delivered a hard truth: it was time to pull myself together and get on with it, she said; she (and others) were tired of my moping around and dragging everybody down. That I had too much going for me to let him ruin my life.

Dragging everybody down? Too much going for me? I remember my first thought: she couldn’t possibly understand. She’d been married to the same man for many years. They’d survived. They still loved each other.

I was indignant and embarrassed. But deep down, I knew she was right. I still had a long way to go, but that moment was a turning point.

I hope the writer at Timeless Wheel is able to “get on with it,” too. That she’ll realize she doesn’t need anybody else to complete her. That she is whole even–maybe especially–when she’s alone. It took a long time for me to understand that and to feel worthy and lovable. I hope it won’t take her as long to find her clean, beautiful space again. I wish her luck.

 

Thanks to Blogging 101 for these terrific challenges! We are sharing our stories here–sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking. But our stories all the same. Cheers.