Happy Mothers Day to all the moms out there. I hope your kids don't treat you any differently today than they do every other day, because it would be a shame if you were honored only once a year.
My mom died 12 years ago, too young at 69, a victim of cigarette smoking, poor willpower, and a life of tragedy. Abused by a first husband, she exited that marriage within a month, an obvious failure in the eyes of her hyper-religious parents. A girl who smoked and drank and went to business school in Pittsburgh? What do you expect?
She married another man, my father, and spent a life with physical and mental torment. A baby girl who died at birth in 1964, the umbilical cord having wrapped around her neck, her twin brother born healthy and normal. In 1965, her first child, a daughter born in 1959, kidnapped somewhere in the two blocks from our home to her kindergarten class, never found, lost forever at a time before we knew how many children share the same fate, but a huge story in a small Pennsylvania town.
How do you lift your head off the pillow every morning after enduring two years like that?
But she did, even without a supportive spouse, teaching Slimnastics at the Y, working part-time at the neighborhood convenience store, surrounding herself with dogs and cats that gave unconditional love and asked for nothing in return except food and drink and attention.
Adopting a 2 year old girl in need (altruism, saving a life, or plugging a hole?) around 1970, Mom rounded out her family and endured an alcoholic, philandering, abusive husband as she smoked and dogged and catted. Dad left for a year to dally with a girlfriend in Oxnard. Oxnard?
Mom, back to work full time, rising daily at 20 minutes to five each morning, submitting to the 50 minute drive to the main campus at Penn State, struggling to feed and shelter three kids for less than $9000 a year. Why 20 minutes to five? Why not 4:30, or 4:45?
She wouldn't get home until 6 each night, and would then have to parent, cook, clean, and enforce homework, still awake (barely) when I went to bed around 10, sometimes nodding off on her loveseat as she read, a dog against her, until finally dragging herself to bed at some point, up the next morning at twenty to five to do it all again.
I remember her shame the first time she pulled food stamps from her purse at the local Riverside grocery, an emotion she swallowed to benefit her kids, but never forgot. I only partially understood why I qualified for the summer job my ninth grade year, mowing the grass and fixing things at the numerous playgrounds and ball fields in town. Turns out it was a special jobs program for low-income teens.
Mom raised three kids who stayed out of trouble, got decent grades, and went off to college or the military and ended up in successful family situations. But by the time she retired at 62, her breathing was already labored and her cough exacerbated by more than four decades of smoking. Over the next several years, instead of finally being able to enjoy grandkids and free time to do whatever she wanted, she instead endured failing health, emphysema, a minor heart attack, and sadness.
In her last two years, Mom was in and out of the hospital, and as time went on, she went from more time out to more time in, soon alternating months, then weeks, until finally, a week after being placed in a nursing home, she passed away.
I was lucky enough to spend time with her the night before she died, and I'm so glad. She knew I was there - she smiled weakly, too tired to open her eyes - as she listened to me talk about things that were important to me. What a wonderful gift for both of us. The trip in was unplanned, a last minute decision, because we thought she had a little more time.
I miss you, Mom. I think you'd be proud of me.