Monday, May 14, 2012

Some thoughts on my mother

This is post-Mothers' Day but these thoughts on mothers--specifically my mother--have been rattling around in my head for a week now. If you follow this blog, you know my neighbor lost her mother a week ago. Although her mother was in a care facility, Susan devoted a good chunk of each day to caring for her mother, giving her the companionship and love that all of us crave. When I think of it, feelings of guilt about my mother's last couple of years wash over me.
My mother was a bright, intelligent, charming woman who had a fine sense of the ridiculous. She loved to tell the story about the time she signed her name Alice P. MacBread instead of MacBain (there's a story behind it) and when she once found herself in the back seat of the car between my two howling toddlers, she laughed and laughed. The louder they howled, the more she laughed. My dad drove like he didn't know any of us. My dad was the administrator of a hospital; the painter at the hospital did odd jobs at our house, and one night, wearing an old coat and tennis shoes, Mom went to pick Al up. A new switchboard operator asked, "Shall I tell him his wife is here?" Another story she loved to tell.
Mom was proud of the fact that she once worked for Robert Maynard Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago and founder of the Great Books Program. Continuing education was real to her, and she read constantly, always improving her mind. She read the works of historians Will and Ariel Durant aloud to my father in the evenings.
Yet she was a devoted housewife who showered and changed daily before Dad got home. She set a fine table every night with white linen--we had napkin rings in those days--and balanced meals, though she was a devotee of Adele Davis' theories on healthy eating. But she also entertained graciously and seemingly effortless, and she taught me. When a friend once asked her how she could let me make such a mess in the kitchen, she said, "If I don't, she'll never learn to cook." By the time I was ten I was the sous chef--and the dishwasher--for her dinner parties. It's a gift I've carried throughout my life.
Mom was above all a lady--no bathroom humor allowed, and she let you know what was good taste and what wasn't with a firm hand. In later life, if she didn't like the conversation, the chin went up in the air and the eyes went out the window. You were put in your place. Relatives have said to me in the years since we lost her, "Your mom was the most gracious lady I ever knew."
I could go on and on about the woman who raised me with laughter and love, but all that went out the window in her early eighties when dementia, due to small strokes, began to creep in. I was the single parent of four; my brother was a single, practicing physician; neither of us could care for her but we couldn't leave her at home with just a daytime caretaker. She called John once in the middle of the night because she couldn't turn off the water in the sink--no plumbing problem. Her confusion.
Once she was in a nursing home, she went rapidly downhill. John and I both have our own private reasons for guilt, but I didn't spend enough time with her. I couldn't. I was raising those four kids and working full time. But beyond that, visits were unpleasant. I couldn't bear to see that wonderful woman lose every bit of grace she had and lapse into what she herself would have called unacceptable behavior. It broke my heart every day.
I know she was lonely and afraid, and I have a hard time getting past those awful days and back to Mom as I treasured for the first forty years of my life. I wasn't with her when she died, because I didn't realize how serious that episode was. A woman she loved, her caretaker for several years, held her hand in that last hour. Writing this down has enabled me to recall all the good of her long life and take another step forward to putting her last years behind me. For that, I am thankful.
She would have loved to see her great-grandchildren this weekend--nine out of the ten--as they roamed the ranch, played baseball, and hunted for Bigfoot's track. For years after Mom's death, I talked to her--and I still long to ask her to tell me about a certain person or consider a recipe with me or share a memory. I am who I am because of my mother.

No comments: