Wednesday, November 17, 2004

My Mom

My mom was a painter and photographer, a teacher, a rock hound and arrowhead collector, a quilter and sewer, a homemaker and a partier, a hunter and fisher, a wife, friend, sister, daughter, and mother. It seems to me unfair that I am left to share my recollections of my mother. How much better for one of her fiercely loyal friends, one of those women who sat laughing and smoking in our kitchen during my mother's most vital years, to be standing before you telling stories—and there were stories!—of Hulda, their beloved friend. Instead I will share a daughter's memories, which by their nature are more sharply focused and complicated.

I was an independent child but nevertheless my mom made sure that that I could follow my interests and passions. She embroidered cowboy shirts for me and created a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. To her everlasting credit, she founded a Girl Scout troop for me and my friends and remained its leader for seven
years, thus enabling me easily to retain my neighborhood friends when my parents became Catholic and I transferred to parochial school. She took me to professional rodeo, to see Harry Belafonte at the Greek Theatre, to see an American Bandstand touring show at the Pike in Long Beach. Often we would all pile into the car, my mom and dad and I, and sometimes Father Hoban from St James, to go watch the Hollywood Stars, our beloved Pacific Coast League team, at Gilmore Field (where CBS Television City is today) or, if they were playing the hated Los Angeles Angels, at Wrigley Field in inner city LA. Father Hoban was an Angels fan and I remember happy tussles with him in the back of the car during the long pre-freeway trip back home to Redondo. Our family took camping vacations each summer. We had a 1950 Nash Rambler the seats of which folded down into a bed, which we used often. During the summer of 1958 we were camping in the Fort Bragg area of Northern California, a rough and dirty trip that saw my folks fishing for salmon in small boats on very large waves. I had long since been bitten by the folk bug and, as our trip home passed through San Francisco, I pleaded for us to be able to go to a show at the hungry i. With an effort that became the stuff of family legend, my mother organized an evening at the folk club for me, resiliently dyeing my dad’s camping shoes black so they resembled dress shoes. We essentially had to beg for gas money to get back home but we were treated to a concert by the reclusive Tom Lehrer, who opened for the Limeliters. Later, when I began working at the telephone company, my mom would get up at 5:00 in the morning to start cooking Christmas dinner, since everyone at the phone company worked on Christmas in those pre-direct dialing days and she was determined that we would spend the holiday together as a family before my shift started at 4:00.

Still, my mom and I were very different people and the beloved public Hulda was a far more complicated person within the family. After I left home we were in close contact but not close. Over the years I watched her life change as my folks left their wonderful home in Redondo Beach to follow my dad’s new job at the FAA. Later still I felt awe as they built their own wonderful house in Idaho, bringing it up from the ground when they were the same age I am now, an absolutely stunning effort.

Three years ago we moved my mom and dad to Tacoma to be closer to us. Her exterior world began to shrink. Hulda hated the restrictions caused by her infirmities, hated her growing loss of independence, and especially hated being thought of as "old." With the blessed help of Buddhist meditation practice I found it easier to stay compassionate through her resentment of loss even as I assumed more responsibility for her care. Since January, when my folks entered an adult family home, she seemed to enter into a greater acceptance of her life as it was. Once she said to me with a light smile and no little grace, "You’re the parent now." (I like to think I responded, "Well, you still don’t get a raise in your allowance!"--probably not, although she would have laughed as we delighted in each other’s sense of humor.) When we went out to brunch on September 12 to celebrate her 87th birthday we toasted with champagne in tiny flutes and hung out together just like, as she said more than once, "a couple of pals." We saw an oncologist a few days later, a visit that gave us a chance to talk of the possibility of her not fighting her multiple organ failure any longer. On September 30 my mom was accepted into hospice care and exactly two weeks later she passed away. During her last week she had a chance to be visited by Carrie, Dianne, and Michael. On Tuesday I played the mandolin for her as she lay smiling. On Thursday I told her that she could go if she needed to and less than two hours later she was gone. During her last week she spent a lot of her energy planning a gift for my birthday, which was Saturday. This, I believe, says quite a lot about who she had become. We always told each other of our love, a love which by the end had passed beyond reservation and regret. I kissed her forehead as I left her on Thursday, saying, "I love you." I wished I had said what I clearly could see, although I’m certain she knew it, "Mom, you’ve become love."