My Mother’s name was Mary and like her name she lived a plain and uneventful life without thunder, her birth however was another story. She was born in 1927 in a tent city in Bowlegs Oklahoma during a smallpox epidemic. She was born into extreme poverty and was premature at 4½ lbs. My grandmother had been caring for her sisters and their children who had smallpox. To get to them she rode in a wagon 15 miles each way over a rutted and bumpy road which is believed to have caused early labor. When she went into labor my grandfather forced a doctor from town at gun point to come to the tent city and treat my grandmother. My Mom was not expected to survive at 4½ lbs with immature lungs and heart. Again my grandfather threatened the doctor “she dies, you die” the doctor knew he meant it (grandfather was a moonshiner). They built a warmer using an orange crate, tin foil, light bulbs powered by a generator, and an oxygen tank for scuba diving some one had. The doctor never left her side until she was out of danger. She survived against all odds and no the doctor did not press charges. Mom was a tomboy and a daddy’s girl from the get go. She loved to tumble and she was good at it. Her dream was to join the circus as a tumbler. So she back flipped and back tucked her way into a try out at the age of 12. During her practice a boy hid inside the carton(she used this to get height) she was flipping over and jumped out when she was in a tuck, startling her. She fell and broke her right forearm, spiral fracture of the worst kind. The doctor put her arm back together with a steel rod but her dream was over just like that. She would have a disfiguring scar as well as pain for the rest of her life.
Mom ever stoic carried on and when she was 16 married my Dad who was at least 52, he always lied about his age so I am not completely sure. The marriage was doomed to failure and made neither of them happy. She left my Father 12 years into the marriage when she was pregnant with me. This was both brave and stupid when you consider how divorced women were treated in the ’50s. She coined the phrase single working Mom. She worked all day and then went to school at night to get her high school diploma. There was no alimony or child support because my Father would not pay any. He wanted her to come back and he never stopped believing that she would. She took care of us even though she earned pennies compared to what men earned. We never had much but we had what we needed. She had pride and sometimes it got in the way of good sense. She married again and was in love this time. Unfortunately he was an alcoholic and the marriage was short lived, back to the drawing board for Mom.
My relationship with my Mom was very normal, like any Mother and daughter of the ’50s and ’60s until I was 11. She became very ill and could not work for over a year. Our roles began to change and I became her care giver at 11. From week to week we did not know if she would survive. I took odd jobs, babysitting, cleaning apts, cleaning the lobby of our building, cleaning the pool and for 25 cents a bag I would go to the store for the elderly in our building and buy and carry their groceries home. In fact I would do almost anything for a quarter as long as it was not immoral or illegal. I even sold all my comic books for 300 dollars (1st editions worth a lot more now). We never spoke of this time and the hardships we had, we were on our own and she would not ask for help, that pride thing I guess. I was terrified she would die and this fear would change the dynamics of our relationship forever.
When she was better and I was 13 we migrated to Ca. for a fresh start. She met my stepfather Walter and married him when I was 16. He and I did not get along for many reasons, his drinking was one of them, but she loved him very much. Her Father was an alcoholic which would explain the men in her life and after all she was a daddy’s girl. They had a hard beginning with his kids and hers. When he died after 25 years of marriage all but one treated her like an interloper who was after his money, he did not have any by the way. He was also 25 years older than her and retired shortly after the wedding. She put her stepsons through college but not her daughters because that was her generations belief. My brother had no desire to go which was a big disappointment for her, but he could do no wrong in her eyes because he was (insert angelic choir) “the boy” .
When I married and became a Mom I understood my Mother better. I knew what drove her to be so hard on herself and others. I knew she must have resented being pregnant while divorcing my Father and resented me as well, but she never showed it. I felt loved by her from the beginning to the end. There are many stories I could share and perhaps I will someday but for now I will share just this one. When my daughter ’75 was born, it was at a catholic hospital with nuns because that was all we could afford. My Mother came to see me on her way to Vegas… no my having a baby was not going to stop my stepfather from going to Vegas, although I would not know this until after I delivered (another story for another day). There I was having my first child and scared to death. When my Mom came in the room I was so happy to see her, at last she will give me that pearl of wisdom I had been waiting for all my life I thought… and she did. Know what my Mom said to a frightened 20 year old in labor. “If you scream I will have to come back down here and slap you” yep that’s what she said. Now I love her and know her and can see the humor in this, but she was serious. Her generation of women bore pain without complaint like a badge of honor and she expected no less from me.
Despite what you might think after reading this my Mom and I were very close. We had been through the fire together and it had forged a strong bond of love and friendship. She could count on me and she was always in my corner. We talked everyday, lunched several times a week and hung out together, she had become my best friend. In all those years we talked of so much but never certain things, like my Dad or sex, or money, she was not comfortable talking about it. She gave me a love of books and jazz and movies, she knew everything about the movies. One of my best childhood memories was when I was 8 and she took me to a company picnic and I met John Wayne. The man was as big as a tree and I wanted him to be my Dad, alas it was not to be, but it was a good day. Mr. Wayne said to me “Well how ya doing there lil lady”. I don’t remember why he was there but my Mom knew I loved him and made sure I got to meet him. As you may have read from my previous post I lost my Mom in 2000 and it was a life altering experience. If I had to describe her in one sentence it would be that she was strong willed, independent, stubborn (I got this gene), stoic (she broke over 20 bones in her life and never complained) opinionated (she was never wrong), self taught, hard working, loving, beautiful handwriting, not perfect, Mother, friend and I wouldn’t change a hair. Love you Mom, Happy Mother’s Day… R