April 15, 1923 - Oct. 24, 2008
Mom was a leg model. c. 1949
Who knew my mother liked dogs?? Undated photo.
She did like to party though. Also, undated, but I'm taking a wild guess from the furniture (all Colonial, all the time), that this was in the '70s, when she finally got her own apartment.
"That's not the woman I knew," was my main thought as my eldest half-brother began sharing his memories of my mother at her funeral.
My brother spoke of my mother finally finding happiness with her third husband, after two failed marriages, with whom she lived in the Bay Area for many years, before moving to the wilds of West Virginia only seven or so years ago. He remembered her for her sense of humor (I do concede that she had one), and for a lightness that she had about her that he said he inherited (this is where he started losing me), and that she never held a grudge (OK, now we're talking about two different people).
Of course, she didn't raise him. He and my half-sister were raised by their father and step-mother in California, while my mother and father lived in New Haven, raising me and my brother.
(It's like that Facebook relationship status: It's complicated.)
It was a tough funeral—even as I write I realize how ridiculous a statement that is. Are there easy funerals? Where everyone has had a chance to, you know, make up and laugh and remember good times and there's no pain ... you know, like the Hallmark cards of funerals?
One week after Mom's funeral, I went on my church's yearly silent retreat here.
It's about a five-hour ride from D.C., so I rode up with three woman I had never met before, and none knew my mother had just died. One woman started talking about Whidbey Island, and about a relative's funeral she attended there. How the entire family helped dig the grave, how the mother's ashes were sprinkled in, how the grandchildren placed mementos in the grave, and how everyone then covered the ashes back up.
And I found myself feeling jealous—of a funeral.
Well, Mom's funeral wasn't like that. But then her life wasn't like that either, so what did I expect?
She was a Depression baby, the first high school graduate in her family of six, and determined to have the nicer things in life. And that led to a life of "creative financing," as she liked to call it. She worked at Yale Law School, first as an at-home typist, then as a legal secretary, when women didn't work. After her death I found a three-page letter from her bosses to Yale's human resource office commending her work, saying she was the "best secretary" they had ever had, did the work of "three people," often worked weekends and nights, and asking for a big raise for her.
I also found a handwritten note from President Gerald Ford, thanking my mother for all her help during some visit he made to Yale.
So many things I could write about her, but I won't.
The woman I knew as a child was desperately unhappy. DESPERATELY. She tried leaving once, when I was in 6th grade, but took me and my brother with her.
That didn't work.
She finally left for good—by herself—when I was in eighth grade. I found out when I saw her dresser had been cleaned out.
The innocent years. 1962. Me and my older brother T.
I saw her regularly throughout adolescence. She'd meet me and my brother at a local diner for breakfast every now and then.
Reconnecting with siblings: My one-year-older brother T., me, and my nine-year older brother, B.
There was a long drawn out divorce. Long, contested, bitter, bitter divorce.
But I'm straying.
My mother was a strong person. No question she followed her dreams. She loaded up her car and moved cross country to Oakland, Calif., (when she was in her late 50s) with her husband-to-be, while I was in college, and started a new career at Clorox, rising to executive secretary to the president, where she worked until she retired at age 75.
She had moxie, that one.
So when I was asked to speak, I was at a loss. So much to say that was better left unsaid. So much hurt.
Instead, I read this:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
--William Butler Yeats
Rest in peace, Mommy.