Monday, June 27, 2011

Spunky Mother

In the month of June 2010, one year ago, one of my favorite novels celebrated fifty years in homes, libraries, classrooms, and hearts. As a classroom teacher, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one of the students’ favorites; I learned to love it long before I taught it. Lee’s characters live and breathe. They are people I have known or would like to know. Some are petty and selfish, but many are compassionate and courageous, traits this blog ( celebrated for a full year by remembering characters, films, and icons. All the while, I tried to insist, that iconic compassion and courage should thrive within each of us--that, in fact, they do. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary feats.

My mother is such a person. Her life and upbringing were anything but extraordinary. Her father deserted her mother when my mother was an infant. She may have seen him—at least in photos, but whenever he returned to his home state, he asked his kin not to tell my mother, his first child, that he was nearby. They complied.

Perhaps their cowardice stirred some guilt in them for a few of them tried to build a bridge to my mother. They invited her to visit them, but they were not brave enough to defy my mother’s father. They elected to let a very little girl grow into a woman at a time when single parenting without the benefit of a dead spouse was scandalous. Even widows and widowers were pitied as if they had somehow misbehaved in order to be left without a partner.

Mother’s mother worked. Again, this was uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s, at least until World War II made it necessary. There was no day caregiver just down the street. Women had to rely upon strangers, unlicensed by any regulatory agency, or family to care for children while they worked. My mother was left in the care of the only grandmother in her life or when she grew older, she was left on her own.

Thus, Mother became self-sufficient quickly. She learned to cook and clean before other kids had those responsibilities. And she learned to travel alone early on. She rode the train between her hometown and her grandmother’s home; apparently without any hesitation, Mother jumped aboard in order to see her cousins and the grandmother whom she loved dearly. It would seem that Mother has always been fearless to the point of stubborn sometimes.

Once when we were in Hawaii together, we found ourselves awake too early because we had not kept ourselves awake until Hawaiian bedtime. Mother decided she wanted to walk the beach. I tried to talk her out of it. As a twenty-something, I thought I understood the dangers of cities and tourism much better than she, but Mother was adamant so I joined her.

Ahead, at least a long block away, stood about a dozen guys. Pre-dawn, 3:00 a.m. in fact, on the sidewalk along the beach, a dozen guys in various states of casual clothing—a gang. I told Mother we needed to cross the street or turn around, that under no circumstances should we continue on course to walk directly into the gang of boys. Mother said, “I will not live with fear!” I tried to reason with her, advising her that being sensible and safe are not cowardly choices, but Mother had staked out her turf and true to her character, she would not back down.

Spunky is perhaps the kindest term for what ran deep within her. Whatever drove her, she marched through the middle of the boys, saying “Excuse me, please” as she did so, and they parted for her like Moses parting the Red Sea. No one said an unkind word, and no one pursued us. Of course, this just gave her more reason to boss me for the rest of our trip.

Today, Mother is still spunky, but she could never walk with confidence along any sidewalk anywhere. Recently, when the doctor’s assistant administered a mental acuity test, she failed, answering only three questions correctly. She knew her city and her state, but not the month, year, or season. She could parrot three simple words when asked to do so, but thirty seconds later, she had no idea that she had even been directed to do so and she certainly could not remember the three words. She cannot write her name; she cannot call people because she cannot sort out the numbers or remember them long enough to punch them in. The mother who marched along that sidewalk is gone.

Mother remembers her childhood, and she remembers much of it fondly even though, as she says, I did not have a father. She remembers my father, her husband of sixty-one years, the man she cared for in the last two years of his afflicted life. She prepared meals, cleaned a house—because she needed the exercise, she said, drove him to oncologists, radiologists, dermatologists, podiatrists, internists, and hospitals. She tried to help him stand when he fell. She kept him clean because she was the only person he wanted at such personal moments. As best she could, she preserved that thin wall of dignity that exists between a person and the world. Doing so cost her some time. How much? None of us knows.

But Mother was once outgoing, active, and forever busy socializing, joining, giving, learning, and organizing. While caring for Dad, each of these were set aside to be picked up again after his passing, but when he passed, she was no longer able to pick them up.

At first, she thought grief stood in her way. Then, she began to believe that depression blocked her recovery. Finally, she had to surrender to the truth: the Alzheimer’s that claimed her own mother’s life (as well as siblings in that generation) had come to claim her own.

Recently, Mother said to me: I’m just here, watching my old movies. I may have seen them over and over again, but they are always new to me.  (Thank you, Turner Classic Movies) There is fearlessness in that statement because she is, right now, today, conscious that her short-term memory is gone, that her long-term memory is unreliable. Still she has seasoned that knowledge with a dash of optimism.

How can anyone not feel compassion for such a woman in such a state? That is why I must now assuage my grief by writing. This time, the subject will be personal—my mother. She will serve to illustrate both courage and compassion as ordinary people do every day. Please join me in following her story and mine at