|1936, Senior Yearbook Photo|
7 September 2013
On 9 September 1919, my mother was born in Martinsburg, W.V., where her father was the minister at the Disciples of Christ Church . They didn't stay long; she has no memories of the town--as I learned when Joyce and I, near Martinsburg one day on another journey, stopped there and took pictures of the town, the church. We gave them to my mom later--with great ceremony--and she looked at them and said, "I don't remember any of this." And that was that.
To be fair--Mom was in her 80s at the time and was already shedding some of the social conventions--something that happens as you age. I'm getting older too. Meaner. Do something nice for me, and I might just bite your head off. (Kidding--just an arm will satisfy.)
Anyway, my brothers and I (Joyce is here, too--and Janice, Davie's wife; and Bella, Dave and Janice's daugher) are gathered here near Lenox, Mass., to celebrate her 94th birthday, which will occur on Monday when all of us are gone. We're all winging (or driving) away after today, most notably my older brother, Richard, who is heading to Atlantic City, where he will be one of the judges for the talent competition at the Miss America Pageant. (No kidding!)
I have something a little bit less glamorous--doctors' appointments.
Joyce and I arrived first, late Thursday evening, and we spent much of Friday with her--took her to lunch at the little pub run by the stages-of-care place where she lives (she's at Pine Hill, the assisted living unit--has a nice view from her window of the Berkshires). She's more forgetful now, moves only with great difficulty (rising from a chair is a major accomplishment), has, in the last few months, quit reading books. She just can't handle them anymore. She does read magazines--the newspapers (remember them?)--watches the TV news. Her set is fixed on a single channel; her skill with the remote is limited to OFF or ON. She gets help throughout the day--dressing, going places.
But in many, many ways she is still Mom. She still laughs hard at old stories--is still glad to see us (she adores Joyce)--is grateful for the small things we do to help. (Dave and Janice, who live nearby, have carried the major weight of responsibility for the most recent years--decades, really). I write letters to her a couple of times a week now (she can no longer use her computer, which sits, unused, on a table), and one arrived on Friday. I watched her open and read it. And I realized she was having a problem with it--not with what it said, just with the process of reading. That was hard to see, very hard. She always had a book going as a younger woman--always. She was an English teacher, read all the time, insisted that we read all the time. (It took me a while to develop the habit; I have it now.) But I'll keep writing. I think she likes opening the mailbox, seeing a letter there. Telling her friends in the dining room she got a letter today from one of her sons. That matters.
After lunch on Friday, we took her back to her place to rest (she naps in the afternoon), then ran off on some errands and pleasure--a couple of bookstores, a visit to Arrowhead, Herman Melville's farm, now a museum, near Pittsfield, not far away. We stopped back to see her about 4, chatted another hour before it was time for her to go down to dinner. We headed back to my brothers' place in Becket, and they both arrived a bit later.
Later this morning, we'll go down and pick her up. Taking her out nowadays is an adventure--we must be very slow, very careful, getting her out to the car, in the car, out of the car, into the restaurant. But--this is for her 94th birthday, so we're going to give it a try.
Gifts are hard now, too. Clothes and books--the staples of earlier birthdays are pointless now. She still loves chocolate--oh, does she love chocolate!--so there will be some of that. I wrote her a poem, found a picture book of Scotland, where she spent a year as a little girl, a place she loves and has visited numerous times. And that will have to do.
All three of us, of course, owe her everything. The secure, loving home. The conviction that education is important. The knowledge that family matters so very, very much. She was such a role model. In her 70s she was hiking trails out in Oregon, reading ferociously, participating heavily in her community, her church. Maintaining voluminous email correspondence with friends, former colleagues, family. But Time wears down even the sturdiest among us--as I'm learning firsthand these days. But Mom did not go gentle .. is not going gentle. Death will have quite a battle on his hands when he decides it's time--she's already sent him packing several times, sent him back whimpering into the darkness, his tail between his legs.
Anyway, we'll have a birthday lunch in a few hours--she'll be happy--we'll laugh and tell old embarrassing stories about one another (brothers never forget). There will be some tears. Then the farewells ... and I'm always wondering if it will be the final one.
Then we'll drive back to our lives--or fly to the Miss America pageant--and Mom will stay in Lenox, wage her daily wars with her body, win some of them, lose others. Wait for news and visits from her sons.