My mother was born in a world few remember. Workhorses plowed the fields, eggs illuminated prickly nests in the hen house, and a water bucket plunged into the well for fresh water. Winter blizzards were so fierce her father traversed from the house to the barn with a rope wrapped around his waist so he could find his way back. One candy bar was sliced into pieces and doled out to family members, and the outhouse featured Sears catalog pages for toilet paper. During one holiday, the Christmas tree glittered with lit candles clipped to its branches until her anxious mother insisted they be snuffed out.
The Depression was a time of no safety nets, many mouths to feed, and living one or two bad crops away from a foreclosure notice. My grandparents’ letter arrived on crisp paper from the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The mortgage holder, a woman of means, was kind. She said she knew everyone was suffering, and they could work something out.
Oblivious to the worries of the world, my mom’s primary years were spent in a one-room school. Her teacher, in charge of a range of students, created self-starters, helping one another and building good habits for the future. Recesses found them throwing a ball over the schoolhouse to their classmates on the other side and pretending, as children have always done, they did not hear the bell signaling the end of break. My mom remembered giggling at the honks from her brother driving by. He would eventually marry the teacher.
In the midst of her childhood, an already weary world exploded into war. Victory gardens dotted the country, ration cards were distributed, and war bonds, sold. My mom’s brother and extended family members entered the battle, and tense reports blared from the radio, leaving my mom scrambling to understand. Seeing his worried daughter, her father spent evenings explaining humanity running amuck to her.
Complicating but also clarifying the issue were their German-speaking neighbors. The details have faded with time, but these neighbors were charged with a group of German POWs to work their fields. My mother remembers watching the men laboring and their kindness to her. During one rather telling moment, the overseer forgot his gun and asked a POW to fetch it. He did. My mom never forgot these young men, and the world of us-and-them blurred for her.
As a child and then a teenager, she looked to the prairie horizon, knowing she would reach beyond it one day. At 17, she left for nurse’s training in the city, and life expanded and stretched. Dorms with strict coming-and-going policies, one public phone shared by everyone, and warnings when a man was on the floor, she remembered fondly. There were the items of women drying in the bathroom and baskets of clothes to be ironed, funding her education. Hospital rounds taught her the complex realities of pain and tragedy, and my mom resolved to be a helper in life.
Even with the ravages of dementia, she remembered meeting my dad. She had been tired, not wanting to go to the dance, but changed her mind. Like the lyrics from Some Enchanted Evening, they spotted each other “across a crowded room.” Both had stars in their eyes, ringed by her dorm mates admiring his Hollywood good looks from the windows. When recounting this story, my mom always said, “It was meant to be.”
After a small wedding, summer found them traveling to a remote Idaho mining camp, a bumpy 40-50 miles from civilization. Dad worked underground; my 21-year-old mom was the camp nurse and the only medical professional on-site. There were no phones, so a knock on the door, day or night, could indicate a whole array of potential disasters. In the winter, they returned to college housing, and my mom supported my dad as he finished his engineering degree. I returned with them a few years ago, and their home had been transformed into a fraternity house. The guys invited us inside, and as we looked around, my mom pointed at a corner of a bedroom and said to me,” That is where you were conceived,” to the tittering delight of the frat boys.
I was the first child born in the wilds of Idaho, but as more came, my folks settled down on a ranch outside the San Fernando Valley, and my mom ministered to her growing family rather than the sick. She managed the travails of 4 children with love and a sense of humor, serving us hot breakfasts every morning, healthy dinners at night, and telling us to “go to the other restaurant” if there were complaints. I remember my brother making an unfortunate off-color comment and her tackling him as he yelped in laughter. Her resourcefulness was evident in cutting our hair, reupholstering my brother’s car, sewing my prom dresses, and creating a leopard print vest for my brother, the pinnacle of fashion at the time. The holidays brought carefully designed cards with family pictures and the Christmas poem written by my mom. It was a hilarious and heartwarming rhyming compilation of family events from the year. My grandpa said my mom was the best thing that ever happened to our family, and he was right.
As a child, I told her she looked like a beautiful fairy and wished I could be just like her. As I got older, I wanted us to be the same age so we could be best friends. In high school, she waited up for me after dates, and we would rehash the events of the evening. It was usually my favorite part of the night. Much later, when I was in the throes of a grisly divorce, she and I walked and talked for hours, trying to make sense of it all. With the stress, the pounds melted off our bodies, rendering us sick and drawn. My fear for my daughter and her fear for hers coursed our veins.
As we kids flew the coop, my mom and dad started a new chapter. Exiting the empty nest, they bought a plane and conducted business, visited family, and enjoyed the splendor of our country from 10,000 feet. They moved to a beautiful area outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and met new friends. Moonlit cross-country skiing, cookouts, trekking through the mountains, and snowcat rides to Yellowstone highlighted this period. None of us kids could keep track of their whereabouts for a decade. They cruised through the fjords of Norway, walked among penguins in Antarctica, clapped to the tango dancers of Argentina, snorkeled in Tahiti, and so much more. My mom’s motto was to enjoy every minute of every day, and they were doing it.
Always concerned about others, generosity and compassion threaded through my mom’s entire life. She taught Sunday School, assisted on school field trips, volunteered in 4-H, helped with the Special Olympics, solicited her children to sponsor her in cancer relays, and so much more. In the Eastern Sierra, she was one of the original volunteers creating a hospice organization for the community and making life better for the dying. When she moved to Wyoming, she was tasked with setting up a library for the growing congregation. She was so effective we joked about her creating a library with a church attached to it. There were also anonymous acts of giving, everyday kindnesses, and unspoken generosity. I know of a few of them, and they still take my breath away.
It started with her saying dinner was ready and returning 10 seconds later and again saying dinner was ready. Stories were repeated, items misplaced, and in moments of lucidity, she asked if she was acting goofy. She stopped driving and withdrew from the church and social activities. Emails became shorter, disjointed, and then disappeared altogether. My mom found it difficult to follow conversations and was quieter and withdrawn. She wandered around the house, picking up items and reorganizing them into different spots, making it impossible to find anything. Burners were left on, and a fire ignited in the microwave. We worried about her being trapped outside in the cold Wyoming winter and duct-taped the doorknob so she could not lock it. She forgot how to cook, forgot how to use the phone, and eventually forgot us.
No longer able to live in the outback of Wyoming, we brought her to a Memory Care Community near me. Knowing she loved “going somewhere,” I started taking her on scenic drives. In the car, we listened to Nat King Cole, Dusty Springfield, Andy Williams, Neil Diamond, and other musicians, me singing and inserting her name in the lyrics, her clapping and repeating the refrain once in a while. Several times we drove to a lookout with panoramic views of the Pacific, and I turned off the car, opened the windows letting the breeze blow through, and we sat breathing in the world. Sometimes she said she remembered an area, I think to prove to herself or me she was still there. Occasionally, we brought the wheelchair, and I would wheel her to a wharf restaurant. Munching on tacos and sipping wine, she seemed more like herself, and once in a surprising while, she would remember my name.
As a child, she was Mom, and later I called her Mom Pom, but as we both grew older, she was Mommy Pie, and 63-year-old me was Baby Pie. I told her how much I loved her, and she told me she loved me back. My mother could forget everything else but not that, never that. As time passed, I realized she had one foot in this world and one foot in the next, and she was gradually slipping. There was nothing I could do.
Toward the end, I knew her quality of life had drained away, but it did not matter. How does one live without your touchstone, your essence, your mother? I had seen many friends grapple with this dilemma and wished I had been more compassionate. At the time, I thought this was the way of the world. We cannot live forever. This is how it is supposed to be, and of course, your parents die but losing one’s mom is a big deal. Gripping tributes on Facebook, plaques on benches and walls, a friend donning her mother’s Christmas sweaters for pictures, sentimental tokens of rings, necklaces, and bracelets, and natural phenomena like sunsets, hummingbirds, or flowers sparking a spiritual connection. I realize the paths of grieving are as different as maternal relationships, and I will need to forge my own. I know my mom would be happy I am starting to remember who she was before dementia. Her compromised self is falling away, and I am seeing her again. There is also comfort in knowing she lived exactly as she wanted, and I try to remember her motto of enjoying each day, but mostly I am just trying to figure it out.
M.J. Minerman writes for spinsters around the world who have "not found their lids and are pursuing lives well-lived."