“There’s a young man in my Sunday school class that I think you might like.”
My grandmother had marriage on her mind. Her older daughter Betsy was engaged and heading to the altar. My mother, having just left her junior year abroad in Scotland to come serve as maid of honor had other plans and other men in mind. She had a boyfriend in Greensboro and after a visit yielded a job offer she decided her destiny lay beyond the Hurricane Mountain in North Carolina. She had hardly begun to unpack when she got word that her mother was gravely ill. My grandmother had late stage cancer by the time it was discovered and died shortly after that at The Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Research. The family fell into the arms of my great grandmother Bessie who came from South Carolina to care for them and mourn the loss of her daughter.
When the topic of plastic surgery arises my mother is rarely wistful. She brings it up occasionally, usually when she sees a friend or colleague that has had a little work done. Sometimes her comments are cautionary, as in:
“She didn’t even look like herself, more like a wax figure molded by an incompetent artist.”
Sometimes her comments are enthusiastic and slightly jealous:
“She really looked good, hardly a trace of the scalpel.”
And there is the issue. Which camp will one fall into, the pretty doll or the scary doll?
My mother heard about an exercise class for seniors in Petaluma at the Herman’s Sons Hall and went faithfully once a week to stretch—and stretch some more. She said initially she was successful at rousing Joe to join her, though he never quite shared her enthusiasm or mastered the techniques. Fellow class members would point that out to mom in exaggerated whispers:
“He’s not doing it right”.
She would smile and say:
“I know that—you tell him”.
During a trip to London my mother visited Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. She skirted a long line of tourists waiting to have their pictures made with the replica of Fergie, Duchess Of York and instead chose the lonely figure of General William Booth for her photo op.
General Booth, a Methodist lay preacher and revivalist was in essence a self-appointed spiritual general and most notably founded the Salvation Army in the late 1800s. He preached on the streets of London’s East End, beating on a bass drum singing “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” He set up soup kitchens, housing and job training concerns for men and women, he helped drunkards get sober and decried the evils of alcohol. He devoted himself and the organization to stepping into the breach he believed the government had created by failing to meet the basic needs of the poor and disenfranchised.
When my daughter, Lily was 2 or 3, she had a playmate named Jack. I put them in side by side car seats in my station wagon one afternoon and tuned in to their chatter during our drive, probably to McDonalds to watch them jump in the ball pit and eat french fries. At one point, Jack asked Lily: “Do you like toenails?” I’ve forgotten her reply but I have never forgotten that exchange, a picture of how we cast about in the world looking for our tribe members, those who are like minded in perhaps offbeat ways, that laugh at the same absurdities and that offer us the opportunity to connect over shared interests and speak in the shorthand of mutual understanding.
I ask my mother if she has trouble deciding, though I know the answer. She may agonize over something and sacrifice precious hours of sleep but when she feels she knows what needs to be done, she does it.
She has lived long enough to make plenty of difficult decisions but the one that broke Mom’s heart was deciding to put her husband Joe in the memory care unit at Sunrise Senior Living in Petaluma. She tried to prepare him, framing it as appealingly as she could and assuring him:
“You’ll be close to Jennie and Paul, they want to spend time with you. I’ll be close too, I’ll move back to Petaluma and visit you every day.”
Several years ago my mother heard one of her ‘heroes of the faith’ Earl Palmer mention George Washington’s Basic Rules of Civility And Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are not Washington’s composition, though he adopted them at sixteen when his schoolmaster asked him to copy them by hand for an exercise in penmanship and chivalry. They were created by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated to English initially in 1640.
I tell my mother the topic is tolerance.
“Hmm” she says. “Maybe you should change it to ‘fed up’”.
I ask her to list the things she is most intolerant of these days, thinking that she will launch into a commentary on the state of the world, the deplorable condition of the political framework, terrorism, mass shootings, the economy, the racial divide, abuses towards women, all things she has plenty to say about on any given day.
My introduction to poetry was the book of Psalms, written in the King James:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters
He restoreth my soul
My maternal grandmother, Neel, was a school teacher and ran a strict household. My mother said that she favored switches for a time as a punishment. I laughed and told her: “I had a few unpleasant run-ins with switches too—with you. In fact, as I recall, you sent me out a few times to cut my own.” She conveniently does not remember this.Continue reading…
Approaching my sixteenth birthday, my mother reluctantly agreed to let me practice my driving skills using her car while she rode shotgun mashing her invisible brake repeatedly. We lived on an island called Belvedere in Marin County just north of San Francisco. Belvedere streets are narrow and twisting; there are no shoulders or safety edges to speak of, just slim turnouts that residents and guests use for parking.