Today my Mother would be having her 97th birthday. However she's been gone since 1972. She missed so many changes in the world, in social mores, and even in her own family, and today I find myself thinking and even wondering about who she really was.
She lived to meet only six of her 12 grandchildren, none of her great-grandchildren. She would not recognize any of the places where her children live today. Of her four children, she would have known the spouse of only one of them, and, never even saw that child be married.
Mom was born Mary Kathryn Mead on Feb. 3, 1919 in the small central Washington town of Ellensburg. Her family was one of the oldest in that part of the state, living there since Washington was part of the Oregon territory.
She was the eldest of six children and grew up on a ranch bounded by a bend of the Yakima River. She was the fourth -- and last -- generation to grow up on the family holdings. Here's the very first Photo I have of her. She is, of course, being held by my maternal grandmother.
My mother is a complete mystery to me. She was always very self-contained, and seldom disclosed very much about herself to anyone. She professed to have had no memory of her childhood at all. And her siblings remember her largely by her absence.
When Mom was less than two years old, her brother was born. I'm sure like any first-born, she was jealous of the attention the new baby received, and in some normal two-year-old fashion wanted that ``bad baby'' to go away. It must have terrified her when that is exactly what happened and my grandmother was convulsed with grief over the loss of her infant son to diphtheria.
On so many levels, I think this event played a key part in my mother's psyche. How guilty she must have felt -- on an unconscious level -- that this most forbidden of wishes actually came true.
And it didn't help any that her two surviving brothers both got polio, with one of them very severely disabled as a result. From the time that polio came into the family, the boys' needs had to trump everything else.
Mom compensated by disappearing. She had been given a pony when she was very young, and from the time she could mount the saddle and stay on the pony -- and later on, a succession of horses -- she was gone. She was always up in the hills surrounding the Kittitas Valley, often with the cowboys or the sheepherders who worked that open high-country range land.
You'd think that anything this important to her would provide important memories, but she only spoke of this in the most generic terms. ``I rode my horse into the hills,'' was all she would ever say.
Very few photos survive of my mom as a child, partially because photography was considered an expensive luxury during the Depression years, and partially because the family home on the ranch burned to the ground at Christmas 1956, taking with it several generations worth of memorabilia and photos.
In the few that I have seen, Mom is a serious and sad looking child, with her hair cut in a severe Dutch bob, and wearing the lumpy and uncomfortable-looking clothing inflicted on little girls in the 1920s. I once found a buttonhook among her possessions and Mom said she had worn high-button shoes and heavy knit stockings that had to be held up with some sort of elastic contraption when she was in school. She is the child on the right in the photo below.
By the time she got to high school, her beauty began to manifest. I guess in other times you'd call her a ``blond bombshell,'' except for her constantly serious mien. (I know she did very well in school, well enough to have won a full four-year college scholarship). But with the exception of a set of photos shot on a friend's ranch, I never saw one single picture of my mother smiling as a young woman. This photo of Mom with her skis is from that one set of rare smiling images.
My very Catholic family sent her off to Forest Ridge Convent in Seattle, where she did her first two years of college. After the nuns in the Society of the Sacred Heart closed down Forest Ridge's college department, Mom went on to Marylhurst College in Oregon, a small women's college operated by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
There she majored in chemistry with what was described as a minor in bacteriology. She graduated summa cum laude in 1940, one of a class of only 24 students. Her listing in the college yearbook describes her as a ``tall platinum blond, exotic, sophisticated, but disarmingly talkative,'' and as a ``resident of the chemistry laboratory, future Madame Curie.''
Mom was only 5'6" but perhaps by the standards of the time she was tall. I am not at all sure how and why somebody just off a Central Washington cattle ranch would come across as exotic or sophisticated, but maybe that's only yearbook talk. She does not appear in any photos connected with any of the college's activities or student organizations.
I know that after she graduated, she did an internship at one of the Seattle hospitals, and then med tech work for a medical practice. While she was working at the hospital, she met a Norwegian-immigrant doctor from Eastern Washington, who, in turn, introduced her to his brother. She dated the brother and they were married in April 1942.
My father Bjarne Slind was a Lutheran, from the Haugean sect, and because of this, although they were married in the Catholic church, my parents' wedding ceremony was truncated and had to take place outside the communion rail. For years I had thought that the big objection to the marriage had to have come from my ultra-Catholic grandparents, but now that I am older, and know a bit more about my dad's family, I realize that they were the ones who had even bigger reservations about this so-called ``mixed marriage.'' Here Mom and Dad are on their wedding day, photographed in the ``music room'' of my grandparents' home on the ranch. They were both 23 at the time.
One time I found two typewritten stapled-together pages in with my mother's papers. She snatched them from my hand and explained that they had been given her by a Jesuit priest a week before her wedding. The paper explained what people do sexually when they are married. She said the priest told her to read the paper once and if it gave her impure thoughts, she had to go to confession before the wedding. I can believe it. This is the religious/cultural mindset inculcated into her.
The wedding came four months after Pearl Harbor, and Dad then enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After he completed basic training in Illinois, he was stationed first in Ogden, Utah, and then went on to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. My mom followed him, and was pregnant by the time they moved to San Francisco. Before I was born, she was able to discover some of the exotic life of the city. Here's a photo of her with Dad and other military couples at the famed -- and long-since defunct -- San Francisco nightclub Bal Tabarin. She's the blond on the left, and next to her is Dad in his Navy uniform.
Wartime housing was almost impossible in the city, so Mom ended up with a rented room in a House belonging to an elderly widower out in San Francisco's Excelsior district. And every day she would take the streetcar in to Notre Dame de Victoires, the French church in the financial district, to pray that Dad would not be killed in the war. My name is Mary Victoria because of her connection to that church. I suspect this photo was taken the day I was baptized shortly after my birth in 1944.
I am the eldest of her four children. My brother Eric, also born in San Francisco, came along in 1945, so the two of us qualify as genuine war babies. After Dad got out of the service, my parents bought a 10-acre plot covered with second-growth timber in Washington State's south Snohomish County, where they built a simple flat-roofed cinderblock house that was our first real home. Here's the house in progress with Mom and Dad taking a break from their labors.
My mom was pregnant again, this time with my sister Brigit, and suddenly was in a place considered way out in the country, with three little kids, a husband who took the only car for a long commute to Boeing every day, and left her with a menagerie that included three goats, two pigs, about 50 rabbits, Muscovy ducks, geese, chickens, cats and a dog to watch over and care for.
I remember our time there as idyllic, with woods in which to roam, wild blackberries to eat right off the bushes, and wildflowers galore. But it must have been so hard for her, and probably very lonely.
Our telephone hung on the wall, and had no dial. You had to put the earpiece to your ear, get close to the mouthpiece that was attached to the wall unit, and tell ``Central'' which number you wanted.
I don't think anybody much ever came to visit very often, with the exception of my aunt Doris and Uncle Toby, who lived in Capitol Hill in Seattle. I do know Mom went to mass regularly, and on occasion, the pastor would call at the house. Otherwise, I think most of Mom's everyday life was consumed with survival, taking care of three little kids, washing clothes in a wringer washer and hanging everything out on endless clotheslines, hoping to dodge the Northwest's ubiquitous rains.
The rabbits -- which Dad raised for fur to supplement his income -- provided an endless supply of rabbit manure, so the garden flowers grew to Guinness Book of Records size. My main memories are of Mom ironing, running an endless stream of diapers through the wringer, and sitting at her sewing machine making clothes for my baby sister. And she cooked rabbit for dinner most every night, telling us it was chicken with an extra pair of drumsticks.
When it was time for me to start first grade, my parents sold the property and bought a grand old house on Capitol Hill's Interlaken Boulevard in Seattle. It had been built at the turn of the century by someone who had gotten rich after the Yukon Gold Rush and wanted to outdo all the neighbors by creating a truly splendid mansion. The arrow indicates the house as it looked when my parents bought it.
But by the time we moved in, living styles had changed, so there was no longer a maid for the back bedroom and the back stairs, or a butler for the butler's pantry. The house was huge, maintenance had been deferred, and I am pretty sure that Dad -- and maybe Mom -- had a dream of ``modernizing'' this old house. Which they did in the very worst 1950s fashion. Just about the only sin they didn't commit was that they avoided putting wall-to-wall carpeting down on the glorious hardwood floors.
Otherwise everything that had made the house elegant and distinctive was ripped out in the dual names of economy and progress. Out went the leaded glass windows; in came the giant picture windows. Out went the beautiful natural wood paneling and in came the dark green flat paint. The peaked roof was dropped something like 28 feet, so that it was no longer possible to walk around the outer circumference of the third-floor ballroom while standing straight up.
The marble countertops in the kitchen were replaced with yellow linoleum, and the giant Tiffany chandelier in the dining room was sold to the junk man for $25 and replaced by a dropped floating ceiling of acoustical tile (probably asbestos-laden) with recessed fluorescent lighting. The exterior was covered with raked cedar siding and was painted a color one of my friends calls ``dental green.'' This photo, taken from the rear of the house, is an ``after'' shot.
I spend so much time talking about the house because that, more than anywhere else, is where Mom spent all her time. She didn't ever work outside the home. She had loved skiing and riding before her marriage, but never ever did I see her on skis or a horse. She never really made friends with the neighbors, or in our parish, much beyond the other family members who lived there. I can't remember her ever going out to lunch with people, or going to a movie.
She read a lot, as indeed do all the women in our family. She made ceramic figurines, which were sold to benefit the Carmelite nuns. She went to mass on Sunday and as often during the week as she could. She cooked, although never very well, with way too much dependence on the newly available frozen vegetables, which she too often boiled into mush. I don't think she was ever very interested in cooking.
Mainly, I think, she served as Dad's handmaiden. Dad was very demanding. His pants had to be freshly pressed every single day. His shirts had to be just so. He was a compulsive acquirer of tools and supplies he needed for his various home-improvement products and often Mom was out on shopping expeditions for some obscure kind of webbing or grommets.
Dad's alcoholism surfaced just about the time we moved into Seattle, although I have some dim memories of some really terrifying beer-fueled Sunday afternoons when we were still living in the country. Once we moved into Seattle, Dad's work at Boeing turned into top-secret stuff relating to the big intercontinental bombers. He was literally working seven days a week, or at least that was what we were told. He'd come home late, after having hit the bars with his Boeing buddies and their Air Force opposite numbers.
Mom would try to cook the limited number of foods he was willing to eat, and to have the meal ready for him when he came home, as he demanded. But he was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and nine times out of ten, when he came home so late, the food was overcooked, and we'd have to hear a diatribe about ``Mary, you killed the meat. You killed the God damned meat again.''
These were the times of his weeping jags, lengthy self-pitying monologues about how ``I'm no good, I'm no damned good'' and inconsistently applied discipline from Dad that put all of us into a state of constant anxiety. Mom never talked back to Dad. She just set her face into a very sad expression, cleaned up the dish he had thrown at her or the vomit on the floor, and sat at the table patiently listening to Dad go on and on.
I think in these years she tried so hard to do whatever she could to make our father happy that often our needs as children were neglected. We never went to the dentist. We wouldn't have gotten our shots or had other medical care had it not been for our uncle, the doctor. I can remember going to school with the sole of one of my shoes flapping loose for weeks.
It wasn't that Mom was lazy or indolent. She was just so preoccupied, and probably so badgered and beaten down by Dad. And she had one single obsession, the conversion of Dad to Catholicism.
Now that I can look back on these times, and now that I know more about the Lutheran sect into which my father was born, I find it more than a little bit ignorant, insensitive and downright disrespectful that she was so insistent that Dad abandon the faith of his family. For these Lutherans, the Reformation was still very much alive and well, and Catholics were still feared and mistrusted.
Maybe this photo can give you some idea of how very Catholic my family is. It was taken at what was then the Jesuit seminary, Alma College in Los Gatos, California. The family had gone to California for the ordination of one of its members. Charles Suver S.J. He's the guy in the long cassock in the center of the photo and later in life was famed for saying the first mass on top of Iwo Jima during World War II. You've probably seen that photo in history books. Mom is the second from the right, wearing a black hat. My maternal great-grandparents are standing directly to the right of the newly ordained priest. Making this long trip from Washington State was very big deal in those days, and that fact that so many family members are here can give you a pretty good idea of the level of piety and commitment to Catholicism was part of our culture.
Maybe on some levels, Mom thought that if Dad converted, all the bad things would end and we could have a so-called normal life. But on others I think she simply was infected with the zeal of the Church Triumphant, and really thought there was no salvation outside the Catholic church.
When I was in fourth grade, a florist's bill came to the house for a dozen red roses Dad had sent, not to Mom, but to some other woman. The Christmas just before this, a card had come to the house wishing a Merry Christmas to Bjarne and Dorothy. But my mom's name was Mary.
So finally Dad's infidelity was out in the open. Dad departed, to live in a rented room behind Volunteer Park, and we were left with Mom to make it on our own. His departure seemed to trigger a mandatory family rosary to be said kneeling around Mom's bed every night. We were supposed to pray that ``Daddy would become a Catholic and come home to us again.'' Only none of us wanted him to come back. We were so tired of being terrorized and beaten and having to put up with his drunken rage and endless rant.
Mom became ever more religious and now went to daily Mass. The prayers we had to say after the completion of the rosary became longer and longer. She consulted a lawyer to get what was known as a ``separate maintenance agreement.'' The lawyer was Catholic, of course, and she used to write him long anguished letters that were as much about religious issues as they were about Dad's behavior and their financial situation.
The fourth child, my sister Martha, was born early on in my parents' separation. Mom had to go to the hospital alone, and came home to take care of the new baby and the three older children all by herself. Having had four kids under five myself, I just cannot imagine how she managed on her own.
What I mainly remember of those years, besides all the praying and the financial tightrope, is of Dad's coming back to the house late at night, drunk, banging on the doors, Mom's eventually giving in to let him in, hearing the sounds of him hitting her and knocking her down, or of him spending the night, taking the doorknob off their bedroom door to keep us kids out. All in all, it was a very confusing time.
I don't know what the precipitating factor was, but one day when I was in eighth grade, Sister Superior came into the classroom and told me I was to go home immediately. When I got to the house, Mom was furiously packing everybody's clothes into suitcases and piling them into the car. We learned that we were all going over to Eastern Washington to live with Dad's older brother, who was a surgeon in a small town in the wheat country.
I never will understand why we went to someone from Dad's family rather than, say, my maternal grandparents' home on the ranch, or to one of Mom's sisters or brothers. In any case, we -- all four kids and Mom -- lived with my uncle for the better part of the school year. It all felt very odd. We had gone from very urban schools to what was essentially a three-room school, Catholic of course, while we were living with our very Lutheran relatives, whose kids went to big public schools. The adjustment was difficult, to say the least, and it must have been awkward for my mom to be home all day with my aunt, her husband's brother's wife.
The aunt and uncle were cordial, but at that point we didn't know them very well. And the Lutheran thing was strange and scary for us. Back then, Catholics were taught they couldn't even set foot in a Protestant church, yet here we were going off to see our cousins in their Sunday School Christmas pageant.
I never quite knew what went on, but all of a sudden, in just about the last month of the school year, we left the relatives' house and moved back to Seattle, and Dad moved back into the house. He was apparently on his best behavior, and some time during that month, he went off to church one afternoon and was baptized a Catholic.
That summer we went on our one and only family vacation, all six of us plus a cousin who came along for the ride. We drove to Yellowstone, stayed in motels for the first time in our lives, and ate in strange western-themed restaurants where the counters were set with silver dollars. We ran out of money at one point and Dad had to go into Missoula to find a place to cash a check (no cash machines or credit cards in these days) so we'd have enough money to get back home again. Mom brought along her new electric frying pan and on the nights we didn't go to a restaurant, she cooked something -- generally those frozen``minute steaks'' that were popular then -- in the motel room for our dinners.
After we returned from Yellowstone and I started high school, Dad began to slip back into the same patterns of drinking and abuse. And Mom simply endured. She worked on her ceramics. She planted petunias and lobelia. She sewed dresses for us girls. And one year she spray-painted a bunch of empty pineapple juice cans black and poked holes in the metal so they could be used in some way for centerpieces for some Mother's Club luncheon. I remember looking at them, and thinking sadly that this is what my mother's education had come to, making ugly centerpieces for an event that she wouldn't even be attending.
She read anything she could get her hands on, and, I am beginning to suspect, she sometimes drank in the daytime. I never caught her in the act, but my siblings insist that this was going on. (I was away from the house for as many hours of the day as possible, escaping to the tranquility and safety of my school and the support of the nuns who were my teachers, or hiding out in the green splendor of the Washington Park Arboretum).
I don't think I ever saw my mother cry, but she was always so sad. And photos from this era support my memory. Mom was also very very beautiful. And I mean movie-star beautiful. Although her heritage was more Dutch and German, she looked like the quintessential Nordic ice princess, with sharply defined cheekbones, brilliant blue eyes, and long blond hair worn in a chignon at her neck. Even today when people who never ever met my mom see her photo, the first thing out of their mouths is ``Oh! Your mother was SO beautiful.'' Well, yes she was. She was also very bright, if her school marks, and her choice of major in college are any indication. She had a certain measure of creativity, and did nice work in any of the visual arts she attacked. And she came from an old and well-established pioneer family. In the photo below, Dad took Mom over to the Palouse country to meet his family. I can just imagine what it must have been like to have had her show up in her fur coat out in the middle of a wheat field.
I think that on some levels, for my dad she was the ultimate trophy wife, so beautiful, so well connected, so smart and well educated, and, on some levels, so cultured. She was everything he could want, but also was everything that could make him, as an insecure immigrant who lost his mother early and who felt he never fit in, feel unworthy. I think he had to reach too far, or at least he felt he did, to keep up with her. And the only way he could feel good about himself was to tear her down.
If I had a nickel for every time he ranted ``Mary, you don't know anything. You don't even know the formula for Mercurochrom,'' I'd probably never buy another lottery ticket. He criticized her appearance, and her dress. Her housekeeping could never measure up. He wasn't interested in the books she read or the art she made. And he ranted about her terrible cooking night after night after night.
What was hard for us as children was that she just stood there and took it. One time my grandmother had been at the house during one of these particularly nasty confrontations. Afterward she wrote in a letter to another family member that the look she saw on her daughter's face ``was like Mary's at the foot of the cross.'' In other words, emotional suffering elevated to a pious act.
In those years we begged Mom to kick Dad out and make it on her own. But she'd never worked outside the home since her marriage and, as she kept saying all the time ``I made a solemn vow before God'' when she married our father and was not ever going to violate that.
I often wonder what was the attraction he had for her. I heard bits and pieces about the guys she had liked before Dad came along and I suspect that, while she was a very good and obedient daughter, she just wasn't interested in the ``nice Catholic boys'' who showed up and won my grandparents' ready approval .Dad was different, from a world outside of hers, and probably had just enough of a ``bad boy'' in him. Whatever it was, Mom never wavered in her affection for him, and in the last days of her life was urging family members not to forget him and to be good to him.
Dad started to work on the space program and we moved to Florida to be near Cape Canaveral in August 1960, arriving there about a week before Hurricane Donna came ashore with 160 mph winds. We had just gotten settled in our rental house when we had to evacuate to higher ground. And when we came back, a foot of water was in the house, strange creatures-- including alligators and poisonous snakes-- had invaded, and the fiberglass enclosure that comprised an outdoor room around the swimming pool was twisted and torn beyond repair.
Dad was at the Cape almost 24/7 and when he was at home, he was even more of a martinet than before. I guess he was like so many men who worked in the space program at the time. They were in the zero-defects atmosphere at work and couldn't understand why their wives and children and homes and pets couldn't ``straighten up and fly right'' like everything in the workplace.
Plus there were at least 40 bars and motels between the Cape and our house, and for the high-flying engineers, military guys and astronauts it was party central. I've seen my dad in a lot of drunken states but it was never as bad as when we were in Florida.
For the first time we were able to afford household help and Mom had free time, but had no place to go and nothing to do. Our schools and church were 20 miles away, as well as even the nearest supermarket.
There was some pressure to socialize with the other wives of the engineers, scientists and military men at the Cape. Mom began going to mid-day pool parties with these women, at which numerous pitchers of daiquiris were consumed. And suddenly Dad was expected to bring Mom to Friday night blowouts at the officer's club on the nearby Air Force base. So they were out Fridays, both drinking, and sometimes bringing the party back home with more than a few people ending up in the swimming pool with all their clothes on. It was a lot like the Astronauts' Wives series that was on TV last year.
It was such a weird and confusing time. Nothing in Florida was at all like our life in the Pacific Northwest. None of the plants or animals were familiar. We no longer were in the Jesuit parish with so many members of the extended family. Mom couldn't find familiar brand names or products in the grocery store. And the very vocabulary people used was unfamiliar. People said ``hey'' and instead of ``hi.'' The African-American woman who helped with the housework asked Mom to ``carry'' her back home at the end of the day. Drinking fountains and even the schools we attended had ``whites only'' labels,'' and Dad's advice to Mom in the wake of all these changes was just to go along with it and not rock the boat.
My maternal grandmother and grandfather had died in the year before we moved to Florida and I think Mom missed them terribly. Someone once found a letter she had written to our grandmother from Florida, tear-stained and tucked into an apron pocket, unmailed. `
This was before cell phones and inexpensive air fares, so it was very hard to keep in touch with her family back home in Washington State. Dad kept an iron control over such things as the number of long-distance minutes on the phone bill and every day would go out and check the odometer on Mom's car to see how much she had driven that day.
I'm sure she felt terribly trapped. She did what she could to assimilate and find some outlets. She collected pounds of shells on the beach, began to cultivate some of the local tropical plants, and even eventually had an atrium built to house a giant cage full of colorful finches. And she read. Mainly trashy supermarket mass-market paperbacks, but they really were just about all she could find in the small beach town.
I left after one year and returned to Seattle to start college. So I don't know what all went on during those next years in Florida. I did come back for part of one summer vacation and found Dad's behavior to be the worst I'd experienced so far. None of my siblings spent any time around the house if they could. We had a power boat and a dinghy with a small outboard motor and whoever could get hands on the dinghy first was gone down the canals and out to the lonely beauty of the mangroves. Or we hid out down on the hard-packed ocean beach.
Mom seemed to have zero freedom. And all I can remember are the 40-mile round trips to the supermarket, Sundays at mass, and one or two day trips to the likes of Palm Beach or Orlando. We of course had to be home before Dad's estimated time of arrival.
The family moved back to the Northwest in the summer of 1964. Surprisingly they didn't go back to Capitol Hill but instead rented a home on Mercer Island. Once more there were no friends or family nearby. There was a new parish church and a new grocery store, and eventually, a new sewing machine. Mom planted geraniums in her favorite shade of pink, occasionally played one of several pieces she had learned in her youth on the grand piano they could now afford to buy, and, I think may have been doing some serious secret daytime drinking. Again, I never saw this, but my siblings say this was something they definitely noticed when they were still living at home.
I got married in June 1965. I never lived in the house on Mercer Island, moving directly from my college dorm to the house in which I lived as a newlywed. In essence, I left home for good when I was 17, so I didn't see Mom up close and personal in those later years.
She was generous to some of my college friends, particularly those who had some kind of difficulty. In some ways, I think kindness to people outside the family was a little easier for her than to those who had grown up in the toxic atmosphere within.
I started to have babies, and Dad didn't like to have them come over to the house and potentially disturb the harmony of his routine. And he would never go anywhere for any family event. So most of my contact with Mom was on the phone. I would call her nearly every day and talk for as long as half an hour. Things were rough in my marriage, and at one point -- before any of my kids were born -- I was desperate to leave. I called Mom and asked for help and she gave me the same line ``you made a solemn vow before God'' and refused to help me in any way. So I went back home to my husband and Mom stayed with hers.
A few odd things happened in those years. My brother got married and, while my two sisters were bridesmaids, I had no particular role to play. I went to the wedding and afterward to the reception. Mom came up to me about half an hour into the reception and told me ``it's time for you to go. You must leave now.'' Even now I don't know why that happened that made her not want me to be there.
Another time my dad was out of town on business and Mom was hosting her siblings at the house. I came by for some reason and all of a sudden Mom tore into me, saying ``you think you are so superior and you know all those big words.'' Huh? I just don't know why she had to do that. She was every bit as well educated as I.
I grew very rapidly when I went through puberty, hitting my six-foot adult height shortly after my 13th birthday. Despite years of ballet, I know I was somewhat physically awkward when I was adjusting to my new dimensions. So it really hurt when Mom constantly told me ``you're so awkward. You're so clumsy. You can't do anything right. Here let me do that because I can't stand to watch you try to do it.''
I don't think she was deliberately cruel. On some level, I would guess that she had been victimized so much by Dad that this was the way she learned to relate to her children. The abused becomes the abuser.
She got a small inheritance from her parents and used it to buy some property on Lake Cle Elum in the mountains of Central Washington, just outside of the tiny coal-mining town of Roslyn. When Dad traveled for business -- and in those days of the space program, he was constantly on the move between various tracking stations in Europe and Australia -- she would head over across Snoqualmie Pass and spend the night camping on her land.
We had a very bad winter for snow one year, with a number of avalanches sweeping across the pass, killing a few motorists each time. I got worried about Mom's driving back and forth across the pass, and asked her not to go during the big snow season. I told her I was afraid something would happen to her. ``Would it even matter?'' she said bitterly. I think that is the only time I ever really heard her express how filled with despair her life had become.
Dad had a very lengthy business trip set for Europe and for once, he was told he could take his wife with him. Back then it was still a very big deal to take a trip abroad, so Mom went in to the doctor to get what were then considered all the necessary shots and for a pre-trip physical. I have the passport photo she had taken in anticipation of the trip overseas and, with hindsight, it was easy to see that she was already sick.
The doctor found that she had a tumor on her heart that had already invaded her lungs. And here's the really odd thing. I can remember going over to the house and having her tell me about her health issues. What I will always remember, and shudder when I do so, was the weird look of triumph in her eyes when she said ``and the doctor said it was inoperable.''
In retrospect, maybe she saw her cancer as an acceptable escape from her hellish marriage. Or maybe it was even some sort of masochism disguised as suffering she could ``offer up.'' Whatever it was, I was sick at heart to hear her say those words.
Mom's last illness and dying took a couple of years. There were rounds of chemo and radiation, metastasis here and there, moments of remission when it looked like the cancer was going away, and then bitterly disappointing relapses.
In those days most cancer treatment took place in hospitals, and Mom was at Providence Hospital for months at a time. Dad didn't do well with having her hospitalized, and whenever she was well enough to be discharged, would take out his frustration on her physically, or with verbal abuse, or would simply demand that she cater to his whims.
He was restoring his MG TC sports car, and when Mom was up and well enough to drive, she was sent hither and yon in search of roll-and-pleat upholstery for the car seat, certain kinds of lug nuts and Goddess only knows what else.
I remember one time when she was newly home from the hospital and Dad demanded that she get up out of bed, press his pants and pack his suitcase because he was ``going on an AA retreat.'' Mom got up and dutifully pressed the pants, and packed the suitcase and sent him on his way. We later learned that the ``retreat'' was really a lost weekend with the woman who had been his girlfriend ever since that bouquet of red roses more than a decade earlier.
When Mom was in the hospital, I didn't get to see her very often. She was immune-compromised because of all the chemo, and with my four little kids, I was living in a petri dish in which every known childhood disease was constantly being incubated. And then Dad told me he didn't want me coming to the hospital because he was ashamed of how I looked and didn't want his family looking down on him because of me. Go figure. I hope it was just his insecurity that moved him to say this.
In any case, I wasn't with her when Mom died. A few months before her death I was able to take all four kids up to the hospital to see her one last time. My youngest was a little more than one year old. I remember thinking that most of them would probably never have any memories of my mother, and it's true that they don't.
Mom was such an odd person. While her siblings and her nieces and nephews speak of her so fondly, my two sisters, my brother and I can mainly remember her only as distant, and somewhat cold and judgmental. I don't ever remember holding her hand or sitting in her lap or being physically close to her in any way. Never heard her say ``I love you'' to anyone. I think that's why I find it hard to say even a casual ``love ya'' in passing. It feels like a very scary phrase to use.
She had some favorite words. After our Florida days, anything she liked was ``maaaaarvelous.'' She always said her favorite word was ``poisonous'' because she liked the way it sounded. When she was in a fabric store and found a textile she liked, she'd run it between her thumb and index finger and make a little slithering ``ssssssth'' sound.
She liked licorice allsorts, bourbon, Mozart's ``Alla Turca,'' and Christian Sinding's ``Rustles of Spring.'' She loved the mountains and the wildflowers, and even became something of a mushroom expert. She discovered tarragon in the last years of her life, and used it with a heavy hand in nearly every dish she cooked. Her long golden hair was her pride and glory and losing it to chemo was, I think, the hardest thing she ever had to face. Although her cooking was for the most part pretty miserable, for some reason she could make fabulous ratatouille, so delicious that I used to come home from school, open the oven door and sneak spoons full right out of the pot. And she's the one who invented my chocolate angelfood birthday cake without which a celebration of my birthday is never quite complete.
She could be high-handed, like the time I stopped by the house a few months before my wedding and she showed me the fabric and the dress pattern for my going-away-suit she had picked out with zero input from me. On the other hand, my wedding dress of white silk peau de soie was so beautifully constructed, and was, down to every last silk-covered button, exactly what I had asked her to make. Here's a photo from my wedding day, with Mom and Dad, and I am wearing the dress of my dreams that she sewed. By the way, it was only in the past year that I began to wonder why she wore a white suit to my wedding. I don't think mothers of the bride usually do that.
I have very few things that belonged to her. Several months ago I gave her beloved and beautifully bound copy of Whitman's ``Leaves of Grass'' to my daughter Martha. Hanging on the wall of my kitchen is one of her Blue Willow-pattern platters, the one with ``Made in Occupied Japan'' printed on the back. And I've read and re-read her copy of ``Anna Karenina,'' one so old that it is illustrated with photos from the 1935 film version starring Greta Garbo.
Some photos of Mom are framed and hang on my walls, but not in a public area of my house. I really don't have family photos out on display, but people who know me well enough can step into my dressing room and see lots of photos of the whole extended family. Viewers' eyes are always drawn to images of my mom, and there is always that same ``she was SO beautiful'' phrase uttered.
Bottom line, I suppose, is that Mom will always be a mystery to me. Today is her birthday, and I have to say I am remembering this with a wry smile. Mom was born on the feast of St. Blaise, a relatively obscure martyr in the early Christian church. He was a bishop from Armenia who was killed by being raked with metal combs and then beheaded.
For some reason -- maybe the beheading -- he is always associated with the throat. So on the feast of St. Blaise we always had to go to church to get our throats blessed. This was accomplished by kneeling at the communion railing and having the priest come by and place two candles tied in the shape of a letter X on our necks and say a prayer. The idea was that this would protect us from choking to death on a fishbone. (I am NOT making this up. Don't know if this is still done, but I suspect this practice may have gone away following Vatican II).
I can remember really hating this. Not getting the point at all. But because the throat blessing took place on Mom's birthday and because it was some pious practice she wanted us to perform, we always had to do it. I think the last time I went in for the throat blessing, I glanced up at the priest and thought to myself that the look in his face indicated that he probably considered this to be just about as much BS as I did.
So anyway, Mom would be 97 today. She would have had to deal with the fact that three of her four children are divorced from the partners she saw them marry, that one of her children has come out as gay and is married to a same-sex partner, that not one of her children is a practicing Catholic. She might even have seen that her husband eventually married the woman to whom those red roses were sent, and that every trace of my mother's presence was then eradicated from the house in which she had lived.
I wonder what she would have thought about all the technological changes? Would she ever have learned to use a computer? Would she have had a cell phone? I bet she would have voted against legalizing recreational-use marijuana in Washington State. What would she have thought to have seen women on the Supreme Court and as mayors, governors, and senators? Where would she have stood on the Gulf wars and how would she have responded to 9/11? Would she ever have recovered from the death of her first-born grandchild? Would she have been judgmental when her son-in-law died of AIDS? I wonder if she would have let her golden hair go gray.
If she were still here, I suspect she would probably have lost her heart to every single one of her 11 great-grandchildren, and been curious about the choices made by her grandchildren, all of whom are now adults. And I would hope that she had become as beloved to her grandchildren as her mother -- my grandmother -- was to me.
I wanted to love my mother and I wanted to be loved by her. From the perspective of 44 years after her death, it's hard to know what really transpired between us. In the first years after she died, she was my sainted dead mother who had suffered so much in life, and I found it impossible to look critically at any aspect of her life. As I got older and began to see how much more complicated things are than they seem, I look back and so often wonder why her life unfolded the way it did. I try not to blame her and I try to honor her memory. I probably learned much more from her than I will ever know or be willing to acknowledge. At the same time, I look at so-called ``normal'' mother-daughter relationships, and they seem light years away from what went on in our family.
We Pagans say what is remembered lives. And in the writing of this, so much of what I remember about my mother has come to life again. Not all of it is easy or pleasant, but it's who she was and she's what I have in the way of a mother. And that's just how it is.
Oh, and one coda to this story. This is about my mom as I saw her. Others' views may be very different, and if so, I hope they find a way to tell her story their way.
This post first appeared on Driving Audhumla, please read the originial post: here