I often write about my dad, but less about my mother. That’s not because I didn’t love her; very much the opposite. In fact, only a couple of days ago I realized that today is the 20th anniversary of Mother’s death. So she’d been very much on my mind, and writing about her today seemed right.
Mother was a loving, generous woman with a tremendous sense of humor. She also had severe anxiety disorder, which in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t fortunate enough to benefit from the medications available today. When I was in first grade, shortly after my sister was born, Mother had her first breakdown. I often tell people that I had two mothers — the one before that and the one who replaced her. Before, she’d put me in the car and drive to Beaumont for a few days if Dad was out on the road on the job. By the time I was eight, she had panic attacks so devastating that she feared driving alone without another driver. That’s when I learned to drive. I was eight or nine.
Medication and therapy helped her. She was never hospitalized. And when she came home from a therapy session, Dad took me on a truck ride to talk to me about her. I was the oldest of three, and I was the one most conscious of her problems. At times, she’d whip me for not making my bed just right. Frankly, I think I simply defied her often and “protected” my younger brother and sister; I don’t think now that she would have harmed them, but I was only eight or so and that’s clearly what I feared. So I took the brunt of her emotional problems.
By the time I was a teenager, she was stable. I just was wary. I loved her deeply; I also had the usual teenage daughter attitude and we clashed. Often loudly.
By the time I left for college at nearly 18, I was ready to hit the road. Of course, that was only 45 miles away from Egan, but I lived in the dorms. I was growing up and away. By the time I was 25, I was working full-time as an adjunct instructor at Lamar University. And by then, I’d grown up enough to love her without reservations.
Indeed, I think it was only then that I began to appreciate just how wonderful Mother was. We got to be friends, we could talk about the past, and we could laugh.
That laugh — that’s what I cherish even now. When Mother laughed, it was complete. Her mouth spread wide, her eyes sparkled and her head went back as she let out a rich, body-deep laugh. She was quick to laugh. And she loved to play pranks.
One story I remember about her happened shortly after she and Dad married in 1948. They were at the farm in San Augustine, Texas, for the weekend. It was Sunday lunch and everyone was sitting around the table, Grandmother at one end and Granddad at the other. Mother somehow dropped a piece of ice under the table. When she went to pick it up, she noticed that Granddad was barefoot. The temptation was just too great. She succumbed. He jumped. And then he laughed. The ice broke the ice.
She could also take a joke. Once (after I’d moved back to Lake Charles and was teaching at McNeese) I was in Egan visiting. We were in the kitchen and I had a fresh bowl of buttered popcorn. She said something (I no longer remember what). I said something like “Don’t say that again or I’ll dump this on your head.” She grinned and said it again. I dumped it. Her smile was immediate and the laugh was huge.
So despite the emotional problems she had and the daughter-mother issues between us, I never doubted that I was loved. Our home was one with laughter and love, with music and friends (theirs and mine). My friends loved to visit; they were always welcome.
As with many children, I simply took so much for granted. My admiration for what Mother and Dad achieved has only grown as I matured.
Their marriage was not necessarily one that everyone welcomed. She was Roman Catholic; Dad was Church of Christ. This wasn’t too common, and some family members (on both sides) were less than tolerant. While they were dating, they broke up a couple of times. It was an issue, but one they overcame. Though some family members were openly insulting, Mother and Dad were respectful of each other, of their different religions, and even attended church together at times at first. When my siblings and I were growing up, we never heard anything disrespectful by either parent of their religions. Never.
Mother’s generosity was amazing — Dad always described her as someone who would give you the shirt off her back, as “too good for her own good.”
She was never confident about herself or her own abilities, yet always fostered confidence in us. She never doubted our abilities.
Her health was a problem by the time I was in my mid-20s, and within days of my 42nd birthday, she was dead. Recently I’ve realized that when she was my age (62), she had less than five years to live. I think about that a lot now.
Her health declined rapidly and she was very ill. Yet in all that time, I never heard her complain or whine. Never once. She had a surprisingly ferocious desire to live, and survived a number of crises. Even her own doctors were amazed at that.
Their love was deep and abiding; they remained together when many marriages would have broken up. Their respective faiths and personal ethics — and their love — kept them together. Years after her death, Dad would say (when someone asked him why he hadn’t remarried) “Why would I? I already had my best friend, my lover.” That astounded me, that my father would say that so matter-of-factly. And he missed her every day of his life after her death.
So today, 20 years after she died, I am remembering my mother. With love, some tears, and lots of laughs.
Cheryl, I have enjoyed reading about your mother even though I didn’t know her very well I feel as though I know her a little better.