I am writing this for my children. By the time they were old enough to register mom on their radar screens, she had weathered a terrible storm. She was tense and laughter came infrequently. I want them to understand more about her.
My mother was terribly insecure–insecurity rooted in her own mother’s disdain. Della Seafert Price, my grandmother, bore three children. Mom was first. Then there were two boys. My mother’s given name was Marjorie Jane Price. Her parents forgot what they had chosen for her first name. Until the birth certificate arrived weeks later they called her by her middle name, Jane. I always took that story at face value. Now I wonder, “How does a mother forget her first-born child’s name?”
Della, my “Nana”, repeatedly told my mother she would prefer five boys to one girl. What does that do to an impressionable child’s self-confidence? Mother wasn’t allowed to express anger. She would take her rage into her bedroom and bend coat hangers.
She also grew up very concerned about appearances. There were “mom-ism’s” that drove my sister, Marilyn, and me nuts. I asked Marilyn which she remembers. She said, “You look like a sheepdog. Comb your hair.” I remember a different version of the same theme, “You look so pretty. Would you like to use my comb?” Which was it? Was I pretty or messy?
Mother was smart. She had gone to the University of Chicago, receiving a Phi Beta Kappa pin her first year. Yet she never finished college. She got married after three years of school. Not completing her education only added to her sense of insecurity.
But here is another thing about my mom. Somehow, despite her insecurities, she developed a spine of steel and a biting, quick wit. The wit was her from her dad’s gene pool. The ramrod straight spine from her mother, Nana.
Fast forward to my father’s death. (blog post on May 5, 2017). His death was, in their small town, infamous. Mother felt intense shame, but she refused to allow shame to be her legacy. She scraped herself together and forged on.
Several years after Daddy died Mother had a stroke. The many years of smoking finally caught up with her. She had long since quit, but too little too late. She stopped smoking following a few too many New Year’s Eve glasses of champagne. She had sloppily bragged to any and everyone, “tomorrow I’m gonna’ quit schmockin’ an’ thaaaat’s the trufe.” Embarrassed by her tipsy behavior she woke determined to make good on her vow. Mother had super-human self-discipline.
She was in the bathroom when the stroke hit her. She fell to the tile floor hard. Her right side was paralyzed. She managed to drag herself, using her left elbow, to the bedside table. She pulled the phone to the floor and dialed 911.
Mother was hospitalized and endured long difficult rehab. While in the hospital many kind people sent cards and flowers. One dear friend (now sadly a former friend for reasons I will never understand) didn’t send flowers. She didn’t send cards. She did something far more insightful. Mom, so worried about image, told my friend she was heart-sick because she was now “hideous.” Rather than simply verbally assuring Mother, Friend walked the halls until she found someone to loan her a hand mirror. Returning she held it in front of Mom’s face. Mother was astonished to find she wasn’t monstrous.
Friend then asked what Mother needed. She needed make-up. The friend made a list of Mom’s favorite cosmetic colors and brands. Later that day she returned with a bag full of supplies. Mother was then able to address all-important appearance needs.
Following the stroke, Mother willed herself to walk again. She looked at every damn thing she did as “therapy.” From what I understand, stroke victims can sometimes rebuild damages by intense hard work. Mother was the most determined stroke survivor ever.
Ultimately she recovered fully. Each Christmas she visited our home in the Chicago suburbs. She and I would go shopping. I’d park her in a dressing room and be her personal shopper, carrying items back and forth, digging for something flattering.
Her last visit was in 2000. When I took her to the airport, she was happily hauling a pile of new clothes back to Delaware.
While on the way I asked her, “Are you afraid to die?” She responded, “Not at all. I am afraid of what I might have to experience before dying. I don’t know if I could summon the strength to fight back from another stroke. But death itself doesn’t frighten me in the least.”
Mother died in her sleep the following month. I later learned she had played bridge that day. She arrived at bridge club wearing her new hot pink pantsuit. One of her close friends told me that when she was complimented on her outfit she stood up and twirled like a little girl. Thinking of that makes me smile.