14 Apr Goodbye to My Mom

My mom died yesterday of kidney failure. She’d been failing for a while, most unhappily during this past year. She said she was ready to go. More than once she said she’d “had a good run.” And this was true; she was 92, going on 93. Actually, it was amazing she lived that long, given that she was an avid smoker with a family history of heart disease. All nine of her siblings suffered strokes.

Truth is, my brother Mike, a nutritionist, and his wife, Lois, who knows a lot about medicine, kept Mom alive for decades with regimens of vitamins and supplements and all manner of interventions when Big Medicine tried to kill her, again and again, in its ignorantly well-intentioned way. But, also, I have to credit Mom’s feisty nature–her unflagging optimism and her love of life. She made friends easily wherever she went and left behind many, who sadly now in the time of pandemic are unable to celebrate her memory.

My earliest memory of her takes me back to my fourth year, when she and I had an argument. As I wasn’t yet in kindergarten, I had the luxury of enjoying her company without competing with my two elder brothers. At some point in our argument–over who knows what?–she relented, knealt down, showed me a big pout, then held open her arms to make up. But stubbornly I stood back, angry and vengeful, refusing to close the distance between us. Then I saw her face darken, maybe with the cloud of betrayal. “Okay, fine,” she said. She stood and crossed her arms. “Go on–go to your room!”

I ran to the room I shared with my middle brother and threw myself on my bed, where I wept and wept in grief. What had I done? The realization that I had perversely engineered the single most horrific instance that every child dreads–a mother’s rejection–made me more miserable than I’d ever been. My agony was a kind of madness, a world without gravity, everything floating away, out of my reach.

At last, stifling my hysteria, my eyes stinging with tears, I stumbled back to the kitchen where Mom was angrily washing dishes. When I wailed, “Mommy!” she turned around. Now I was the one holding open my arms, but she didn’t come to me–I ran to her. Oh, the comfort I felt as I nestled my hot face into the damp warmth of her blouse, to smell her perfume, to feel her capable hands at the back of my head. It made the world sensible, complete, wholly safe and sane.

I was the most stubborn of her three sons, also the most wayward, making more than a few mistakes that must have kept her up nights. I did make good finally and many times she said she was proud of me. That’s the gift of a long life–you give the wayward time to catch up with you.

She was a gentle soul, taking much of her inspiration from her soft-spoken, incredibly patient mother of ten, who until her last year of life cooked on a wood-burning stove, made Sunday dinners for her huge family, walked to church every Sunday. I recall how I’d often wonder at Mom’s eagerness to think the best of people. Life did manage to knock her about finally, starting with the early death of my father. Still, even her later cynicism wasn’t strong stuff, more like watered-down whiskey. In many ways, I followed her naïve example until surprisingly late in life. I can hardly regret that.

She loved her three boys fiercely. We carry this with us. We carry, too, her easy smile, her grace with strangers, her conviction that there is a God and that good will prevail. In these last years, I often thought of her and Dad, how they met shortly after Dad got out of the Navy. Tom was visiting for the first time his mother’s Appalachian home–Lenoir, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Born and raised on the west coast, he knew nothing of North Carolina, except what little his twice-divorced mother had told him. On this, his first visit, he went on a blind, double date with Ruby Baker. She was cute and lively and played flute in Lenoir High’s award-winning marching band. For him, it was love at first sight. For Ruby, a country girl thoroughly distracted by high school social life, it was, well, it just was fun.

Ruby was surprised when Tom returned before the year was out. This time, he worked a gas station with a friend and made his intentions known, courting Ruby with such earnest and upright devotion, she could hardly say no when he asked her to marry him. At 22, Tom was a man of the world. Handsome too. When Ruby’s mother said to him, “She doesn’t know how to cook–I didn’t have time to teach the little ones,” Tom just shrugged. Mom said later, “He was patient. Always patient. He didn’t mind my cooking. I tried my best!” Let me say for the record (sorry, Mom), she was mostly a dreadful cook.

She dropped out of high school her senior year and, just like that, she and Tom were married and on their way to California in a battered Hudson, with Tom’s mother in the backseat. Ruby was a go-along girl like that, never complaining, pretty much up for whatever was to come. It would not have occurred to her that she’d travel widely, lose her husband early, narrowly escape a life of alcoholism and bitterness, enjoy the successes of three devoted sons, and end up happily in a retirement community where she’d make and lose many dear friends and accommodate herself finally to her own end because, as she’d said many times, she’d had a good run.

I miss you already, Mom.