Saturday, May 12, 2007

I Remember Mom

She was the most gentle person I’ve ever known. She was 38 when I was born, the 6th of her 7 children. Infinitely patient, in my entire life I never heard her swear, or even raise her voice. English was her second language, Norwegian being her first. To the end of her life, she always rolled her "r’s".

"Say THREE, Grandma!" Alex and Kath used to demand.

"Thdree" Mom would say, smiling with amusement at their obvious delight in her pronunciation.

She was bright, the star pupil in the little one-room country school she attended. She was a reader, and by the time she was 14 she’d read every book in the school library. She wanted to become a librarian, but my grandfather didn’t believe in education for women (or for men, for that matter) and he pulled her out of school as soon as she’d finished 8th grade, so she could be at home on the farm to help her mother with her 5 younger siblings.

When she was 22, she married my Dad. She had an even harder life with Dad than she’d had with my grandfather, but I never heard her complain. Dad drank, so there was never enough money, and instead of becoming a librarian, Mom took whatever jobs she could find. For most of her life this bright woman worked long hours at various low-paying, mind-numbing factory jobs. She also worked as a nurse’s aid, as a maid in a motel, and as a cleaning lady. Life was always lean, and she didn’t live in a house with indoor plumbing until she was 46 years old.

Still, there were pleasures. She loved every one of us kids, and eventually her grandchildren, and always seemed to enjoy the pleasure of our company. When I was 8 and Dave was 5 we moved to town, and every Saturday night in the summertime, after we’d had our baths, Mom would take us by the hand and we’d walk down the street to the Dairy Queen for nickel cones (vanilla for Mom, chocolate for Dave, banana for me). She loved books and wanted us to love them too, so she often read to us in the evenings. Sometimes we’d sit nicely at her feet, but usually Dave and I crowded into the old, battered, oversized armchair in the living room with her. We’d snuggle up against her and listen to her as she read to us: Box Car Children; Where the Red Fern Grows; Old Yeller; and The Yearling, to name a few.

Reticent and shy by nature, Mom was extremely law abiding...unless she thought a law (or rule) was ridiculous. In that case, she’d quietly but stubbornly ignore it. I first became aware of this rather surprising aspect of her personality when I was 10, and encountered our town’s Carnegie Library’s rule that children under the age of 12 couldn’t check out books from the upstairs section of the library. At 10, I’d worked my way through everything that I found interesting in the downstairs (children’s) part of the library, and I longed for the thicker books on the upstairs shelves. Frustrated, I complained bitterly to Mom about the unfairness of the rule, not really expecting her to be able to do anything about it. She surprised me, though.

"Just go upstairs and check out whatever you want," she said.

"But how can I do that?" I asked. Small for my age, at 10 I was still regularly mistaken for an 8 year old.

"Just use my card," Mom said, "and if anyone challenges you, just say that you’re getting books for ME!"

I was shocked but thrilled to realize that my shy, soft-spoken mother was completely with me in circumventing that silly, rigid rule. She had a similar reaction several years later when, as a junior in high school, I had the unpleasant task of telling her that I’d received a detention.

"For what?" Mom asked.

"For going off campus at lunch," I replied. I explained that a group of us took turns making noontime runs to Louie’s Hamburger Stand, preferring Louie’s greasy cheeseburgers to anything the school cafeteria had to offer. The school, resenting the competition, promptly enacted a Closed Campus rule for the lunch period. That day, it had been my turn to make the run for the group, and I’d gotten caught.

"Oh for heaven’s sake!" Mom said. "Of course I’ll sign the detention slip, but really, don’t they have anything better to do?"

In 1986, a few weeks before she died, I flew north to see Mom. Our last afternoon together, she reminisced a little about her childhood, and specifically about leaving school at age 14. Not wanting to disappoint her teacher, she’d told her why she wouldn’t be going on to high school: that her Dad had simply forbidden it. Her teacher was so upset to learn this that she came out to the farm to ask my grandfather to reconsider. Embarrassed and no doubt furious at being confronted by a woman, my grandfather simply lied.

"But it wasn’t my decision," he said, and then he called Mom into the kitchen, and said, "Whose decision was it to leave school? The teacher here says you told her I made you do it! Whose decision was it? Tell her the truth!"

Mom didn’t dare tell her the truth. Humiliated, she looked at the floor as she lied to her teacher to save her father’s face and said yes, it was her decision to leave school. I doubt that her teacher was fooled, but seeing what Mom was up against, she left quietly.

A stoic, Mom didn’t tolerate whining, and when I complained about most things I could always count on her to say, "Just remember: the same fire that melts butter forges steel!" As a kid, I never really knew what that meant, and thought it was literally something that had been lost in translation, but as I sat there with her that afternoon, I had one of those aha! moments. Suddenly, I realized why that saying held such meaning for mom: the shy 14-year-old who’d stood hesitantly in her parent’s kitchen, denying what she wanted because she didn’t dare speak up for herself had grown into the woman who gave me her library card and told me to use it, to ignore ridiculous rules and go after what I wanted in life.

Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.


Tammy said...

What a wonderful lady! Happy Mother's Day! XXOO

Dave said...

Happy Mother's Day to her and to you!

Lisa :-] said...

Lovely story, Judi. Your mother was a typical woman of her generation, yet...not. :-]

emmapeelDallas said...

Thanks, Lisa. Yes to both; you're absolutely right.


Erin said...

What a fabulous entry! Thank you for sharing. Your mom sounds just fabulous.

Chris said...

Judi this was the best mothers day story I read all weekend. No wonder you are such a wonderful person...your mother was amazing. I'd be lying if I said my eyes aren't watering up right now but I swear it's the allergies...really!

Although it was rather sad hearing about the tough times she endured, seeing the sheer joy in her face in the picture with her grandchild was classic.

You are so lucky, Judi.

emmapeelDallas said...

Thank you, Chris. That means a lot to me. I wish I'd written this for her while she was alive. Yes, she was a wonderful woman, and we kids knew we were lucky to have her, although I didn't appreciate her nearly as much as I should have while she was here.