During my recent visit with my mother in Florida, she was having some trouble recalling names of her family of origin. She remembers the people, who they were, and events – but needs some prompting with names.
The start of the conversation was due to her impending birthday and the fact that she has lived longer than any of her siblings or either of her parents did. Mom was born in Conway, New Hampshire on Friday, April 3, 1931. Today she is 85 years old.
Over time Mom has told me stories about her family and growing up during the Great Depression. Over time she has repeated these stories often enough that they were embedded in my own memory so that I can help her fill in the blanks she is experiencing now with names and a few places. She’s explained time and again how little her parents had by way of money and material goods – and how her childhood play clothes were fashioned from discarded navy uniforms, the material taken apart, cut and re-sewn to fit smaller forms. She’s told me that one of her neighbors, a rather ‘haughty’ woman (as Mom calls her) would express her disgust at those children playing in the mud in white clothes and the mother who let them. Little did she know that those were the only play clothes they had, white or otherwise. Little did she know that often times the only food on the table for the family to eat was potatoes, and after the children were asleep their mother would scrub floors on her hands and knees receiving a quart of milk as payment, something for the children to have for breakfast.
We’ve talked over time about my dad and when they were dating and how there was ‘someone else’ that had expressed an interest in her – so much so that he had told her he was going to build her a house on top of a mountain where they would live together as man and wife. Mom married my father instead, a man of limited education and means from Brownfield, Maine who had no picturesque land or mountain-top house to offer her. She chose him anyway. I’ve asked a few times what made her change her mind back then and marry Dad instead. She’s always given me the same response.
“Oh, we all make our choices, Son.”
It’s always been said in a wistful manner, full of melancholy and reflection. Never given with any greater detail. I doubt she’ll ever elaborate on it.
I remember being in New Hampshire with Mom one afternoon some twenty five years ago now where she pulled the car over and stopped on the side of the road. She pointed off to a rocky peak in the distance.
‘See that area over there? That’s where Harlan Lawler was going to build me a house after I married him.’
‘Do you ever regret not marrying him instead of Dad, all things considered?’
‘Not at all, Son…because while I may have had children with him as well….none of them would be you.’
For quite some time before Mom showed initial signs of dementia, and when she was finding herself bored post-retirement, I asked her to begin writing or typing stories she recalled from her youth – things about her mother and father (who died before I was born), things about New Hampshire. The kind of history you can’t typically glean from a book or a film. The kind of history that comes with first-hand knowledge and experience; suffused with triumph and heartbreak, happiness and despair.
The kind of history that ‘lives’ inside a persons mind and heart.
Sadly, Mom never acted upon my request. Little by little she loses pieces of her memory more and more these days. Much of it is short-term stuff, whereas yesterday she dined with two of my cousins and my aunt (their mother) and today she knows she had lunch with ‘someone nice’ the day before but can’t recall their names. Little by little the living history that my mom is retreats into a space in her mind that she has more and more difficulty accessing as time passes.
Fortunately I paid attention to the things she did tell me, and can fill in several spaces for her when they sit there in her mind like empty rooms in a place she could swear she’s been before and should remember, rather than having the details of her life just disappear altogether.
I’ve passed on some of the stories to my own kids, in the hopes that they will remember them and carry them on to their own children. Some day perhaps I’ll get around to writing more of the details down for them so that they will be easier to recall in the future; things like the grandfather who was struck by a train and killed while walking down the tracks whereas he didn’t hear it behind him, and the days when my grandmother would sneak out into my grandfather’s vegetable patch and eat peas off the vine, trying to then brush the dirt with a broom well enough to cover her tracks – to no avail as my grandfather would always know she’d been out in his garden. Things that happened long ago in a time when there were no computers, no video games, no smart phones and people were content with a lot less – because they had to be.
Hopefully the history will continue to live on, long after those who experienced it are no longer with us. For now, I’ll keep trying to mine the bits and pieces that still remain from my mother before they, too are lost. These days I think she’s living more and more in the past than in the present, at least as far as the things she sits and thinks about and reflects upon. Hopefully the memories aren’t too painful. Hopefully they take her to a time and place that she made peace with long ago, and can enjoy more now, rather than ruminating on the aches and pains that have accompanied the passing years for her.
Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you are given a great big cake today and eat the whole damned thing yourself. You’ve earned it.