The Long Goodbye: A Tribute to My Mother

Happy Camels

by Lenna

I haven’t posted in a while because of overwhelming personal problems. Among them is the steadily declining health of my mother. It’s been several years since she was stricken with two coincident illnesses, both competing to snatch her mobility and independence. We’ve been very close, and have lived together for most of my adult life. Watching her progression has not been easy.

I vowed to take care of my mother until the bitter end, but we’re forced by circumstance to place her in an assisted living facility. It was her decision to leave, but she cries every day. For most of my life, my mother never cried. Seeing her do so now, every single day, is soul crushing.

Memories of happier times keep flooding back to me, like a movie montage.

When I was little, I loved absolutely everything about my mom. Physically tiny, she always seemed larger than life. Disciplined. She has never been on a diet in her life. Her weight has always hovered around 100 pounds (~ 45 kg), and she simply can’t understand why so many people eat too much. They must be hopelessly bored if they have nothing better to do. She always has something better to do, unless there’s unembellished cheesecake in the room.

My mom has no use for food. I used to tell my friends not to expect much for dinner, and they thought I was exaggerating. Until my mom served us a couple tablespoons of store-bought pasta salad and potato chips for dinner. Then sensing we weren’t entirely satisfied, she passed out ice cream sandwiches. For my mom, that’s a feast. She thinks a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter constitutes a meal.

These days she wears sensible shoes and comfortable clothes, but when I was a kid, it was hard to imagine her in anything with an elastic waistband. I remember the clip clop of her high heeled shoes, slender ankles peeking from beneath her elegant skirts. Fine gauge sweaters graced the telltale silhouette of her vintage lingerie.

One of my fondest memories was my first lesson in how to walk in high-heeled shoes. Place one foot in front of the other, as if you’re walking a tightrope. Move your shoulders just a little, swing your arms, but not too much. Watch your hips swing in a figure eight. Plant your foot properly, chin up. No, no, no, I didn’t tell you clop about like a horse! 🙂

My mother expected me to eat like a bird, dress like a lady, and walk like a runway model. Sure. Why not?

I’m not sure where she learned all that. She is the daughter of a tobacco farmer, and she grew up on the foothills of a remote mountain range where the roads were washed out for part of the year. In lean times, they ate squirrels and dandelions harvested from their lawn. Her mother died when she was five, leaving my mother and her sister to more or less fend for themselves. My grandpa remarried several years later and had three more children, two girls and a boy. My mother and her sister were never quite at home, and both dreamed of moving far away, to a city where they never had to worry about the harvest.

My mother loves the city, but even there, she’s always seemed a little restless. She wasn’t easy to domesticate, but her sister wanted a Leave it to Beaver classic family life. They both went to college to become school teachers, not so much because they wanted a career as to hedge their bets. Men and women were starting to question traditional family life, and if there was a risk their men might not ante up, they wanted to be able to take care of themselves. They both had to work 2-3 jobs to pay for school and living expenses, until Doc Swango decided they should benefit from his largess. He was a medical doctor in their hometown who saw promise in my mother, the valedictorian of her class.

By age 18, my mom had managed to get a teaching job under a cadet program meant to address a teacher shortage. She would earn a tiny salary while she finished college, and on the weekends, she earned extra money at Doc Swango’s catering to his wife. His wife fancied herself a princess, demanding my mother iron everything in the house, from bed sheets to panties. And my mother did so, without complaint, dreaming of a future where she didn’t have to work on a farm or cater to a demanding housewife.

At 19, she met my dad, a naval communications officer, 13 years her senior. He was the only man she’d ever dated, and she kept her purity until marriage. They had five good years, before I was born. Then my dad decided family life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Playing cards and drinking at the clubs downtown was more to his liking, and my mother was left to raise me more or less on her own.

We had a house a few blocks from the center of town, which delighted my mother. Her deeply religious parents had prevented their other three children from university education because, in their view, education ruined the first two. Education sent them away from the foothills, into the city, to lead a debauched and meaningless life. Her other siblings stayed near the farm, and over the years, the siblings here and there grew apart.

Three and half hours away from her hometown, our house in the city was like Grand Central Station. My dad, like my mom, came from a big family, and I had dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins. There was never a day we didn’t have company, and a house filled with happy chaos. And a cat.

My mother wasn’t much of a hostess, but people still flocked to our house and overstayed. Our house had a special warmth, and my mother lived up to the “our house is your house” adage, so people always seemed to feel at home. On Wednesdays, my mom departed from her usual routine and spent the afternoon cooking a big dinner, complete with dessert. Every week, on that one day, she proved she was not inept in the kitchen. Just disinterested.

Nurturing was not in her repertoire. By the time she was 7 or 8, she was sent off with a hatchet to chop the heads off of chickens for the evening meal. She burned off her eyebrows putting wood in the stove, and held the queen bee in her palm while her dad tended bee hives and harvested honey. She lived in a little house on a hill her dad built with his own hands. They were among the few who had a proper cellar, which her father dug out with the help of a mule. What they lacked in sophistication, they made up for in rugged survival skills. How can anyone be hungry when there are squirrels and dandelions, right in the front yard?

All the kids slept in the attic, in a neat row of beds. They huddled together when it was cold, and camped out in the yard in the summer heat. Even when my mom and her sister were feverish and yellow-eyed with hepatitis B, they were still expected to do their chores. No excuses.

Hard life made my mother strong, practical, and disciplined. Our house always smelled like ammonia and Lemon Pledge. She was meticulously tidy, always, scrubbing and cleaning and yet, somehow maintaining a perfect manicure. We had pearl white carpet for years, and you’d have been hard pressed to find a spec of dirt. She hates clutter, and her decorating style is modern minimalist. She will keep a dish or a hairbrush until it’s broken and battered almost beyond usefulness. The “waste not, want not” mentality of the foothills still resonates with her, no matter what she can afford.

Neither of my parents cared much about material things. Both had lived without and knew that things don’t make you happy. If you told my dad you really l liked something he owned, he’d load it in your car and tell you to take it home.

My mother used to joke about my dad’s mad Macgyver skills, saying he could fix almost anything with duct tape and coat hanger. She liked him because he was a man, a manly man with a presence. He never started a fight, but he wouldn’t back down if someone challenged him. He was tough when he needed to be, but sad if he accidentally hit a bird or a bunny with his car. These days that mix is hard to find. Even all those years ago, before the relentless feminizing of men, my mother said it was hard for her to find a man who was more of a man than she is, and I believe her. Yet my mother is also a lady. She has never succumbed fully to feminist dogma. She thought women who imitated men, or insisted on competing in their space, were foolish and out of sync with nature. Rivaling a man for power is never a good idea–and I believe that’s as true today as it ever was.

red hair french roll

She cuts her hair short, almost all the time, and it is a political statement of sorts. She never liked her father, and he always insisted she keep her hair long. “Your hair is your glory,” he used to say, and so the first thing she did when she left home was chop off her locks. For a while, in the early days with my dad, she grew it out, and thick, red waves graced her shoulders when she was home. When she went out in public, she insisted on wrapping her hair in a french roll, secured with a row of pearl-studded hair pins. Now she wears it short, and has had a vibrant white forelock for years. As time passes, she has more and more silver streaks, so lovely, people think she’s had them done in a salon. Hair dye has never touched her hair.

My father always loved her red hair. He had white-blond hair when he was a boy, a standout among his dark-haired siblings. His mother called him her “little sunny boy,” and the variant nickname “Sonny” stuck for the rest of his life, long after his own hair had turned such a dark shade of brown, it was almost black. When I was little, I wanted red hair, like my grandma, my aunts, and my mom. To me, red hair is feminine and beautiful and reminds me of the most influential women in my life. I had to settle for “reddish” hair instead, and a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of my nose.

My father was broad shouldered, over 6 feet tall, and he towered over my tiny mother. She got furious with him once and threw the can opener at him. He caught it, so she threw the coffee pot, which he also caught. So she lunged at him, wildly swinging her fists. He caught her too. He calmly held her at arm’s length, and said, “If you ever hit me, I better never find out about it,” implying she was too weak to do any damage, no matter how hard she tried. She didn’t miss a beat before replying, “Everyone has to sleep sometime.” My father responded by bursting into laughter, and my mother couldn’t help but crack a smile.

My father was an officer and a gentleman. He never hit my mom, no matter what she did. That would have been not only wrong, but an insult to his manhood. He did tell her once, in the midst of a heated argument, that she has the disposition of a camel. Instead of taking offense, she took pride in his recognition of her stubbornness. To this day, she has a collection of camel figurines from all over the world. Among her most prized possession, her camels are a monument to the love-hate relationship she had with my father. He died of a massive stroke on Christmas day many years ago.

Both of my parents lost their mothers early in life, to what was probably medical malpractice. My grandpa surrendered my father and his four siblings to an orphanage shortly after her death. My grandpa remarried a few years later, and had more kids with the lovely, slender red-haired lady (sound familiar?) I’ve always known as my grandma. My father contended with his lot by joining the navy at the first opportunity. Despite all the hardship, he was not hard like my mother. He had a powerful nurturing side. When I was lonely in my bed at night and didn’t want to sleep, I longed for my mother. But calling on her was like poking a hornet’s nest most of the time. So I called for my dad instead.

He would come to my room, and I would insist I’d been bitten by fleas. He would comfort me, flip on all the lights, fetch his magnifying glass, and indulge me with a meticulous search for fleas. My mother would sometimes appear in the doorway and roll her eyes in disgust. We all knew there were no fleas, but I didn’t pull this stunt unless I was desperate, and my father always humored me.

If you’re feeling down, or facing troubled times, my mom always has the same advice: quit whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And don’t make excuses, because it doesn’t really matter whether or not you have bootstraps. Or boots. You make do, because there’s no other option. Wallow in self pity for a half an hour, and see where that gets you. Nowhere, of course. And stop walking like a horse!

Maybe I’m making her sound mean in some people’s eyes. But I’m deeply grateful to my mother. She has made me practical and strong. Not as strong as she is, but I’ve taken her lessons to heart. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

On the rare occasion when my mother graces you with her softness, it’s like a holiday. To this day, she has deep blue eyes that twinkle when she laughs. When I left home, I was glad to leave. It would take less than a decade for me to decide I never wanted to live without my mom. We’ve semi-lived together or outright lived together for almost my entire life. She makes my bed every single day. I haven’t used the washer in 15 years. I’ve never asked her to lift a finger. I protest more and more as her health declines, but she insists on doing things for me. That’s the way she shows the affection she has trouble expressing any other way.

It’s hard to imagine walking into the house after my long commute from work, not seeing her tiny body perched on our white sofa. Even now, when she’s gone off to do something elsewhere in the house, I feel a little disappointed. I look forward to her greeting me, with her lovely smile and a friendly nod.

She’s leaving in a week. For good. I will visit her, but it will never be the same. I will never be the same. I miss her already.

Read about what happened next here.

***
What did you think of this article? Let me know below in comments. You also reach me via email at lenncat@protonmail.com or find me on Twitter: @LennCat.

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