Monday, May 9, 2011

This was my mom...

     Mother's Day holds a lot of memories... I doubt anyone can see the ads or even hear the words denoting this particular Sunday without feeling (or repressing) some emotion.  My mother and I had a real friendship but not a perfect relationship by any means.  At times, we had our disagreements and they could be titanic in nature, lasting for several days... or, as was the case during my engagement, for several months...
    She was strong-willed and could be high-strung.  During her high school years, she wanted to become a lawyer and would have made an excellent one.  She was on the debate team at Central High and loved it.  She also loved Latin and wanted to take French. But my grandfather felt that it would be better for her to take Home Ec. as it was called back then, so she did. She hated every minute of it but was a great cook and used to sew our clothes when we were young, even making lined winter coats that looked professionally done.
    She loved someone throughout high school but eventually they parted for religious reasons although he tried to re-kindle the romance after he heard my mother was engaged.  After I was grown and we became more friends than parent/child, I realized that she felt this was one of the worst mistakes of her life; she believed  that if she had married Joe, things would have turned out so much better.  However, even as she made her thoughts clear on this subject, she would add that if she had not married my dad, she wouldn't have had us, so it was okay.
     She was an unusual person - brilliant, devout, loving, mercurial, fearful, combustible:), and at times, surprising.
    When I was eight-years-old, she was dealing with an unhappy marriage which, at that time, seemed to center more around boredom and a feeling of having missed it in life than anything else.  (The really bad arguments and abuse would come later as their marriage quickly unraveled at the seams).
    I didn't understand any of this, of course, as a child. All I knew was that my mom was going to college and she seemed really nervous about it.  (Later she told me that she hoped going to college would save her sanity and perhaps also her marriage).   She was thirty when I was born so at 38, she enrolled as a freshman at U.C.A., known as Arkansas State Teacher's College back then. She carpooled from North Little Rock to Conway for several years and it wasn't until I was grown that I learned my father had only agreed to this on the condition that she not neglect her duties around the house during the week.  So she did all the house work and then studied  late at night or on the weekends when we went to stay with our Grandmother.
     During this time, her marriage unraveled even further and when I was about 11, she made two suicide attempts.  She later explained to me that she was so unhappy in her marriage that she desperately wanted out and since she had vowed to stay married until death-do-you-part, suicide seemed the only option. At that time, she was convinced that she was to blame for our family problems and that we would all be better off if she were gone.
    Her first attempt to overdose didn't really put her in danger. But the second one nearly took her life.  She told me that when she woke up in the hospital after the second attempt, a male nurse was sitting by her bed, begging God to spare her life. As she realized what was happening, she felt intense anger because she  knew at that moment that  God had spared her life in response to his prayers and quite simply, she wanted to go on. Later, after she rebuilt her life,  she would be forever grateful to this nurse who cared enough to pray for her at a critical time.
    IN spite of the clinical depression and the two suicide attempts as well as a failing marriage, she got her BSE in Social Studies and went on to get a Masters in the same field.  Eventually, she also gained the equivalent of a Masters in English, lacking only the final exam to have her third degree.
    Then she  got her first teaching job while  in her forties.  She believed that teaching was one of the highest professions that a person could enter and she never lost that belief. Her two years of teaching high school, however,  coincided with the demise of her marriage.
   She left her job and  divorced my father, in part, to protect me - the only kid left at home.  I was a very nervous and insecure 14-year-old at the time and she was hitting menopause with only 2 years of teaching under her belt.  But she gave up her job, got a divorce, and moved us to a totally new location, trying to put as much distance between us and my father as she possibly could. Basically, she started over from scratch.
   She took the only job she could find -as a social worker  -back in the days when social workers had to  make home visits to check on Welfare clients. She went into one housing area  alone on many occasions becuase she had to - it was her job. The police would only go into this area in threes but as a social worker, she had no back-up so she prayed and tried to be aware as she went into these homes. On those days,she would come home exhausted but she was always somehow protected -nothing bad ever happened to her as she drove into areas that in the past she couldn't even have imagined.
     Her health was not good by then and at that time, State workers didn't have a lot of benefits. She needed a hysterectomy but we didn't have health insurance.  She kept trying to work but eventually lost her job due to all  the sick days she had to take. In those days, people with no insurance had to get on a waiting list to have surgery done at UAMS.
    My mom's doctor put her name on the list only to have it "lost" more than once. Each time her name got lost, she went to the bottom of the list again.  Finally, one morning, she began to  hemorrhage  at home.  I still remember her getting on the phone and calling every doctor/medical person she knew, trying to get them to say they would admit her.  She was determined not to call an ambulance because we couldn't afford it.
    In the midst of these attempts to break through the bureaucracy at the Med center, a lady from Mom's Sunday school class called to ask her if she was alright.  It seems that God had placed a burden on her heart for my mom that very morning; she had already been on her knees praying for mom for an hour, knowing that something was wrong but not sure what it was.  Mom explained her dilemma and this Godly woman promised to continue praying and then hung up. Shortly after that, Mom got someone to say they would admit her and I drove her to the hospital. I was 17 at the time and had never driven down University Avenue, which seemed like the autobahn to me at the time.
    After she was admitted, she was so weak from loss of blood that it took a week to build her up so that she could have the surgery. She came through that surgery well but there would be others.
   Once her health temporarily stabilized, she began to substitute teach in the Pulaski County School District, hoping this would segue into a full-time teaching job.  As a substitute, she was good and principals began to ask her to do assigned subbing for teachers who would be out for extended absences.  One principal in particular recommended her for two full-time teaching positions but by this time she was in her fifties and both jobs went to younger women.  Oddly enough, this was one of the biggest disappointments of her life  and basically led to a crisis of faith which was resolved slowly over  the next twelve months.
    She continued to sub, in spite of a heart condition and arthritis until she was eligible for social security. Having spent most of her life as a stay-at-home mom, she had no retirement benefits and finished out her life on social security plus Medicaid and Medicare benefits as well as money that my brother sent her each month from his job in the Air Force.
    In fact, after she lost her job and before she could start subbing, we qualified for food stamps - something that I, as a teen, was embarrassed to be seen using.  Looking back, I'm sure she was embarrassed too. But as she told me many times, we wouldn't have the food that we did if not for the food stamps so, she used them and never complained.
    She was a great money manager - something I did not inherit.  I have seen her, more than once, walk into a store with coupons on "double coupon" day and get an item by paying just the sales tax on it and nothing else.  Even with all of the ups and downs in the years after her divorce, she finally managed to buy half an acre of land as well as a single-wide trailer.   It may not sound like an impressive accomplishment, but looking back, I think it was.
    Perhaps an even more impressive accomplishment was that most of her life (except for the traumatic times associated with her depression and her marriage break-up) - from age 19 until she died at 71, she taught Sunday School.  There were times when she "wrestled" with God and considered turning her back on all of it.. but in the end, she never did. IN fact, during her "retirement" years, when she could no longer work and was in and out of the hospital a lot, she grew stronger in faith.
  Two examples stand out. After I married, she moved into a subsidized  high-rise apartment for the elderly in downtown Little Rock.  Most of the tenants there didn't have cars and many of them were just barely able to read.  She used her wits to help numerous people wade through the complexities of social Security. And she also used her car to take her "neighbors" to doctor's appointments, etc.   Her car, however, was ten years old and falling apart.  Phil was trying to keep it going but each month it would break down somewhere and he basically told me it was just beyond any permanent fix.
   We decided it would be cheaper to buy her a used car than to keep repairing the one she had.  So we found two prospects at a used car lot and then went to surprise her with the news that we were going to get her one of those, depending on which one she preferred.  She was stunned but not for the reason we thought.
   The night before, she had been praying, telling God she had to have a car if she was going to continue to minister to others in her building but there was no way she could get one. To her surprise, she felt strongly that He was telling her she would have one. And by the end of the next day, she did.
   The other memory is perhaps more personal and extended over a period of years.  As her health declined, she began to carry a  Corrie ten Boom book , Jesus is Victor, with her every time she went to the doctor or to the hospital. She found it comforting and would read in  it while sitting in the lobby or the ER.   However, she never left with it.  Always, she found someone -usually another patient -  who needed it "more than she did" so she would leave it with them and replace her copy later.  (She spent the last three months of her life in a nursing home and after she died, I gave her last copy of the  book to the supervising nurse  on her floor. There was no way I could take it out of there, knowing she wouldn't have.)
   As I look back over her life, I realize that she had to be tough to endure the things she did.  And that her faith was no small part of her ability to survive a really difficult life.
   I want to end with one more memory that has come back to me in recent days.  In 1981, she had saved enough money to buy a microwave oven. The thing was so heavy that we had to get a neighbor to carry it inside for us.  The next day was Princess Diana's wedding and my mom loved all things British (something I did inherit from her:)  So she suggested that we celebrate, which we did. We both got up at 3:30 the next morning to watch the festivities on t.v. and at some point,  she busted out a new microwave cake recipe that she had clipped from the newspaper. I remember that it had chocolate chips in it and that it didn't work right.  The cake somehow settled to one side of the container, looking more like a lopsided chocolaty version of Mt. Vesuvius than a cake.  This worried her but we ate it anyway and it was great. To this day, it stands out as the epitome of chocolate cakes, bar none! So there we were - in a single-wide trailer in Arkansas on a nothing budget - enjoying the festivities at St. Paul's as much as anyone else on the planet. That was my mom!
   And so, a week ago, I took a personal day from work, got up at 3:40 in the morning and watched the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Elizabeth (my name!!!:) Middleton.  For me, it was more than a wedding: it was a way of reconnecting with my mom.  I can't explain it - it was just something I felt I needed to do.
   And while my mom wasn't there physically, I feel sure she was watching.... (and if at all possible, sitting near Diana...:)
   The only thing lacking was a lopsided microwave chocolate chip cake....

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing woman! I loved reading this glimpse into your life with your mom, Cathy. What an amazing woman!