Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Finisher

It was the cruelest thing I'd ever heard said. My sister was teen angst-ing and lashed at our mother. "Do you remember when it happened, the exact moment you gave up your dreams? Was it a choice to throw away your goals and ideals.., or were you oblivious and just let them slip away?", she screamed.
-My mother looked like she'd been hit with a baseball bat. Stunned, she started to speak, then quit folding laundry and left the room. When she returned, it was obvious she'd been crying. She lifted the car keys from the hook by the door.
-"Are you OK?", I whimpered. She managed a half smile, looked directly at my sister, and said firmly, "I love you." Then she left.
-I bickered with my smug sister while my mother was gone. I folded the remaining laundry, ineptly trying to duplicate my mother's tri-fold technique. My sister was distracted, though, wondering (I think) if her hurtful victory in the battle might change the war.
-To understand the impact of my sister's remark one would need some insight into my mother's personality. She is a finisher. She was given a set of guidelines to live by early on, and she's spent every minute since completing the promise of the life she feels fortunate to have been born into.
-My mother has photographs of her infant self and her parents traveling by wagon to their remote homestead. They built a half dugout, and eked an existence from a hard sage-choked land. She learned that every creature needed a purpose to flourish and those without didn't survive. The family was determined not just to get by, but to prosper. She was a serious child, with a stubborn streak and a dry, subtle wit.
-Rare for the twenties, my mother was raised in an extended family that believed women not only deserved an education, but had a duty to self and country requiring it. She had three degreed aunts, teachers all, who saw her potential and insisted upon taking her in to see to her education. She'd had a poor start, and the school she attended stretched her abilities, but she was doggedly set on succeeding, and she did. She worked in the school for tuition, and worked in her aunts homes for board. As she put it, "I missed the depression. I was too busy to notice."
-When an uncle asked if my mother had considered college, she was surprised. "I'd never considered NOT going!"
-She worked cleaning fraternity houses, operating telephone switchboards, and babysitting, to get through college. There was never enough money, and one aunt seemed to sense when things were lean, sending enough food or cash to get by. She was inspired by her professors, who convinced her that she would make a difference in the world, and encouraged her to dream large. She had helped fellow students who had been too privileged to learn coping skills, and she had seen the hardships that her own family had endured in their simple home, so she chose a double major in education and home economics, hoping to teach young adults to organize and enjoy their personal lives with the new technology that would allow them to do so.
-Then she met my father. He had worked for the railroad before the war, had a car, and made her laugh. Roommates married roommates in a double wedding in the home of the Dean of Women. For the sixty years of their marriage, a family joke is my mother's seeming lack of romance in her marriage. "He had a job, didn't drink, was crazy about me. It was during the war. Of course I married him."
-After the service, Dad went back to work for the railroad, and Mom landed her dream job. The high school in the town where they lived managed to burn the building housing their home economics program. She was hired to teach with whatever she could scrounge and operate from the borrowed back rooms of a church near the school. She made the most of her college connections, landing twenty new Singer sewing machines donated by the manufacturer. They cooked in the church kitchen using industrial equipment and set up a mock home kitchen in a separate room. They scoured and polished the chapel with the newest (donated) cleaning materials. Most of the girls sewed their own prom dresses. The students shared their new knowledge of health and personal finance at home, and parents also began to use the school as a resource. The phoenix program was getting recognition, but my mother (by all accounts) was still too busy to notice.
-The next year, when the school board landed a fat sum to design and build a new home economics lab, they approached my mother for input. Realizing she was no architect, she once again called on her college. The civil engineering department jumped at the opportunity.
The home economics department loaned a faculty member for an entire semester. Singer donated more machines. Local appliance dealers, who had seen the benefit from the program already, offered deep discounts for school equipment. Food and laundering products came from across the country. Attendance was booming, and a good friend of Mom's joined the staff. My father was proud and excited, as well. Their little house became a gathering place, and while they reveled in the sense of community, they sometimes lamented their loss of privacy.
-When the new building gleamed, the two new teachers embarked on a different project; the development of a set of recipes that worked, with adjustments for altitude and locally available products. The list grew to over two hundred recipes, with housewives and restaurateurs alike giving input. Some of the difficult recipes took dozens of experiments to perfect, but there was no shortage of willing students to show up after school to help test them. The first Betty Crocker cookbook contained many of those original recipes, and never acknowledged the source. Typically, my mother said that the recipes had never been for sale, and if the book allowed more people use of them, then that was a wonderful thing.
-Not everything in their lives was perfect, however. In five years, my mother had four miscarriages. One child was born much too premature, but lived for several days. Doctors suggested that she have her tubes tied, but my father was reluctant to give up if her health was not too much at risk. My mother wanted badly to give him a child, so, as usual, she endured, until when she finally had my sister, she could not take the babe into her arms. She was certain the child would die and could not bear the attachment for days. But my sister was born with a steely will, and would not be denied.
-When mother's youngest brother was having difficulty in school, my parents took him in. When her sister went into a clinic for TB, my mother went after her children. When my father's nephew was out of control, my father put him to work away from the city, and he reformed. There was no debate, to hear my father tell it. "That's what families do, she said. So we did it."
-There was sacrifice involved though. My father, having buried his own child, became very attached to his little nephews after caring for them over long periods of their childhoods. When their mother was judged able by those who had no business judging, the children were taken from my parents for the third time and sent to be with their own mother who, as it turns out, was not aware and nowhere near ready. My father, traumatized by the children's broken hearts, waited until they had left the house, then tearfully asked my mother to "never put us through this again!" One poor little guy had run back into the house to say goodbye to the dog, overheard the end of the conversation, and spent the rest of his childhood believing that his cherished uncle didn't want or care for him.
-Family was also responsible for the next big change of direction in my mother's life. Her parents were in trouble. Her mother was sick, and her father's trading post was about to fail. She was convinced that the business was viable, and her mother needed rest more than medicine, so they left their stable careers with retirements, and they went into partnership with her parents. The infusion of cash and labor immediately made the trading post profitable. The Navajos trusted the new management, and Dad's railroad connections hired hundreds of men for the traveling labor pools, creating a new economy curious about the health and home knowledge that Mom was eager to share.
-They lost another child while at the trading post. Carried full term, the baby died after two months and was buried a short distance from the trading post. They suffered another blow when my grandfather, jealous of my father's success, emptied the business coffers and bought cattle from his brother in Mexico. Another dream buried, my parents left the trading post, choosing to move into the city where better schools might be available for my sister and me.
-My father sold on the road. My mother stayed home until I was in school, then started substitute teaching. She developed a system allowing teachers to better communicate their lesson plans to subs. Unlike most teachers, she loved it. She said it gave her a chance to connect with a diversity of kids.
-When it became clear that my sister and I would benefit from private schools, there was no hesitation to change course again. My mother started working nights for more money at the Job Corps, a program for underprivileged young adults offering basic skills training to help integrate them into the work force. She was a residential aide and counselor to girls, many of whom came from horrific backgrounds. She believed in the goals of the program, but was saddened at the budget constraints and mismanagement that strangled it. Our home became a safe haven where many Job Corps kids spent a peaceful night. Mom regrets the time she missed with her own teen children, but feels she made a difference in a number of young lives, and wishes she might have influenced more.
-That was the era when my sister made her cutting comment. That was the time during which I was unaware of the sacrifices my parents were making so that my sister and I could have our unencumbered dreams.
-My mother called recently, and I asked if she remembered the day she'd cried and where she'd gone and what she'd thought. Yes, she remembered. She had just driven the old Mercury around the block, not wanting to waste fuel on a sulk. She told me that she was angry, at first. After all, she had achieved every milestone she set for herself in her childhood. She made it through girls school, college, married and loved a wonderful man, and had two smart independent kids. True, she had worked hard for noble causes without measurable goals only to be redirected time after time by more important priorities, seemingly unable to bring them to completion (if that were even possible). Then she tried to remember the other youthful dreams, the goals my sister was sure had slipped away, and she couldn't! There weren't any! She had never pondered writing a list of the deeds she'd wish to complete. She'd only hoped to make her own way and help others do the same, and she'd done that! She had never considered that her life would be any more grandiose or accomplished than it had been. The early milestones were just merit badges marking the enabling of this very life she'd chosen to lead. She was living her dream, had never abandoned it in spite of the hardships and setbacks, and she intended to finish the same way she started, doing what she could for as long as she was able. If my sister imagined a better life for herself, set more defined goals, and pursued them, then as a parent she could ask no more.
-I remember my mom came home and refused to argue further with my sister, who still had plenty of fight. She had smiled and refolded the laundry I'd messed up. My sister apologized later, and actually grew out of her hormonal rage into a fairly civil human being.
-I asked Mom if she ever grew tired of nurturing, beating her lonely fifty-year-old son to the first call on Christmas day when people at home were waiting on her to start holiday dinner.
-"Now that", she said, "is a job that's never finished!"

Submitted to the second anniversary edition writing contest (Congrats!) at 'Scribbit' - http://scribbit.blogspot.com/


kkryno said...

I just love your Mom!

(and you, too!)

XXOO ;0)

Scribbit said...

Your mom sounds great! And thanks for joining in with a great post.

TheChickadeeFeeder said...

This is beautiful. Thanks so much for writing this wonderful tribute down and sharing it with us.

Daisy said...

Your mom sounds like an angel - one of the tough kinds of angels, the ones most of us need in our lives.

MoziEsmé said...

Poignant post! I can definitely sympathize with your mom - and somethings are indeed never finished.