It's Mother's Day today in much of the world - although many countries celebrate Moms on various other days throughout the year - and since I haven't posted in a while, I decided I'd take the opportunity to write down a few somewhat-disconnected thoughts, impressions and memories of my Grandmothers and my Mother.
Wikipedia tells us that the very first Mother's Day in the US was celebrated on May 10th, 1908, a few months before the birth of one of my Grandmothers, and well after the birth of the other. That seems a good place to start.
My maternal Grandma Nellie came into the world a couple of months prematurely, in a small town in Indiana, on October 13th, 1888. She was so very small and frail when she was born that it was assumed she would die within a few hours, and she was placed aside, with all attention given to the living. When it was noticed a couple of hours later that the baby was still breathing, she was cleaned up, and presented to her Mother. I recall being told she was so tiny she could sleep in a shoe box, although it's possible that was hyperbole.
Grandma Nellie was a school-teacher her whole adult life, and was well established as what her contemporaries most likely would have called a 'spinster,' until she married at nearly 40 years of age. What's more, she was not what anyone would have considered handsome. In fact, by the time she made the matrimonial commitment that begat my Mother, the pulchritude Grandma may have presented to the world as a young woman had faded. I can only assume my Grandfather was attracted to her for her character, her mind and her wide array of domestic skills. I don't say that disparagingly, but when he married her he was looking for not just a wife but a Mother for his kids.
(As a young man, Grandpa Richard had married a woman named Jessie who bore him three children. He was heartbroken after her death, when their youngest child was about one year of age. After Jessie passed away, it would be 8 years before he would travel to visit his cousins in Chicago on a 'dear-hunting expedition,' and come back married to Grandma Nellie. Undoubtedly their marriage was in some measure one of convenience, for both of them, but I've read through their letters, written while they were courting, and it's obvious they loved each other very much.)
After a year of marriage Grandma Nellie gave birth to a daughter, her first and only child, my mom, but she was also Mother to Grandpa's other three kids, as well, and remained the matriarch of the clan long after my Grandfather's death in the mid-40's.
Grandma Nellie died when I was 15, and my memories of her are of an already-old woman, sweet and kindly, back bent from osteoporosis, quite deaf, who always had a hug and some candy for me. I wish I'd had asked her more about her younger years, but sadly I did not, and there is no one left living I can inquire of such things.
My paternal Grandmother Gene was born in October also, on the 11th, but not until 1908, several months after the first official US Mother's Day was celebrated. She was born in Asia, of American missionary parents, and it's quite likely her family was unaware of any such special day. My Grandpa Allen was also the child of missionaries, and after he and Grandmother married, they worked as missionaries as well, in Asia where my father was born, and later as South America.
Even though Grandma Gene was 20 years younger in age than Grandma Nellie, I actually knew her even less as I was growing up, because she lived so far away. In fact, I only saw her once between the ages of about 2 and 18. That all changed when she and Grandpa moved to the Twin Cities the year before I came to college, and I ended up living with them for weekends and school holidays. Over those four years we became quite close.
After they retired to California I went to visit in the late 1980's, and I recall sitting at the breakfast table with her, recounting all the incredible scientific advances of the 20th century. She was already talking about being in her final days, which she seemed to accept with equanimity. I asked her if she didn't wish to still be alive in another 20 years or so, just to see what new things might have been invented and/or discovered. She looked at me as if I were daft and exclaimed: "Good Heavens, why would I want that? I've lived a full life, raised a family, lived to see my grandchildren grow up. I am in no hurry to leave this world, but I expect to go to Heaven when I die, and when it's my time, I'm ready."
Wise words, those.
My Mother Janet was born in December 1929, and liked to joke that, together with the Stock Market crash of October that year, her birth helped push the nation into the Great Depression. I think as a child, I half-believed her. Mother told me many times how she was well-liked throughout her high-school years, but that she never dated. Apparently no one ever asked her out. At her church she met a tall, red-headed man named Robert - 5 years her junior - but at first she could only lament that he was so much younger, and that he was dating someone else whom he hoped to marry. Well, as fate would have it, he didn't end up marrying the other woman, he did ask her out in late January 1955, they were engaged in April of that year, and married a year later, in June 1956.
After my birth in June 1957, Mom and Dad must have seemed to be living a charmed existence. They were young, in love, she had a good job and was supporting my father as he studied for ministry, at Princeton Seminary. The future undoubtedly seemed full of possibilities. But, as John Lennon wrote famously, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans ..." I think that in due time my Mother would have agreed.
Shortly after I was born, my Mother became pregnant again, this time with twin girls. The pregnancy proceeded well, until just a few days before the delivery date in late spring 1958, when the umbilical cords became entangled, and the babies were born lifeless. In those less-enlightened days, deliveries were often done under anesthesia, fathers were not allowed in delivery rooms, and it was considered best for all involved if the Mother never saw or held the bodies of their deceased children. As such, my Mother spent the rest of her adult life grieving a loss without closure, and it affected her - and by extension, us - in myriad ways.
In September 1959, my Mother gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Elizabeth, and in October 1963, yet another baby daughter LJ. We were a typical family of three kids growing up in South America, except that in July 1966 our family suffered yet another tragedy when my sister Elizabeth drowned on a picnic outing to a nearby river. This devastated both my Mother and father, but especially Dad, and he never fully recovered from the blow. It affected me in ways big and small, as well.
There were two more children born to our family, DP in 1968, and JR in 1970. We were now a family of four, but the older two children were effectively of one generation, while the younger two were practically another. As such, my younger siblings and I were never close until adulthood. Although we have gotten to know each other well, the underlying pretext of loss and pain and grief that my sister and I experienced is not shared with them, as they came along after all that happened.
In July 1986, nearly 20 years to the day after Elizabeth drowned, my Father died of cardiac arrest at age 51, on the front porch of the family home. Instead of living out her golden years with my Dad by her side, my Mother faced the next few years as a widow. When she retired in 1995, she settled in the Twin Cities, and enjoyed spending time with my brother's kids, but in 1996 she suffered a massive stroke, and spent the next 2+ years in a nursing home, paralyzed and unable to speak, until she died in April 1999. Mrs. Muzzy was pregnant with AE at the time, and I firmly believe that Mother was trying to hold on to see her next grandchild, the firstborn of her firstborn, but it was not to be. She died 10 days before AE was born.
So, with this brief rememberence on Mother's Day 2006, I pay tribute to my Mother and my two Grandmothers, three women who quite literally helped make me who I am today. I miss them all.