I wrote this for my Edina Community Education Writers Group–a prompt from Maureen Millea Smith. On this Mother’s Day weekend, I’m thinking of you, Mom.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Mom was a perfectionist. She was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart. Her sewing was textbook, seams always perfectly straight. She cooked out of cookbooks, adventuresome and daring. When she got too old to stand at the stove and cook, she would supervise us “kids”–some of us in our 60s. My nephew and I were frying tempura shrimp, laughing and horsing around as we dipped butterflied shrimp into the batter, plopping them into the hot oil, using chopsticks to fish them out. She was so angry that we were not “doing it right” and the shrimp were curling. I had no idea she was so mad at us nor did I realize the shrimp were not supposed to curl, but lay nice and flat. Later in her life she took up quilting and competing at quilt shows. Several quilts were award winners. Not unexpected.
While my sisters and I were cleaning out the house after mom died, I kept a few dresses she had sewn. The seams and construction are exquisite. They are designer quality. Treasures.
In 1972 I was accepted into Stanford and was to start school in the fall. Of all the preparation to get ready, the housing questionnaire was most interesting. It was the time of the sexual revolution and ethnic pride so the old fashioned boy’s dorm/girl’s dorms were on the way out and the shocking co-ed dorms were the rage. The form asked questions like, do you prefer all girl’s dorm, co-ed dorm by floor, co-ed dorm by room, theme houses (Asian, Black or Mexican houses) all freshman all class and more. I got the form in the early summer and I needed to get it back quickly to specify my preferences.
Mom and I were about halfway home driving from Billings to Hardin late one evening, the summer sun had set an hours ago, the headlights illuminating the lonely highway, white stripes blinking by. We were talking about the housing choices, and mom said, “Maybe this first year you should be in an all-girls dorm.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said non-committedly.
We drove another five minutes, a comfortable silence between us, our faces glowing from the dashboard, the bubble of light created from the headlights pushing the darkness towards home.
Then she said, “Maybe they’ll think you’re a prude.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said non-committedly. But inside I was rolling on the ground laughing. My mom, worried that I might look prudish. A little Japanese country bumpkin from Montana, fresh off the range.
I ended up checking the box, “No Preference.” It was the perfect box for me. And it turned out I landed the coveted Lagunita House—a sprawling Spanish Colonial style dorm in a co-ed by floor wing. Sweet.
You, not me.
My mom was widowed in 1976, the year I graduated from Stanford and started my first job as a travelling salesman. She would come and visit me often, suddenly unencumbered from her ailing husband and all the responsibilities caregiving entailed. I was single and alone a lot, so I loved the company. She would stay a week or so at a time, riding along with me as I made sales calls or exploring whatever new community I called home.
In 1979, my mom had been on her own for about three years. She was active volunteering at Big Horn County Historical Museum, Quilt Club, church auxiliary and visiting her eight kids and growing number of grand kids. I was transferred to Colorado—my territory was the Front Range up into Wyoming. It was an easy drive for her to make from Montana. She was only 58 years old. Moms in general always seem old, but now that I am way past 58, I realize how young she really was.
We were driving along headed from Denver to Longmont, chatting about life and she began talking about growing older, and how a person should have a partner to grow old with. That no one wants to die alone. I thought, “Oh my God, Mom must have found some man she is interested in!! She’s telling me that she might want to date!” I was OK with that, after all, she had been married 34 years, widowed for three and maybe she longed for a companion.
So I said, in a voice as neutral as possible, “I think you should go out, date if you want.”
She looked at me horrified. “NOT ME. YOU. You should date, think about getting married. Why would I want to give up my freedom???”
I had a hearty laugh over our misunderstanding, but Mom, not so much. She was indignant for quite a few miles.
We aren’t lost
My early years as a salesperson preceded GPS and cell phones. I can’t remember how we ever got around as well as we did, given we drove and read paper maps at the same time. Mom was riding with me as I was prospecting accounts in the metro Denver area. We were on the east side of the city, unfamiliar turf for me. I was trying to find an account that wasn’t buying from me and I had never visited. I got mixed up in my turns, and had no idea where I was or which direction would be the right direction.
I began getting flustered and a bit embarrassed in front of my mom. She looked straight ahead and deadpanned, “We aren’t lost. We just don’t know where we are.”
Truer words were never spoken. And I have found myself in that predicament many, many times since then. It diffused the tension I was feeling then, and it has rescued me since.
After I married, Mom continued to travel with us. And then when we had kids, she was right there again—California, Hawaii, Washington DC, Disneyworld, Cancun, touring Minnesota or Montana. We had so much fun together and she was so easy to travel with. I don’t know what it was about her and I only hope I can be the same way with my kids and grandkids someday. All I know is that up until the very end, she was always game, always ready for the next adventure, ready to pack and say, “Let’s go!”
It takes a long time
I wasn’t there when my mom died. I had been visiting off and on for nine months, a week or two at a time, all while being an active manager in our small business. She watched my daughter, Maiya, get married via Skype. She just couldn’t make the trip. Later in July she finally couldn’t stay home alone and moved to the hospital transitional care wing. At the end of August I spent a couple weeks at home, pulling duty to stay with her at the nursing home. She was never alone. Leaving her was always hard, even when she was vigorous and healthy I would tear up when I had to load up the car. She was always out on the doorstep, waving goodbye until she couldn’t see us anymore. That August trip she lay propped up in the nursing home bed. I had to leave to get to my flight in Billings. I held her hands and she just looked at me as I leaned over her, saying goodbye, telling her I would see her soon–just like I had done for the past 40 years.
Two weeks later I was on a business trip in California, with a side trip north on 101 to the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, one of my childhood memories. I bought mom a postcard and told her I was thinking of her while visiting the wondrous tree in her home state. We ended up back in San Francisco at a sales convention. I got the call she was failing, but decided to stay at work, knowing that the end was near but that I would also have to take additional time afterward to help tend to her house.
She died on September 22, 2012. I had just flown back to Minneapolis when we got word. My brother, Harry and his wife Sheri were with her. We left the next day to go home. I was sad, but I had said goodbye at the end of August.
When we got home, my brother Robert said he had been visiting with her in the nursing home. She had been so frail, so at the end of life, yet alive. She told him, “It takes a long time to die.”
It took her a long time to die. 91 years.