Mary Joan, aka mum

A Visit From My Mother: A Beautiful Contradiction

Mary Joan, aka mumI just returned home from dropping my mother at the airport. It was a busy, lively week, but a quiet ride to the airport. Two quiet hours, both of us thinking deeply, thinking this goodbye might be our last. It was our first visit in a year and a half. Neither of us are in a position to jump in a plane with any regularity, and we live almost 3,000 miles apart. It was a great visit, but I am deeply sad about it also. To see her loneliness and her fading.

For me, bringing my mother out here for a visit is a serious expense for my husband and I, one that will take us several months to recover from. My mother has a very meager income, she receives less than $700 a month to live on from Social Security. It seems criminal, I remember a few years back, begging her to go get food stamps and she did. $18 a month is what Indiana gave her. Here I was in Oregon on unemployment and I was getting over $200 a month in “nutritional assistance”. It’s really kind of terrible how our “honored elders” are treated in society. Granted, she worked only part-time for most of her working years, but she was an elementary school librarian, she helped children learn about books, she loved to read to kids. She was beside herself when the school budget allowed for the purchase of new books, she would literally spend weeks (of her own time) pouring over catalogs for long evenings making lists and then narrowing them down and refining them so the children at her school would have a good variety of fiction and non-fiction, books for every age group, and even books that reflected the changing demographic of the children, as the school became more ethnically diverse.

Waiting for her at the Portland airport, it surprised me how nervous and emotional I was. Just days before this trip my mother’s dog had passed away, and emotionally she was a mess. In the weeks leading up to the trip, with her dog getting worse and worse, it seemed she was having severe memory issues. I could not figure out if it was just the stress of her dog being sick or if it was beyond that. I mean she’s called me the wrong name for years, and she repeated herself all the time, but I was used to that. I always chalked it up to the face she had so few social outlets, she lives a fairly isolated life. Sure, my sister and her kids, and now the sister’s husband all live there but they work and just don’t seem to have time for her, it leaves her looking out the window at the world a lot and how is that going to keep anyone’s mind sharp?

I stood at the gate with tears in my eyes, just not sure what to expect. I caught a glimpse of her in the Bernie Sanders shirt Shane had sent her, sh was walking back and forth behind security. There was nothing I could do from where I was to get her attention. Finally, a flight attendant walked her out from the restricted area to where I was.  It was so wonderful to hug her and she was really there!

We went for dinner and then drove back to Astoria. Her flight had been delayed some hours, and I had not made hotel arrangements so we drove the 120 or so miles to Astoria in the dark, which means I drive a lot slower making the trip more like two and half or even two and three quarters hours. Our Highway 30 is a deathtrap already, there are horrible fatal accidents fairly often, actually most of the accidents are fatal due to the geography, and after dark there could be any number of animals crossing the road, so my speed goes way down at night. My mother kept asking, “Are we almost there yet?”. Then, “I’m sorry you had to drive so far to get me.” I told her I was glad to drive any distance to get to see her.

For the five days she was here we ate fish for every dinner and some lunches. She said she never gets to eat fish at home, so I took her to a several different fish markets during her visit, we had crab cakes at Ole Bob’s in Ilwaco, chowder at Mo’s in Cannon Beach, I took her for long scenic drives, and to the beach, several beaches actually. We saw elk at Fort Stevens, and with a whole lot of Shane’s help, we even got her down a fairly vertical trail to see the Young’s River Falls. We wrung it out the best we could. It was great to see her so happy and having such a good time. It was exhausting to keep up the daily work of entertaining her, but there are certainly worse kinds of exhaustion.

Shane told me before she arrived that I needed to make sure I got something out of this. He said I should hug her if I wanted to, and tell her I love her. My family is notoriously un-touchy and not sentimental. As a kid we did not hug and kiss one another, my parents were not openly affectionate to one another, and that’s just how it was. My mother’s family who we spent most holidays and visits with was much the same way, whereas on the rare occasion we visited my father’s family we had to kiss each adult on the cheek which was disturbing to me. We decided before she arrived this trip was about just showing her the best time possible, I wasn’t going to try to get answers from her about why she had chosen to do this or that in life. I wasn’t going to try to gain understanding on things that had hurt me deeply, we would just have a great time, and I would not be afraid to show her affection.

I noticed how once my mother settled in and got stimulated by the things we were doing and seeing, she stopped repeating herself. She became less forgetful and more conversational.  Leading me to believe lack of stimulation was more and more the issue than aging’s dementia. And, I mean visual and interactive stimulation. For my entire life my mother has gone to her local library every two weeks and checked out a stack of books generally 8 to 10 deep and read them all, only occasional having to renew one as a carryover to the next week. She is a reading fiend. My childhood home was full of books, my father built bookcases floor to ceiling built in the late 1970s, turning the family dining room of our classic Chicago bungalow into a library of sorts. In fact, as a kid the first thing my mother would ask upon my return from a friend’s house was, “Do they have books?”. If the answer was no, my friendship was strained by her disapproval.

I am so thankful for the love of books that she instilled in me. My mother taught me to read by the time I was three. I went with her on every trip to the library for years and years. I’ll never forget starting kindergarten and being given a worksheet, one of the items was to retrace the letter R, and it said “R is for Rake”. I was shocked by how remedial it was, I thought it must be a trick question of some sort, then looking around the room, I was even more shocked by the children around me struggling to do it!

On the last day of her visit, as she began to get nervous about the flight, and going home, and her dog not being there, the nerves and confusion returned. She began to repeat things again. It was heartbreaking. Shane drove with us to the airport to say goodbye. I believe all of us with tears in our eyes. It was hard to let her go, hard to say goodbye. 

I am thankful for the independent thinking my mother instilled in me, she always marched to her own drum. My parents were atheists in a Catholic community, and it would have been so easy to send my sister and I to church just to be part of the status quo, instead they were vehemently against that thinking, and encouraged us to study all religions. They were open and forthright to the neighbors that we did NOT go to church. I am thankful for the anger and outrage at injustice she instilled in me. I remember her being outraged about the treatment of the Palestinian people back in the early 1970s. She has written countless letters to the editor of all three of the newspapers she and my father read on a daily basis. She has called and written The Whitehouse probably more time than I even know of, and know of a lot, she never cared if she was put “on a a list”. I always appreciated her willingness to stand up for what is right, no matter how unpopular the idea might be at the time, if you know in your heart it is right. I tried to tell her these things every day during her visit, so she could understand how much her strength had shaped me.  

I am less thankful for the nervous energy I got from her, the constant worry and “overthinking” things to the point of talking myself out of my own goals and dreams, the fear of making mistakes, and the sometimes stifling defeatist attitude. My mother, an amazing talented woman had nothing but insecurity about herself, she had no self esteem, and sadly that too was passed on to us. I have to fight every single day against the doubt in my mind, and the feeling that I am terrible at everything. Her family, her siblings, and her parents, always reminded me of aristocrats without money. They were so proper and smart and talented, yet they were poor, they had a tragedy to them. They all could have reached the top of the world – her brother the poet, her sister the dynamic career woman, her parents who fell in love partially due to a mutual love of Wadsworth’s poetic words. Instead, they suffered from paralyzing doubt, an inability to see how special and smart they all were, and the slightest resistance caused them to abandon most of their dreams. My father suffered the same low self-esteem growing up in Chicago’s housing projects, his mother always drinking, and marrying at least five husbands, this defeatist attitude and low self-esteem may even have been something that brought them together when they met. It is heart breaking that neither of my parents realize how amazing they are/were, and that kept them from exalting to all they could have been. I see this in myself often, so full of self doubt. Now as I surpass middle age, I am finally realizing it.

As I reread those last two paragraphs they are so contradictory, I am aware of this. And, I guess my mother is a classic contradiction. She could never figure out how to use the VCR, yet when she worked in the display department of Minas’ Department Store in Hammond Indiana, I remember watching in amazement as she put together the blocks of a letterpress and printed beautiful signs. Anyone who has ever used a letterpress will tell you, this is a definite skill. My mother is a staunch feminist, but she was also a housewife. She was afraid to drive a car, but she once chased a peeping tom for a block with a shovel in the middle of the night! I guess we are all walking contradictions in some way. I believe I had the best parents in the world when I was a child. I also had pretty lousy parents when I was a teenager. My mother is a beautiful, brilliant and flawed woman, but, looking back over our lives, her flaws are so tiny compared to her brilliance. I just wish so much that she knew that!

I love you mom!