My mother died yesterday after a hard three years during which she began experiencing dementia that got progressively worse. I finally retired to stay home with her. She had quit driving and she could no longer be trusted to cook. She forgot where her clothes were. She filled sacks with stuff and begged me to take her "home" though she's lived here with me in this house for over 20 years. It was heartbreaking for both her and me. She was 94 years old.
When I think of my mother, I think of the quintessential American. She grew up on a homestead in Arizona, riding her horse to school in a railroad car. At every seat, an Anglo child sat with a Latino child, both learning the other's language. They traded homemade bread and white bean sandwiches for refried beans wrapped in tortillas. (Life was simpler than, huh? The Mexicans were the ones who'd been there the longest.) When my grandfather died, my grandmother abandoned the ranch and brought her five children back to Illinois. She went to school to become a nurse.
Economic times were still hard then. Mom, the oldest, went to work in a Chinese laundry at 14 and gave all her money to Grandma to help feed the family. She still managed to complete high school although it took her a couple of extra years. During the war, she was one of the original Rosie the Riveters, working in an aircraft plant while the men were fighting. When they returned, they said, "okay, you gals can go on home now," but women like Mom, who'd found financial independence said, "not so fast".
My father was a rolling stone, a genius with machinery. He never filled out an application but simply said, "give me a machine, a piece of metal and a blueprint, then tell me if you have a job for me." He always got the job but he never stayed long. He loved moving on and traveling in trains and staying in hotels. My whole childhood was a series of moves from one end of the country to the other and back again - Philadelphia and Birmingham, Cheyenne and L.A., Phoenix and Chicago and Denver.
Mom got a job everywhere we went. Finally, after years of following him, she began working for the Department of Defense and when he's said, "let's go," she said, "no." She spent the rest of her career working as a Quality Assurance Representative. She gave her total commitment to that job although, back then, women were often treated as second class citizens. Once she took a course with generals and other military higher ups. She got the best score but they told her, "you know, Janey, we just can't say that you beat out our best and brightest," so in the newsletter, it said, "General So and So gets high score in course."
I remember a Captain who told her during Vietnam, "we have a shortage of rifle stocks and we need them desperately. I'll get down on my knees if it means getting them early." Mom told him, he didn't have to get down on his knees, she would guarantee he got them by the requested date and he did. I recall her getting up in the middle of the night and going out in a snowstorm to approve a lot of parts the company needed to ship to make its payroll. When she retired, she lost hundreds of hours of leave she'd never taken.
People seem to hate the government now but Mom was always tremendously proud of working for the military of the United States.
The thing was though, when she retired and got a part-time job in a video store for minimum wage, she gave them the same level of commitment she'd given the Department of Defense. That work ethic was simply part of her nature.
And she was the same as a wife and mother. She was the kind of Mom who if you forgot until bedtime to tell her you needed cupcakes for the next day of school, you could go on to bed and go to sleep in absolute confidence that cupcakes would be waiting in the morning. If you brought home a puppy, then didn't live up to your vow to feed and water it, she would take care of it. If anyone needed a shoulder to cry on, they came to Mom. If they needed a meal, they came to Mom. She fed everything - orphan birds and kittens and puppies and people. If you came to my house and she found out your favorite was stuffed pork chops, every time you came, she'd have stuffed pork chops for you. All my friends called her Mom; all John's friends called her Grandma.
My father and I were shouters. When we argued politics, we yelled and cussed. I don't remember my Mom ever raising her voice in anger but Dad always used to say about her, "your mother is like a termite; she works from within" and it was true, in her own gentle but obstinate way, she would undermine your foundation until you collapsed.
She was a student of religion without a religion. She could quote the Bible to you as well as any preacher and the Koran as well. She had a large collection of Bibles - Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles, Amish Bibles and Mormon Bibles, Jewish Bibles - and she compared passages from one to another. But her own faith boiled down pretty much to the Golden Rule and she came closer to abiding by it than anyone I knew.
She never missed registering to vote no matter how many times we moved. Even when her mental capacity was diminishing, she paid attention to the news and knew who she wanted to vote for. The last time, I had to help her press the buttons she wanted but she voted. She was always proud of her country, and especially the military she spent 30 years working for. The last few years left her aghast at how hateful and divided America had become. "What's happening to our country that we're all turning on one another?" she asked me. "I don't know, Mom, I guess its a phase we're going through."
She was a NASCAR fan and more especially, a Jimmie Johnson fan. One of the last things she asked me was, "did Jimmie win?"
Her last two months were especially bad. She always declared that she wasn't a quitter. "Sometimes, it's okay to quit, Mom," I told her, "just let it go and go kiss Daddy for me." They told me for four nights that she couldn't live 'til morning but in that quietly stubborn way she had, she defied their predictions.
She'd made her own arrangements long ago. She willed her body to the Indiana University Medical Center. "I'd like to make one more contribution before I go. How do we expect young doctors to learn if we don't give them the resources they need?" She wanted no memorial service nor any obituary. "Anyone who cared about me will know through you."
So, she left me with nothing much to do except cherish the memories of a very special lady.