Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mothers and other strong women

This is one of my favorite photos, featuring, from left to right, my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt.  My aunt used to refer to this portrait as "The Three Goons," probably because it was pre-nosejob for her.  But I love it.  These are the strong women in my life who taught me by example to persevere, to be fair, to work hard, to help others, to be independent.

My grandmother, affectionately known to friends and family as Anna B, raised these two daughters virtually as a single parent.  My grandfather returned from the battlefields of WWI as a shell-shocked medic (the archaic term for PTSD), and he was never the same.  Eventually he was committed to the psych ward at a VA hospital, where he lived the rest of his life.  My grandmother began teaching in a little two-room country school when she was just 17.  She didn't even have a high school diploma, but she went on to earn not only her diploma, but a BA and a Masters, all while working full-time as a teacher.  And I mean working!  She drove the dark country roads long before dawn to get to school early, so she could build a fire in the wood stove so the school room would be warm when her students arrived.  During the Depression, she gave the kids haircuts and ran a clothes closet out of the storeroom.  She got farmers in the area to donate a small part of their crops and created a veggie burger made out of blackeyed peas and ground pecans.  (The county extension agent did a survey of the nutritional status of students in the area, and the kids at my grandmother's school had the best nutrition out of all the schools.)  

Anna B with her class at Sally Brown School

My brother and I went to Muskogee OK to stay with her for a week every summer, and how well I remember those times.  We pulled into her driveway after the sun went down, and we rushed to the porch to ring the doorbell with the crescent moon glowing on it.  She would come to the door, making a sort of cooing sound of pleasure at our arrival, and give us a kiss and hug, enveloping us in the smell of face powder and Sweetheart soap.  We spent our week driving from house to house, visiting friends and family.  I explored the books on my grandmother's book shelves, and she always gave me a few out-of-adoption textbooks discarded by the school.  She had an old treadle sewing machine and I liked to give my dolls rides, up and down, on the treadle.  As hard as I tried, I couldn't follow the adult conversation about relatives I couldn't keep straight, so I amused myself.  (Now I wish I had absorbed all those family stories!) 

Aunt Jing

My Aunt Jing followed in her mother's footsteps and also became a teacher, then a principal.  She had no children, so she doted on us.  "Jing" came from my brother's childish attempt to say her name Jimmye.  She was christened Lillian Adelaide, but her father called her George.  Finally my grandmother told him to stop calling her that, to come up with something better, so he called her Jimmye.  It stuck and she had her name legally changed.  Evidently Aunt Jing was known as a tomboy when she was younger, but as an adult she was always dressed to the nines, with perfect hair and makeup.  She loved to talk, and when she came to visit, she and my mother would sit at the round dining table for hours, savoring their coffee and their conversation.  Aunt Jing loved to tell stories and was always quite precise in her pronunciation and in her choice of just the right word.  In the 90s she began to have some problems with her memory and was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  We were all devastated, especially my mother.  How she had enjoyed talking with her sister on the phone every Saturday; now the phone was silent.  What a cruel took everything from my dear aunt:  her intelligence, her language, her smile, her vivacious personality.

And then there was my mother.  She was born while her father was in France during WWI, and when he returned, shell-shocked, he was apparently unable to bond with his little daughter.  My mother never talked about her father until just before she passed away, saying "it was bad" before he was committed to the hospital.  I knew that my mother had gone to a boarding school as a teenager, but I never knew why she was sent there, while her sister stayed home.  Finally I learned that my grandmother sat my mother down when she was 12 and said,  "You know your father can't accept you.  It would be better for everyone if you went away to school."  WOW!  What a thing to tell a 12 year old child!  I think this is why my mother was content to be a stay-at-home mom, even though her mother and sister had worked.  She wanted to give us what she had missed out on as a child and teenager.  I think of all that my mother went through, both because of the time in which she grew up and started a family and because of her personal circumstances, and I am amazed at her strength and her ability to stay positive.  Over the years, she sometimes referred to "during the Depression" or "when I was at school" or "during World War Two," but I never really heard her dwell on the difficulties of those times.

My mother Esther Alice Adams Gregory

When I look back at all my mother did when I was growing up, I am humbled by how hard she worked.  She brought up three children, all of whom graduated with honors from high school and went on to graduate from Rice.  And those were the times when mothers used cloth diapers, hung their wash on the clothesline, ironed everything, cooked from scratch, washed dishes by hand.  My mother also sewed all my clothes and hers, made curtains, reupholstered the furniture.  In her spare time (yeah, right) she was room mother and Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher.  She had a heart attack when I was in junior high and had to quit some of those extracurricular activities, but she always worked hard, keeping the house and the family finances.

Mother and the kids 1955

In her later years, she developed macular degeneration and lost most of her vision.  It was a source of great frustration for her.  Hardly a single conversation ended without her having made some reference to "you know how my vision is" or "I can't read that because of how my vision is."  I wondered how she would get along after my dad passed away.  But she was one tough little lady.  She continued to live in her independent living apartment, with a little help from me to order her medication and take her to the grocery store.  She had a stroke, which caused severe aphasia.  In rehab, the PT told my brother that my mother would most likely have to go to a nursing home.  He didn't know my mother!  She was able to go back to her apartment with just a little extra help.

My mother on her 91st birthday

Those last three years after my dad died were a gift for me.  I was happy that I was able to help my mother, to return in some small measure all that she had done for me.  Spending more time together, especially after her stroke, we became closer than we had ever been.  When her final illness came, I regret that perhaps I made medical decisions that caused her unnecessary pain.  Images of her final days still haunt me.  But I am grateful that we were able to speak honestly, to tell each other how deep our love was, to say goodbye.  She spoke to me with her last breath, looking into my eyes.

So these are the Adams women, who helped to make me who I am.  I miss them so much and would give anything to sit with them one more time, around my mother's round table, sharing coffee and conversation and love.


fdarechiga said...

Great story Galen!

Galen said...

Thanks, Fred. I love telling the story of these dear ones.