A Mother’s Legacy
Mom and I talk every day, the minute she wakes up, right before falling asleep each night, and a few times in between. If she doesn’t hear from me, she fears for my life. And though we may not have news to share, it’s nice to hear her voice. I can’t stand the thought of not being able to call her for no particular reason.
When Mom visits me, she expects very little besides meals and television–news, soap operas, talk shows—and, unlike me, she can hold a perfect conversation with the volume full-blown. I’m not a fan of television, and Mom can’t fathom how I get through a day without it. But I have to admit she knows more about current events than I do. In 2020, she kept me up to speed on world affairs, namely the presidential election and the “pandemonium” or “carnivorous” as she refers to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s sharp, reflective, and doesn’t hesitate to share her point of view.
Though we may have different lifestyles, Mom tolerates the non-traditional meals I prepare with quinoa, arugula, or goat cheese. And she seems to enjoy my taste in music. When we play rummy, I quiz her about artists of songs on my playlist, giving her hints, and she guesses most of them, like Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. Once, I gave her this hint: “He was married to Carly Simon.” Smirking, she replied: “Of course, it’s James Taylor. He used to come to my house for chicken on Sundays!”
Mom’s life has been gratifying and rich with history, yet it has come with challenges and loss. Her earliest loss was at the tender age of thirteen when she lost her dad to double pneumonia. He lovingly called her “Kilopo” and she recalls a note from him on a piece of brown paper bag, “Kilopo, please get me a half gallon of claret wine. Your dad.” In our home town of Morenci, especially in the 1930’s, the local merchant didn’t ask questions. And on the day he died, a neighbor abruptly said to Mom: “Your daddy’s dead.” Just like that. Later, as the little girl left the sight of her father’s burial, she repeated desperately: “Bye, Daddy, Bye, Daddy, Bye, Daddy, Bye Daddy.”
Despite experiencing adversity in life, Mom maintains her sense of humor. When it’s quiet, she shares stories from growing up in a small town and the trouble she got herself into, nothing serious mind you.
As a kid, she borrowed sugar from a neighbor (just for fun) and intentionally spilled it along the path back home. She once tied her dad’s ankle to her own, so when he stood, they both toppled over. In high school, Mom was often caught passing notes in study hall. And she played tricks on her teachers by placing book covers upside down and when confronted, she gracefully proved she was reading. Just recently I learned she paid a classmate fifty cents to write her book reports.
Mom recalls old boyfriends, music and fashion from her era. When we Google songs from the 40s, they remind her of people and stories from her past which she’s eager to share. Popular music included swing, big band, and country. Mom loved dancing jitterbug to “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller.
“We wore knee length A-line dresses or skirts with sweaters and pearls, and peep-toe heels or penny loafers” she quips. “Molly and I were called ‘the sweater girls’ of Morenci High!”
Mom loves to tell the story of Dale Mueller, a handsome boy visiting Morenci as a student intern. “Boy, could he dance,” she recalls, with a radiant smile. “Maybe you can look him up on Google.” Anyway, she and her friends were out for the evening at a tavern called the “Wagon Wheel” where nice girls could not be found. She met Dale Mueller there and enjoyed dancing with him. A few days later, she ran into him in town and he asked “Would you like to go out dancing sometime? We could go down to the Wagon Wheel.” She replied with distain: “I don’t go to places like that!” And to that, he replied: “But, isn’t that where I met you?”
Another good-looking guy Mom had a crush on was Francis Hudson. She met him at the post office. It just so happened every day, at precisely 3:30pm, when he got off work and stopped to pick up his mail, she was there unlocking the combination to her own mailbox. Mom and Francis flirted a lot, but she didn’t let him kiss her, and when he asked her on a date, she declined. Seventy years later, she reveals her regret for turning him down. They wrote letters while he was in the navy, and sadly his ship went down somewhere in the Pacific during WWII.
Another boy attraction was no longer of interest when Mom spotted a large hole in his sock. I don’t remember his name, and I’m thinking she doesn’t either.
Then there was Jack. She set her sights on “that man” and never let go. He too was smitten when he spied her strolling along the street beneath his apartment, her curls bouncing effortlessly. At that moment, he confided to a friend: “One of these days, I’m going to marry that gadget.”
I always dreamed of a marriage like Mom and Dad’s. They loved and respected each other, were committed to family, and enjoyed spending time together with friends. Yet on the day Dad passed away, Mom reacted with surprising calm.
The shrill ringing of the phone at 6:00am startled me from a deep sleep. Our family had stayed late at the group home with Dad, settling him in to watch 4th of July celebrations on TV in his white tee-shirt bearing an eagle and the U.S. flag. After watching my hero, in all his strength and wisdom, decline physically and mentally during the prior six months, I knew the caller was Dad’s nurse with news I didn’t want to hear. She said she had spoken with Mom, so I quickly hung up and dialed the number I had dialed so many times over the past 40 years.
Mom said she would shower and be ready when my sister picked her up to go see Dad one last time. Married to the same man for 66 years, sharing a content life with children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and having lost him, she sat quietly in denial for several hours, but remained strong and resilient for her family.
Growing up, I expected to become my mother. Now, I realize our differences in lifestyle, tastes, and ideas. I wish I had Mom’s quick wit, capacity to remember details from decades ago, and her ability to total up scores in rummy lickety-split. Thankfully, I did inherit her sense of curiosity, love of family, and unfailing Christian faith. Our differences may be a sign of the times. Perhaps women of her generation are idealistic and set in their ways. But, over time, Mom has become more open-minded. She reluctantly, yet without protest, accepted my son piercing his lip, my daughter getting a tattoo, and both living with their spouses before marriage. She would never have condoned my doing those things. They know the way to her heart.
All of mom’s grandchildren admire her frivolous antics and expressions. They learned early on to say: “pee-pee” and not “pee” because “pee” by itself is improper. When they were kids, Mom would saunter into the living room where they sat on the floor watching TV, and she’d spill a drop of water on their heads or make a small pen mark on an arm or leg. At 94, when given the chance, she continues to pull these silly, harmless shenanigans.
Mom says that as the baby of the family, I kept her young. When I was a little girl, she made for me a miniature cannister set for playing “kitchen.” Pretty little boxes with flour, sugar, and coffee. It was one of my favorite childhood gifts, mostly because she made it and gave it to me for no particular occasion.
When I was a teenager, Mom indulged in my extra-curricular pursuits, especially cheerleading. She and Dad bought a 1978 Ford Elite in our team colors and attended every game. Mom loved hearing details about high school dances–-who was there, what they wore, who danced with who. Possibly, she was re-living her own youth through me. One night after a football game, she let me cruise by the bowling alley in the red Ford Elite. Since I only had a learner’s permit, she sat next to me in the passenger seat. When a group of guy friends waved me over, Mom quickly ducked down onto the floorboard, attempting to not “cramp my style.” As I rolled down the window, my friends peered into the car, “Hey there Mrs. White!”
Two years later, I drove off to college, crossing the desert in a loaded-down Ford Pinto, music blasting, tears streaming down my face. Mom and I remained close, but I never returned home for good.
Like her own mother, and like me, Mom loves her family without limits. At 94, she jokes and laughs with the younger generation, shares her love of music, and plays with great-grandchildren. She, together with Dad, helped raise my kids while I worked. They attended band concerts, dance competitions, and piano recitals. Into her 80’s, Mom stood up front at punk rock shows to see her grandsons’ band. One time, she was so captivated, she was swallowed up into a mosh pit. Not a surprise, considering she’s only 4 feet, 8 inches tall. She reacted with laughter as two big guys wearing blue mohawks gently picked her up and set her on her feet to continue clapping through the song.
Mom encouraged my kids to be involved in church activities, attending their baptisms, first holy communions, reconciliations, confirmations, and she taught them to pray from the time they were babies. Now, mostly homebound, she never misses Sunday mass on TV.
Mom was always my sounding board when things were going well, and not so well, in my life. She listened intently when I grumbled about the stress of my career, taking mental notes and trying to understand its complexities. In her mind, every situation was about right or wrong, and she was always ready to take my side and fix things. Mostly, I needed her understanding smile or touch to let me know she was there.
I’ll never fit perfectly into the mold of my mom. Her unique sense of humor is hers alone. If my only quibble is loud TV and her constant worrying, I’m pretty damned lucky. Mom’s children and grandchildren are her world. Through her inspiration and example, mine are my world. Her sense of curiosity and her values thrive within me. Despite our differences, the bottom line is about faith and love. A legacy she will leave with me and one I hope to leave with mine.
A Father’s Day Tribute
I’m writing this letter to let you know how very much I love and respect you, and how blessed I am to have you in my life. Since I was a little girl, I knew that if you were around, nothing bad could happen to me, and I would always be safe. I know you’ll continue to watch over me and the family until we’re with you again.
You could fix anything and always found ways to “rig up” some kind of a “do-dad” or brilliant invention. You were one of the smartest men I’d ever known. You taught me practical life lessons like how to edge and mow my lawn and the joy of making music, playing guitar and singing. But, most importantly, you taught me to be honest, to work hard, and that if I want to do something badly enough, mental determination is what it takes to succeed.
I only remember once that you scolded me. My senior year of high school, I passed a school bus in my Chevy Impala while driving through the tunnel in old Morenci, with a carload of my friends, trying to make it to first-hour chemistry class on time. Little did I know you saw this from your locomotive. Later that day, you calmly, but firmly, said you’d better not ever see me do that again – and I didn’t. I seem to recall hearing a similar story about my sister racing across the tracks in Clifton to beat the train, and she quickly learned you were the engineer running it!
Daddy, you were there for every single event in my life since childhood and always supported me, no matter what choices I made. You’ve been the most amazing Grandpa to my kids and inspired them to be avid outdoor adventurists and music-lovers. You attended every event they had including Oasis Donuts for Dads, band concerts, marching band events, It’s Like Love shows, wrestling matches, piano recitals, dance recitals, school programs, graduations, religious events, and on and on.
Like everyone who knew you, I loved hearing your stories and jokes. I was fortunate to help care for you during your last few months. You were always considerate and grateful. When I tucked you in at night, you always said “I love you, honey.”
The day before you went to heaven, we sang some of your favorite songs together. I’ll always cherish those special memories, thankful for the wonderful blessing of having you for my dad.
All my love,
Les (your chickadee)