Writing or sharing stories about my mother has never been easy. It has been hard to separate the simple memories of my mother from the pain of losing her when I was only 19. Just 3 days before the birth of my first child, I lost my mother when she was only 52. She had lived her short lifetime with polycystic kidney disease—a hereditary disease that is terminal without a kidney transplant. Because she was not physically well throughout my childhood, simple details of her daily existence are now bittersweet memories.
Personality and Traditional Roles
My mother had an uncanny knack for making people laugh. Despite her traditional stay-at-home homemaker role, she had a wealth of friends. Most of her friends were telephone friends in the 50 – 60’s era before email and social media. Occasionally she chatted across the fence with a neighbor on a late summer evening. Often she chatted with a neighbor across the road from her front porch swing where she sat wearing a homemade short-sleeved shirtwaist style cotton print dress. She wore an apron with large pockets to keep “essential” treasures (such as a pack of cigarettes and lighter) close by. A large towel draped across her lap as she strung and broke green beans for the evening meal and exchanged small town gossip and laughter as our home cooled from the summer heat. There was no air-conditioning then, and I suspect neighbors became better acquainted because of it. Forced outdoors due to the sweltering heat inside, neighbors bonded with each other every evening. A fly swat was a close companion until hungry mosquitos ran her indoors.
My mother’s short, naturally wavy, raven black hair, hazel brown eyes and olive skin evidenced her Native American (Cherokee) heritage. She was 5’8” tall and heavyset. Her weight was a lifetime struggle. When I asked why she started smoking, she told me she was advised by her doctor to start smoking to help her lose weight. I’m amazed that doctors actually used to give their patients this advice! The weight stayed despite the negative habit, but the cigarettes contributed to other health problems, including the asthma I developed in childhood from breathing secondhand smoke.
I never thought my mother had time for vanity, but she had few exceptions. She had a personal philosophy about gray hair. “As long as there’s a bottle of dye on the shelves, this head is not going gray.” She insisted. Consequently, I ran many errands on my bicycle to purchase Jet Black Tintz Color Shampoo. I watched her apply it with fascination, then scrub the excess dye off her forehead and temples with scouring powder afterward. You didn’t see gray roots showing on my mother’s hair! (The process costs more now, but I have adopted her philosophy concerning gray hair.) When asked her age, her automatic response was “27!”
I used to love to watch her get dressed up to go shopping with a friend who could actually drive a car. [Refer to The Tale of Three Drivers for a story about my mother’s driving experience.] My mother always wore dark pink, almost red lipstick.
The mascara she wore was velvet black Maybelline and came in a slide out red plastic tray with a small brush.
Face powder, mascara and lipstick were her only makeup products. The only other adornments she wore were a Lady Elgin wristwatch and a pair of screw backed hollow red glass ball earrings. (I treasure the remaining unbroken earring to this day.)
Mom not only didn’t wear fingernail polish, she strongly opposed it and imposed that objection on me. She believed brightly colored nail polish made a woman look cheap and there was no dissuading her on the issue. Toes, however, were exceptions. As long as someone else was painting them (me for example), colored toenail polish was permissible. She wore size 10 shoes and I believe I know why; women’s shoes simply didn’t come in size 11. Consequently she constantly suffered with ingrown toenails until her sister Brenda periodically had her lie across the bed at Granny’s house and began the painful process of prizing them out. Open-toed footwear readily accommodated her true foot size and the multiple pairs she owned were a welcomed relief.
She never wore long sleeves or pants. She complained that long sleeves made her hot and the “personal summers” of menopause were nightmares for her. Pants were not considered acceptable attire for women during this era. She wore short beige nylon hosiery, rolled below her knees with garters. (These were often visible below her hemline when she sat, but surprisingly this didn’t seem to matter to her.) The stockings helped conceal the severity of the broken (varicose) veins in her legs. The back seam of the stockings, my mother pointed out, had to be precisely straight; otherwise your reputation would be called to question as a woman who had dressed in a hurry. [wink, wink] What a relief it must have been when those seams were no longer popular!
My mother’s purse was the “holy grail” and the only allowed touching of her purse was when she personally requested I hand it to her. There were no filing cabinets for personal business, in those days. There was just my mother’s purse. It was large, black and with multiple sections. To this day I couldn’t tell you its contents. I was on a “need to know basis” and I simply didn’t need to know. If I needed money for school, my mother would either ask me to hand her purse or direct me to a specific coat pocket in a closet. Unless I was instructed, both these areas were out of bounds to me.
My mother didn’t always carry a purse. Sometimes she traveled lightly and her storage compartment was inside her bra. I will never forget the time we went shopping at one of our small town grocery stores and she made it all the way to the check out counter, forgetting where her money was stashed. Had there been security cameras in those days, they would surely have seen my mother walk away as though she had forgotten an item, round an aisle out of sight of the cashier and reach inside her bosom to retrieve her cash.
Her favorite flower was a bleeding heart, given to her by her dad, planted just outside our back door. She protected it every spring from early frost. It was a simple gift, but a treasure to my mom. Eventually I planted a bleeding heart at my own home, over 30 years later. Of course mine wasn’t a sprout from the one given by my grandpa. Nonetheless it was a way to remember my mother and the simple things that mattered to her.
I kept silent the simple memories of my mother because of the pain of losing her at an early age. I buried many of those stories deep inside, depriving my children of a vision of the grandmother they never met. It took me years to realize that this 19 year old young mother felt abandoned, and even resentful at times. She was supposed to be there to hold my children in her arms and to teach me how to be a good mother. As a wounded child, I buried her memories so I wouldn’t continue to feel the pain of losing her. It didn’t help me heal and it wasn’t fair to her grandchildren not to hear about her through the retelling of those memories. As an adult, I realize it would never have been my mother’s choice to leave me. I had 47 years with my dad, compared with the 19 I had with my mother. I regret that I never got to have a relationship with my mother as an adult.
I can’t change the past Mom, but I treasure your memory. Happy Mother’s Day.
Pam Baker, RN
Do you have memories of your mother you’d like to share? I welcome your comments!
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