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My Mother at 103

Her earliest memory is being held on the shoulders of her father, watching the men who lived through the First World War parade down the main street of Fargo, North Dakota in 1918. She would have been just four years old then. Now she’s 90 years old and she comes to her birthday party wearing a chic black and white silk dress, shiny black shoes with three inch heels, and a six foot long purple boa. She’s threatening to sing Kurt Weill’s ‘The Saga of Jenny” and dance on the table one more time .

She’ll sing the Kurt Weill song, but we draw the line at her dancing on the table this year. Other than that, it is pretty much her night, and she gets to call the shots. Which is what you get when you reach 90 97 and are still managing to make it out to the tennis courts three to four times a week. “If it wasn’t for my knees I’d still have a good backcourt game, but now I pretty much like to play up at the net.” [Note: Alas she had to give up tennis at 95 back when her knees finally gave up. She didn’t. Water walking twice a week. She gave all a scare a couple of years ago but came roaring back after major surgery and is more or less back to the regular schedule.]

She plays Bridge once or twice a week, winning often, and has been known to have a cocktail or two on occasion. After her operation she gave up driving much to the relief of my brother who fretted over it for several decades.

She keeps a small two-bedroom apartment in a complex favored by young families and college students from Chico State and, invariably, has a host of fans during any given semester. She’s thought about moving to the “senior apartments” out by the mall, but as she says, “I’m just not sure I could downsize that much and everyone there is so old.”

She was born deep in the heartland at the beginning of the Great War, the youngest of five children. She grew up and into the Roaring 20s, through the Great Depression, taught school at a one room school house at Lake of the Woods Minnesota, roamed west out to California in the Second World War and met the man she married.

They stayed married until he died some 30 years ago. Together they raised three boys, and none of them came to any more grief than most and a lot more happiness than many.

After her husband died at the end of a protracted illness, she was never really interested in another man and filled her life with family, close friends (some stretching back to childhood), and was, for 15 years, a housemother to college girls. She recently retired from her day job where she worked three mornings a week as a teacher and companion to young children at a local day-care and elementary school.

She has always been a small and lovely woman — some would say beautiful. I know I would. An Episcopalian, she’s been known to go to church, but isn’t devoted to the practice, missing more Sundays than she attends. She’s given to finding the best in people and letting the rest pass, but has been known to let fools pass at high speed.

Born towards the beginning of the 20th century, she now lives fully in the 21st. Nearly 23 years ago we gave her a 90th birthday party. It was attended by over 200 people from 2 to 97, many of whom told tales about her, some taller than others.

We didn’t believe the man who told about the time in her early seventies that she danced on his bar. He brought the pictures of the bar with her high-heel marks in it to prove the point.

Other stories are told, some serious, some funny, all loving. But they all can only go back so far since she has only been living in Chico, California for 30 years. I can go back further, and so, without planning to, I took my turn and told my story about her. It went something like this.

“Because I’m the oldest son, I can go back further in time. I can go back before Clinton, before Reagan, before Nixon, before Kennedy, before Eisenhower. We’ll go back to the time of Truman.

“It must be the summer of 1949 and she’s taking my brother and I back home to her family in Fargo for the first time. I would be almost four and he’d be two and a half. The war’s been over for some time and everyone is now back home and settled in. My father’s family lost a son, but — except for some wounds — everyone else came out all right.

“We’re living in Los Angeles and her home is Fargo, North Dakota, half a continent away. So we do what you did then. We took the train. Starting in Los Angeles we went north to San Francisco where we boarded the newest form of luxury land transportation available that year, the California Zephyr.

“Out from the bay and up over the Sierras and down across the wastes until we wove our way up the spine of the Rockies and down again to the vast land sea that stretched out east in a swath of corn and wheat that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains. On the Zephyr you sat in a plush chair among others in a long transparent dome at the top of the car and it seemed all Earth from horizon to the zenith flowed past you.

“There was the smell of bread and cooking in the Pullman cars that I can still capture in my mind, and the lulling rhythm of the wheels over the rails that I can still hear singing me down into sleep.

“At some point we changed trains to go north into the Fargo Station and, as we pulled into Fargo in mid-morning, my mother’s family met us with their usual humble dignity — they brought a full brass band that worked its way down through the John Philip Sousa set list with severe dedication. They also brought me more family members than there were people living on our entire block in Los Angeles. There may also have been a couple of Barbershop Quartets to serenade us during the band breaks, but I’m not sure about that.

“My mother and brother and I were swept away in the maelstrom of aunts, uncles, cousins by the dozens, and assorted folks from the neighborhood on 8th Avenue South.

“The day rolled into a huge lunch at a vast dining room table where my grandmother ruled with an iron ladle. Then, after a suitable post-prandial stupor, my entire family rose as one and headed out to the nearby park for their favorite activity — trying to crush each other in tennis. When this family hit the courts, it was like a tournament had come to town. Other would-be players just took one look and headed for another set of courts elsewhere.

“I was still too young to play, although my mother would have a racquet custom-made for me within the year, so instead I would have been exhausting myself at some playground or in one of the sandboxes under the eyes of my older cousins. Then, at dusk, I made my way back to the courts.

“In the Fargo summers the twilights linger long and fade slowly. And as they fade the lights on the courts come up illuminating them in the gathering dark. And I sat, not quite four, as the night grew dark around me and my mother and her family played on below.

“Now it is all more than sixty years gone but still, in my earliest memories, they all play on in that endless twilight. I see them sweeping back and forth in the fading light. Taunting and laughing together. Calling balls out that are clearly in. Arguing and laughing and playing on forever long after the last light of day has fled across the horizon and the stars spread out high above the lights.

“Service. Return. Lob. Forehand. Volley. Backhand. Volley. Love All.”

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Howard Nelson November 30, 2017, 4:44 AM

    “She’s given to finding the best in people and letting the rest pass …” Without preaching, teaching by example. What a sweetheart!

  • ghostsniper November 30, 2017, 4:52 AM

    She’s a family treasure that becomes even more valuable each passing year.
    Don’t just hang onto her, cling. We know not what tomorrow brings, and then you’re left with memories.

    Now for the somber part.
    Tonight we’ll be attending the viewing of my mother in law’s funeral.
    She passed on Monday morning, peacefully in her own bed with her oldest son by her side, as it should be, I suppose. The only bed she has ever slept in (cept for travel trips), with her husband of 58 years who passed 8 years ago. Tomorrow is the morning burial, then afterward the “grab bag” as my father in law always called it, will begin, and I won’t be participating.

    The weather will be decent so I’ll come back to the compound and sit on the porch and reflect. Now, my wife and I are the same again, we’ve both lost both parents. Notice I said both. Just 2 each, as it should be. No step parents, no adopted parents or any of the other weerd stuff that goes on these days, just real biological parents that weathered time and all challenges to stay together because that is what people do. I could kick this sorry aspect around all day long but I’ll stop right here.

    Make today special for your Mom and yourself Gerard.
    As my wife is fond of saying, “Take a picture with your heart”.

  • Julie November 30, 2017, 9:00 AM

    A treasure indeed.

    Thanks, once again, for sharing her with us.

  • Anonymous November 30, 2017, 10:01 AM

    gs, condolences to your wife, you and your family. As time goes by we all leave our bodies and what remains of greatest value are the memories and the feelings that compose gratitude, respect and love.
    May we all remember and behave thankfully.
    Keep well.

  • MMinLamesa November 30, 2017, 12:07 PM

    Well that’s the coolest thing I read all year. A mom/tennis story. If there had been a couple dogs thrown in, you would have touched all my bases.

    My most heartfelt condolences to your family, ghost. What you called a “garb bag” I call black bagging and like you I stayed away after my mom passed.

  • james sisco November 30, 2017, 12:45 PM

    the Happiest of Birthdays to your Mother.

  • Dave November 30, 2017, 2:14 PM

    Thank you for the update on your Mom. Cherish her. She sounds delightful.

  • Webutante November 30, 2017, 3:18 PM

    Hi Gerard, this post on your Mom, with yearly updates, is my all time fav, along with The Name In the Stone. What fun to have Lois—only dames with names like Lois can live with impunity into their hundreds and more. Please buy her a drink or two or three on me and, who knows, maybe one day we can settle up in person.

  • Dink Newcomb November 30, 2017, 3:36 PM

    Excellent bio! Those out on the fringes of age (I’m a veritable child of 70) have so much time to try so many things yet so few of us do anything more notable than embarassing ourselves in public.
    My Grandma (died in 1998 at 104) had lots of privileges and comfort so while she was an excellent lady, she never experimented a whole lot while being raised in the Bronx by German immigrants. So, my favorite first hand story about this “life” insulated old lady was how in the last few years I had fixed her and my Ma up with a new satellite TV and she had lots of selection of what to watch. BUT, she never understood technology at all! I would stop to see the “old folks” (my Daddy, at the tail end of Alzheimer’s was also being tended by my Ma) and I would go into see G-ma who often immediately with a worried voice would ask me if I had any trouble getting home through the terrible storm (while sitting NEXT TO the window).
    “Grandma, its beautiful out there and there is no storm!”
    “But on TV they keep going on about it and how much snow/sleet/rain/political BS is falling and how we should stay in doors.”
    “Grandma, this is SC and it rarely snows down here and NEVER in October and you are watching the weather reports on WGN in Chicago again.”
    Basically her attitude/reply was “Well, why are they giving me a Chicago weather report.” God bless her, I loved her and it just shows that you do not have to be saturated in excess )of any sort) to deserve love.

  • Casey Klahn November 30, 2017, 6:21 PM

    Your mother is the giving type, and that’s kept her heart full, I suppose, for these hundred plus change years.

  • Doug November 30, 2017, 7:22 PM

    God bless your mom. I lost mine last year three days shy of her 97th birthday. Her mother lived to 104. Not many left of the Greatest Generation.

  • Hale Adams December 2, 2017, 6:03 PM

    Ghostsniper writes:

    “She’s a family treasure that becomes even more valuable each passing year.
    Don’t just hang onto her, cling. We know not what tomorrow brings, and then you’re left with memories.”

    I second that motion, Gerard.

    May she have as many more birthdays as she wants.

    Hale Adams
    Pikesville, People’s still-mostly-Democratic Republic of Maryland

  • MOTUS December 3, 2017, 7:30 AM

    How wonderful to have your mother with you for so many years after you’ve reached the age of appreciation. What I wouldn’t give for one more afternoon with my Mom.

  • ghostsniper December 3, 2017, 9:58 AM

    “May she have as many more birthdays as she wants.”
    =====================================

    That’s the important part, maybe the most important part.
    15 years ago my favoritest uncle was 84 and told me, “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”
    He wasn’t in poor health but he was fed up with life. I believe the first half of his life was as he thought it should be but his kids were a grown disappointment, his wife/lifemate (that’s what spouses were to each other from that era) had died 10 years prior, he and she had traveled the world extensively, he had done it all and now there was little to inspire him to keep living. A couple weeks later he laid down and never got back up.

    Last Wed I stood at the foot of my mother in laws casket, alone, and just stared at her face. Several minutes passed and without moving she told me, silently, “I just want to be left alone.” Later, my wife said she was watching and at one point she saw me tilt my head quizmically, but I was unaware of doing so. THAT was when my MIL told me what she did.

    When her husband of 58 years passed away 9 years before she died too. Not physically, or mentally, but spiritually. Her soul died, or rather, went to where her husbands soul went. While she went through the day to day motions of life, mostly unwilling, she was now a prisoner in a life that was foreign to her. The 3 way essence of life, the body, mind, and spirit, are dependent on each other and when one fails the rest will follow and that’s what happened to first, her body, then her mind. Her body withered to 58 lbs and in the last few days her mind turned to dust, and her soul was already moved on. It was sad to realize she departed but my wife and I agree she was already gone a long time ago.

    My wife has no sisters, just 2 brothers, but as she told me just last night, “While having two brothers is a good thing there are things a woman needs to talk to someone about and only another woman will do.”, someone like a sister, a sister she doesn’t have. Giving her eulogy at the funeral her last sentence was, “Mom was my best friend.” Hardly a day or two passed without them talking on the phone. I can’t tell you how many times my wife burst into my office wanting to use my phone cause hers went dead in the middle of a convo with mom. And 8-10 emails each and everyday. There is an unbelievable void in her life and I am doing what I can to patch it but alas time alone is the only healer and even that does so through attrition, when the rigors of day to day activities causes Mom’s memory to not charge to the fore front every waking moment of every waking day and very slowly turns into smoke or fog. It was a full 10 years after my dad died that I was sitting there lost in thought and suddenly realized, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of Dad today, or was it yesterday?”

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