August 1, 2005

My Mother at Ninety

momasyounggirl2.jpg   momnow.jpg
Lois Lucille McNair Van der Leun -- then and now

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. 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. 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 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."

She plays Bridge once or twice a week, winning often, and has been known to have a cocktail or two on occasion. She still drives even though it causes my brother to fret.

This is a good thing since he's the kind of man who sees the incipient disaster in everything and it's good for him to fret about something that has a smidgen of reality to it.

She keeps a two-bedroom apartment in a complex favored by 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 "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 still works 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. It is her 90th birthday party. It is attended by over 200 people from 2 to 97, many of whom are telling tales about her, some taller than others.

We don't believe the man who tells about the time in her early seventies that she danced on his bar. He's 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 that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains. You sat in a plush chair at the top of the car and 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 fifty-four years gone but still, in my earliest memories, they 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."

November, 2004 -- Chico & Laguna Beach, California

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Posted by Vanderleun at August 1, 2005 11:59 AM | TrackBack
Save to


"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.


How very special your visit must have been, and all the wonderful memories that it brought back to life for you, also. We sometimes forget how precious time spent with our family is when we become adults. I'm looking forward to having a good Thanksgiving with my own.

Posted by: Scout Mom at November 22, 2004 8:49 PM

Welcome back. You were missed.

So... is your mom ever going to start her own blog? :-)

Posted by: Harvey at November 22, 2004 9:09 PM

A wonderfully evocative story highlighting a blazing example of how to live life to the fullest! Your mother sounds like a classy woman; her qualities shine brightly in this current age of whinging entitlement.

Posted by: Barbara at November 23, 2004 4:15 AM

Sounds like a great woman. Too bad they live so far apart—she and my mother would get along.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at November 23, 2004 6:15 AM

My Uncle Jim is not interested in women other than his late beloved wife, but what a pair he & your mom would make. He's home after his yearly solo drive from outside Chicago to Colorado to visit his alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines, and an archaelolgical dig near Cortez that his wife and he have helped support for years. Now it's back to the board meetings for the hospital (among others), dinners out, church and the parties. And our Sunday morning calls from which I've learned so much. He'll drive to St Louis for Christmas with his nieces. The most optimistic, forward-thinking, always curious man I've ever known. Your mom and he are great models for aging well and with style! We love them so.

Posted by: Barbara Dix at November 23, 2004 1:07 PM

Oh. And Uncle Jim is 94.

Posted by: Barbara Dix at November 23, 2004 1:09 PM

Lois has a wonderful, vibrant spirit. You certainly captured it well! What a great tribute, sounds like her 90th was a blast!

Posted by: Denise Lovejoy at November 23, 2004 6:22 PM

Lovely. I'll bet the parade that marched up Broadway was also attended by my great-grandfather, a GAR man; he would have driven into town to see that. Perhaps they made eye contact. Maybe she dropped a hanky and he picked it up for her.

I think I know the park, too. You're right: at twilight it's a magical place if you're young or, I expect, old. When you're 20 you're just waiting for it to get dark so you can get out the Pabst.

Posted by: Lileks at November 24, 2004 11:43 AM

Dear cousin. I'm a year older than you, but for some reason my memory isn't as vivid as yours. Perhaps one of us was smoking milk weed by then. Or maybe it's the writer in you. As to the Sunday dinners at the grandparents, I always thought grandfather with his white dress shirt rolled up to his elbows, carving tools in hand, was the boss. At least on Sundays.
One incident you forgot to mention was that you were there for my brothers birthday and screamed bloody murder when you were told that you couldn't keep the present you so carefully picked out for him. LA Brat !!
Your mom is the greatest. She sang the same tune at dad's 95th last summer. We allowed a short dance (it's ok in Fargo) and then she and I sang "I Left My Heart in SF". Dad and 92 year old brother Jack followed with a little Barbershop harmony.
I'm thinking that singing might be their secret. Or tennis.
I don't think either one of us has a chance.
Thanks for the fun reading.

Posted by: david at November 25, 2004 10:32 AM

I'm one year older than you and I don't remember much of your visit to Fargo. Had we started smoking the milk weed by then or is this just the writer coming out in you.
I thought grandfather was in charge. I can still see him at the Sunday dinners. White shirt, sleeves rolled up and carving tools in hand. Talk about authoritarian. Maybe she just let him be boss on Sundays.
Anyway, you did leave one thing out. I would have too, if I were you. It was my brother Mike's birthday and you through an absolute tantrum when you were informed that you couldn't have the gift back that you so carefully picked out. I knew right then that you would become a liberal. Thank god you've seen the light.
Your mom is a hoot and a wonderful lady. She did the same tune at dad's 95th last summer plus a little soft shoe. We allow dancing in Fargo. Then she and I sang "I Left My Heart in SF" followed by dad and 92 yr old brother Jack doing some Barbershop harmony. Fun for all.
So, we've got some pretty good genes, I guess. Only one problem. Unlike you and me, their mother scared the bejeezes out of them at an early age and the sauce rarely touches their lips. Oh well, we'll have more fun.
Sorry I missed the big party. She is admired and loved by us all, especially my children.

Posted by: McNair at November 25, 2004 4:21 PM

A beautiful portrait of a wonderful, spirited woman, painted by a loving son. Makes me wish I could meet her--but I feel as though I already have, from your writing!

Posted by: neo-neocon at May 6, 2005 10:40 AM

My mom's mom was old when I was born.

She was born in West Demoines, Iowa, in 1900. She was always a sweet old lady all the time I knew her. She tended to talk of bible stories, baking, and the flowers in her garden.

She passed away in 1994. After my mom returned from the funeral she showed us photo albums we had never seen before. The picture that sticks in my mind most is from 1918. Grandma was working as a secretary in New York City at the time. On Armistice Day she was photographed somewhere in Manhattan in the back of a Tin Lizzy in the company of five servicemen. Grandma wasn't always old. Her "look" in the picture, if not "flapper", was still quite attractive for the time. There is tickertape, and a bottle is present, too.

Closer inspection of the picture confirmed my suspicion - those boys were Marines, and the looks on the faces of all involved had nothing remotely to do with parables, apple pie, or flowers.

Posted by: TmjUtah at May 6, 2005 1:56 PM

How wonderful to have a mother who will leave
wonderful and happy memories.
My mother was a horse race fan, from the time
I was a teenager or earlier. She loved horses, but was hurt at 65 and was never able to ride
again, the races brought her the beloved horses
She was ill at nearly sixty and needed surgery and was still very groggy having just returned to her bed when a man came to visit a women beside her.
As he left, he commented,"does anyone want to
bet on the races today?" Well, up she sat and
said, 2 and 6 on the quinella (sp)! These were
her numbers for the quinella and she had never
won on them, but would not try any other.
That day she did, one hundred and twenty dollars,
and quite a sum at this time!
She phoned me to let me know when she was going
home as I was flying out to care for her. She
was so excited and said we were going out for
a real celebration!
We did, all eight of us! She was still tired, but
nothing would stop this event.
Memories like this keep her alive to this day,
she taught my children to fix a drink, play
poker and to eat chinese food far too early.
Above all, she taught them about the horse races!
Above even that, she taught us to laugh, to win
and how to lose with laughter.
She was always a lady, but one with some rather
different ways, and people look at me with a
funny look when I tell them what she had gifted
us with.
She passed away at 84, still watching the horses
on television no matter what they were doing.
I really enjoyed your story on your grandmother,
how blessed you are.

Posted by: carole at May 7, 2005 1:36 PM
Post a comment:

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated to combat spam and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Remember personal info?