(This was written on Dec. 21st.)
Yesterday morning I got the phone call I had been expecting. Ma had passed way just as dawn was breaking on the west coast after falling into a coma about 48 hours earlier.
Even though it was not unexpected, I did weep and wail afterwards briefly. But now I'm ok about it. Ma was just flat out worn out and it was way past time for her. I have no doubt where she is and I'm happy in that thought. But dammit, I still will miss her-she was an odd duck, an innocent in a big weird world, a stranger in a strange land. Naive about almost everything, but not afraid to let on about her ignorance. In the years that I knew her I have a vast amount of funny memories that will stay with me.
It was Ma's natural sweetness and humorous scatterbrainess that endeared her to everyone. It's strange these days to think that someone who sprang from such a ridiculously dysfunctional and horrid childhood could turn out so well. But as Ma herself said: "We didn't know no better." and therein is the secret- One only feels they are deprived and have a sorry lot in life only if it is made known to them. She wasn't a victim of poverty because noone told her she was! She was just part of a passel of kids, trying to be raised by a beleagured woman who had the bad luck to be married to a man much older than herself who came with a boatload of personal issues and addictions. They weren't no better or worse than any other lower-class family out in rural Indiana in the 1920's on the cusp of the Great Depression.
Ma's dad was a veteran of WWI. He came back from that ordeal saddled with physical injuries, mental demons and a walloping addiction to morphine and alcohol. Her dad often being bedridden, whacked out on morphine and seeing spiders on the walls was just routine. He would try to work when he could, more often than not to feed his addictions, not so much to benefit the household any and they were often part-time gigs or temporary jobs. They moved frequently. They were "on the county", as Mom told it- meaning what passed for Welfare in those days. A 40 lb. sack of flour, a 20 lb. sack of pinto beans and a can of lard, maybe a bag of sugar or salt was the stipend provided by some county department monthly. The rest was up to them. There were 5 kids in the family. (Mom's twin died in infancy.) Honestly, I don't know how Bessie coped with it, all them kids, a majorly impaired spouse-the uncertainity of life every friggin' day! But some how they did. What choice did they have? Oddly enough, despite all the unspeakable hardships they endured, my Mom spoke of her childhood as a happy one. In this case-ignorance was truly blissful.
At an early age Mom did what she could to help the family out. That's where she learned to love fishing. She often spoke of heading out to good fishin' holes (often some farm pond nearby.) most times alone, as young as 6 (!) , to fish the day away and bring home something to add to the evening meal. I think she relished this time away from her miserable situation-a time to get lost in your own thoughts and childhood imaginations. She told of an incident of a rather good fishing day. Her stringer was full, pegged to the pond bank when she spied a wildlife agent coming down the road. She was terrified. Firstly, because she was tresspassing on this farmland-having hopped over the fence to get to the pond and secondly, she suspected she had a few undersize fish in her possesion. Visions of jail filled her head. Nevermind that she was just a kid and more than likely if the agent even bothered with her all she would get was a stern talking to and may have to throw her fish back. Mom panicked. She quickly pulled her stringer, hiked her jumper and hid the stringer of still wriggling fish in her bloomers and then beat feet back to the house. She told of how uncomfortable it was trying to run with a bunch of sunfish flipping around in your undies.
She told me that story one summer afternoon, years ago, while the 2 of us were fishing at my own pond here on the farm. Everytime my folks would visit, Mom and me would go fishing. It was her favorite past time.
All her life she was called Harriet. About 30 years ago something came up that required her to produce her birth certificate. Nowadays that document is a neccessity when applying for almost anything, but way back when not so apparently. And Mom had skated through life without ever having to really prove who she was. I believe it had something to do with her social security or something, any how when my folks were back in Indiana on their annual summer pilgrimage to their respective hometowns Mom went to the courthouse to hunt up her birth certificate and get a copy. She gave her name as Harriet and gave the birthdate.
No such records could be found of a person by that name. More questions were asked, Mom answered. Her mom's name, her dad's, etc. etc. etc. Finally after quite a while the dots were connected and a birth certificate produced. Mom had been named at birth Arelia Mae! Yet as far back as she could recall and as far back as her sisters could recall she had always been Harriet! How or why this name change had occured was a mystery. One sister offered a possible explanation, even if it was a bit of a stretch : Their dad was the one who had named them all. By the time my Mom had showed up her dad had suffered some mini-strokes and many years of substance abuse, leaving his speech somewhat impaired. Perhaps 'Harriet' was what everyone heard when he said 'Arelia' or vice versa. A strange theory, but the only one they could come up with. Rather than adopt to a new name, my Mom went through the lengthy legal hassel of getting her name "officially" changed to Harriet on her birth certificate.
Mom was left-handed. This combined with an odd surname made for easy schoolyard fodder.
All through her elementary school years she had been taunted with "Left Handed Monkey Wrench". She hated that. I can just imagine the grief she had to endure with a label like that-kids can be cruel no matter what era we are talking about.
But her left-handedness led to some interesting adaptations- I marvelled how she could take a guitar, strung right handed and strum a tune on it holding it as lefty would do-she was having to think upside down and backwards! But, if you knew my Mom, that was her normal state of mind anyway.
Her scatterbrainess was legendary in the family. She was forever losing her car keys or worse, her handbag. I can recall one especially terrifying (for her anyway) incident, one afternoon.
I had just got home from school and Mom was frantic and near tears. She couldn't find her purse. Been searching for nearly 2 hours by that point for it and she was all but at her wit's end.
I tried to be helpful and offer the usual suggestions : "Didja check the car?", "Where did you have it last?" all to no avail. She had just got back from the Navy commissary that day where she did all the grocery shopping at that time. She had had it then, because she had to pay for the groceries, but after that-she couldn't remember. Finally her panic had reached red alert and she tearfully called Dad at work, begging that he come home and help her search for it. Dad was due to come home at any minute anyway and the Post Office he worked at was a short distance away. So, with no other options left to us, all we could do was wait until Dad got home. I figured I would go and have me an afterschool snack, so I went to the kitchen to grab a granola bar or something and a glass of milk sounded good right about then too.
I opened the 'fridge to get the milk. There, sitting next to the new cartons of commissary milk was Mom's black handbag.
"Mom...c'mere." I said.
She hurried into the kitchen and I just stood there with the 'fridge door open and pointing inside.
" Well, Dear John!!" was all she would say. Mom had a gob of quaint sayings, 'Dear John' being her version of 'Well, I'll be damned'.
Best we could figure was that Mom had her purse hanging on her wrist when carting the groceries in and sensiblly began to put the cold stuff away first. The purse must have just slipped off her wrist while putting the milk away and she never even noticed it.
A few minutes later Dad showed up with a very annoyed look. I'm sure Mom's proclivity to losing things wore on him as well. He intially was not pleased when she told him that we had found the purse. But he kept it to himself. By after dinner time that evening he was cracking jokes about 'cold cash'-so all was well again. It was tough to stay mad at Mom for very long. As I said at the start of this she was a stranger in a strange land, a babe in the woods. One couldn't stay anymore angry at her than you could a 3 year old child.
She had a weird affinity for animals. Perhaps because they could sense her genuine innocence and affection for them. She was the only person I ever knew who could call turtles.
Tortoises, actually, to be precise.
As alot of people did back then in southern California, we had a desert tortoise as a pet. Now it's illegal as all get out to have them. His name was Bozo and he lived in our backyard, in the honeysuckle bush. He was a nice specimen, being just a little bigger than an Army helmet. He was cool. He loved peach peelings and hibiscus blooms. Most of the time he preferred to doze in the honeysuckle bush but would venture out on warm days to stroll about the backyard.
Mom would often go out there with a bowl of his favorite treats, stand out there in the middle of the yard and with an oddly lilting, melodic voice that I can still hear in my head, call out to him :
In no time you could hear that tortoise tearing through the honeysuckle and he would run, yes, run right up to Mom. He'd stopped at her feet and craned that neck upward and look at her with those ancient, reptilian eyes, eagerly awaiting his treat for the day. She would stoop down and hand feed him, talk to him for awhile and then leave him whatever goodies he didn't finish during their visit. He wouldn't do that for me...only Mom. Only Mom had the power of turtle calling.
Mom was an artist. But it was one of those odd, savant type talents in which she could look at something and accurately draw it. She could never really produce something from her imagination. I'm just the opposite. I can't reproduce a still life or accurately draw a human form for a hill of beans-but let me draw something in my mind and I'll really go to town! But I envied her ability. She'd amused me when I was little by drawing Popeye or her leggy bathing beauties and fashion models which she could draw with mechanical-like speed. It was her artistic talent that led to her meeting Dad. A local tavern owner had contacted her about doing some sign work for him. She was in the bar to discuss the deal with the owner. This half hammered swabby at the end of the bar caught her attention and the rest is my brother and I.
She also briefly earned a few bucks painting ties, which were in vogue then. The only known surviving example of her work was a white silk tie which I believe she painted as a gift for Dad. It featured a beautiful leaping tiger running the whole length of the tie almost. Pretty cool.
But her life as an artist was just a side-line, she held down real jobs to make the rent as a young adult. She worked for years at a leather glove factory, the result left her with the ridges of her fingertips worn down to almost nothing. We often joked that Mom would have had a good career in crime, since all her fingerprints were illegible smudges.
She worked for a while as a switchboard operator, back in the days when all phone calls were transferred manually by plugging in cables to the proper port at a huge switchboard. You've seen the old photos- a line of women seated in front of that thing, a tangle of retractable cables at the base, the women all sporting somewhat bulky and heavy looking headsets, all busily plugging cables in and out and talking to whoever was on the line, all at once. A task that seemed nearly impossible to imagine, knowing my Mom. How on earth she was able to keep that all straight day in and day out for up to 10 hours a day just boggles me. She was so scatterbrained, to me anyway, that she couldn't have possibly managed that job period, let alone do it for any length of time as she did! Funny what you don't know about a person. It was enough to make me suspect that the ditziness was just an act.
She was married to my Dad for over 54 years. They lived in the same home they had bought together in a little brand new subdivision some 49 years ago out in San Diego, California. Dad had gave the real estate agent 5 bucks as a down payment. If they had had the cash to buy it outright then it would have been 9,000 dollars! But like everyone else then, they got a mortgage and made house payments of about 50 bucks a month. It all seems so amusing now.
9,000 bucks will barely cover the 1st and last for a 2 bedroom RENTAL out there now.
That was my childhood home...and a darn good one at that. These homes were originally meant to be new family 'starters' since they only had 2 bedrooms and ridiculously small square footage. But my folks just stayed. And we made do. All and all it wasn't a bad life.
Mom's health began to decline in her 70's. Arthritis in her hips, a failing heart and failing lungs slowed her down considerably until a few years ago she was, for all practical purposes, bedridden. Recently there had been a spate of E.R. visits, extended nursing home stays-all the usual markers of a life about to end. Dad's passing in October of 2004 was the final straw, I feel.
The beginning of the end. Ma just simply didn't have it in her to go on. She was lonely for Dad.
Facing another Christmas without her man was just too much for the old gal to take. And so she just lost the will to live, as they say.
It is so hard to sum up someone in a few rambling paragraphs. I could go on and on about my Ma. She was one of a kind. And as a part of that Depression era generation-very well the last of her kind.
I hope you'll excuse me for this long winded account. And if you've read this far then I'm amazed.
I just wanted to tell someone about my Ma.