An Adventure of Her Own

My mom, Eleanor, died Friday, June 5, 2020. I hope she’d say she lived a life full of adventure.

I’m the seventh of eight children. There were always enough of us to field a baseball team, or play a rollicking game of Tripoli and Michigan Rummy, or to stage a bike race, or to tell round-robin stories at dinnertime. But someone needed to corral us, feed us, clothe us, bathe us, and make sure we weren’t completely feral.

That someone was Mom.

When they got married, Mom was 18 and Dad was 19. By the time she was 23, she had five kids. I was born when she was 30.

This math always floors me. I have three kids, my first when I was 26 and my last when I was 31. My husband and I joked that when we had our third, we had to go from man-to-man to zone defense. But what in the world did my parents have to do?

We were never wealthy, and some lean years were very lean indeed. But Mom always made a little bit seem like a lot, certainly more than enough, and always plenty. I learned that from her. I add a bit of water to a can of tomato sauce and swirl it to remove every bit. I sewed my own clothes. I run cold water when I turn on the disposal because when I was a kid, she taught me that was how it had to be done.

This last bit may be dubious information, however.

At the time I accepted her instruction with unquestioning gravity, but long after I was an adult I asked her why was it so important to use cold water with the disposal.

“Beats me,” she said. “Who told you that?”

“You did.”

“Hm. Wonder why.”

I was also a grown woman when I realized Mom must have had other hopes and dreams besides raising eight [perfectly remarkable and hardly feral] kids.

And by “realized,” I actually mean “got gobsmacked.”

I’ve blogged about this before, so indulge me if you’ve heard this story.

I got mad at my three children one day when they were youngish and terrible. I needed more than a time-out so I ran away. Only as far as the local library in our little Colorado town, but it was far enough. Far enough for me; too far for them.

I don’t think my kids were particularly scared, but they called my mother in California to tattle on me.

That evening, Mom called. When I told her the story of the behavioral chaos of my naughty children, expecting her to scold me, she laughed. “I’ve done the same thing,” she said. “Many times.”

I was immediately calmed and exonerated.

I shared that story on my blog ten or so years ago, adding this ….

I was reminded of this story today because I sat on the deck reading DEAR MRS LINDBERGH by Kathleen Hughes. It was a book I had given my mother as a gift several months earlier. She’s becoming more and more housebound caring for her declining husband. She has very few needs, so books, I’ve decided, are an excellent gift.

She lives in an apartment without much shelf space, though, so she carefully writes the name of the gift giver on a sticky note and returns the books when she’s finished. Often, she’ll include a note about how she enjoyed it—or didn’t.

Sometimes I give her books I’ve read that I know she’ll like. Other times I browse and find books I think she’ll like.

Such was the case with DEAR MRS LINDBERGH. I hadn’t read it, didn’t know anything about it. But I know Mom likes historical fiction, which this wasn’t, really, but it had that feel to it.

When I got to the end, I found a note from my mom tucked into it. In her precise cursive she told me she liked this one. She added, “On a very small scale I can relate to Ruth’s desire to fly away for an adventure of her own.”

Reading her note literally took my breath away.

My mother had eight children. I’m number seven. I was an adult before I ever knew—or thought to ask—if she had dreams for her life that didn’t involve a swarm of kids. She was a young teenager during World War II and the nurses captivated her imagination. But then she turned 18, got married, and immediately started having children. She and my dad never had any money. Nursing school was out of the question.

“On a very small scale I can relate to Ruth’s desire to fly away for an adventure of her own.”

I know Mom would say she’s had a perfectly fine life. But my heart has several tiny Mom-shaped cracks in it today.

I contrast my life with hers all the time. From the beginning, my husband and I had more money than she and my dad did. First, both of us had college degrees and we both had well-paying jobs upon graduation. We were able to buy a house in southern California before our first child was born. We had two cars and a washer and dryer, something my parents didn’t have for many, many years.

They’d cobbled together their American dream, gaining and losing ground periodically, but mostly making progress.

But when Mom was about fifty, her marriage to my dad suddenly crumbled. I didn’t appreciate how scary that must have been until I got to be about that age.

Here she was, fifty years old, only been in the labor pool for ten years or so in a handful of non-career-type jobs and boom—on her own. I was in college at the time and my younger sister was fifteen-ish. There was more than a little drama during that chaotic time, but because she was a practical woman, she rallied and soon enough took charge of herself again, with renewed determination.

It wasn’t long before she met someone and remarried, creating another long-term happy relationship.

And let me tell you, aside for its length and general happiness, this relationship was nothing like her previous one. First, this man was a tea-drinking, soccer-watching, Royal Air Force-pensioned British jazz musician, a far cry from my conservative insurance executive dad.

Second, they sold all their belongings, bought a big ‘ol RV, and traveled around the country attending jazz festivals.

Mom never became a nurse, or went to college. But in her 60s, she climbed into the driver’s seat of that monstrous vehicle and maneuvered it all over creation. She got on stage playing her fully-decked-out washboard in front of festival crowds, and found herself on the cover of the Wall Street Journal for it. She traveled to Europe.

She’d never have done any of that with my dad.

As I watched her dying in her hospital bed the other day, with her labored breathing and gaunt features, I wondered what she was thinking. Was she thinking about us? Was she praying? Was she remembering her life? I hope so. I hope she felt she’d finally had an adventure of her own.

When I had to leave, I kissed her on the forehead and thanked her for being a great mom. I also apologized for not being a great daughter. She roused herself from the morphine cloud and grinned at me. “You were fine. I love you.”

Later, relaying this to my husband, I laugh-cried because her subtext struck me funny. “Yeah, you were a perfectly adequate daughter. Not perfect, not terrible. Average. Solid C+. You could have applied yourself better, done more chores without being asked, visited more. And would it have killed you to bring me more wine?”

My sister Barbara wrote this in a letter to Mom recently and I thought it was so touching and exactly right.

“When I was a girl, my friend Leslie’s mother threw a birthday party every year for her, right before Christmas, and gave all the kids their own ornament with their name handwritten in glitter. I still have one and I hang it up every year on my tree. It reminds me of my childhood. I know someday it will break and every year when I get out the bins of decorations, I’m surprised to find it is still intact. But even if it were to dissolve into a million tiny pieces of green glittery dust, I’ll remember it, and my childhood.

 And when you’re gone, and you’ve dissolved into a million glittery bits, I’ll remember you. When I put all the ingredients out on the counter before I mix up the recipe, when I do my chores before I go out to play, when I laugh helplessly over some nonsense, when I treat my children as equals, when I craft something beautiful or useful, when I notice lyrics that touch my heart, I’ll remember you.”

So, godspeed, Mom. Thanks for everything. I hope you enjoyed your eighty-eight year adventure.

41 thoughts on “An Adventure of Her Own”

  1. Claire Fisher-Teer

    Becky, I’m so sorry for your loss.
    Your poetic writing, and your sister’s, honor your mom in the best way possible.
    Peace to your family.

  2. As I sit here with tears in my eyes, my heart breaking for you I’m ready to have a long talk with my mom about her life’s desires. Beautifully written, Becky. I’m so very sorry your mom has passed away. Hugs, my friend.

  3. I was hoping to see a family member during Eleanor’s last days. I work at Arbor View and did Eleanor’s laundry. I am so sorry for your loss. I will miss her. She was a wonderful lady. I enjoyed my talks with her and even in the last week of visiting with her I was able to get her to smile. I hope it gives you some comfort knowing that she wasn’t alone. I know it is hard on families not being able to visit their loved ones during the lock down.

    1. Debbie, thank you so much for caring for mom during her time at Arbor View. We are so grateful to everyone there for their kindness during Mom’s last 2 years.

    2. Debbie, that’s so sweet of you to say. We’re all so thankful she was looked after so well at Arbor View. Thank you—and everyone—for everything you did for her. But I’m curious … how in the world did you find your way to my blog??

  4. Margaret Murray

    OH, BEC..Powerful, I am so sorry for your loss, your words , your sisters word touch me to my soul..
    Love you Meg

  5. What a perfect A+ tribute to a truly remarkable woman. She shaped and repurposed for me parts of my own childhood that I believed were irreparable. I loved her very much and am so sorry for your profound loss.

    1. Oh, Cathy, she loved you so much. I was happy you could visit her when you were here, and I’m deeply grateful you trusted her and allowed her to work her magic for you.

  6. Cheryl Arcemont

    How beautiful and eloquent your words speaking of, what seems to me, a truly magnificent woman. I think of my grandmother passing many years ago and think of how strong and resilient these women were at a time when times were turbulent (in a completely different way than now) while still being able to retain the femininity within their strength.
    I am sorry to hear of your loss but will celebrate with you the awesomeness of mothers!
    💖💖💖 Cheryl

  7. Robin Templeton

    Beautiful. And beautifully real. I’m sorry for your loss. But I’m glad that you and the world had Eleanor for so many years.

    1. Thanks, Robin, and you’re right. We had our parents for a long time, most of it with them healthy. They were ready to go and we could accept it. That makes this much easier.

  8. Rosemary Berry

    Dearest Becky, I’m so sorry about the loss of your mom. She was beautiful, and I just love how you’ve shared some memories with us! Love her shoes in the Festival pic, and the pic of her hands, and the story about the garbage disposal!! Hugs to you!

  9. Sharon Manislovich

    That was amazing and left me teary and thinking of my own mother and all the ways she is still in little parts of my day.

    Also, I think you are a fine friend and I love you.

  10. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. Made me teary. My mom passed when I was in my twenties and I often remember the little things each day. Sending hugs.

  11. Becky,
    Losing your mom is the worst. I lost mine in 2013 and it seems like it was yesterday. She makes me smile every day and I quote her frequently. I hope before too long, the pain and large gash you feel, will be replacd with the warmth of her loving memories, and she’ll make you smile every day and you’ll start quoting her.

  12. My second time reading this, and just as moved as the first time. What a remarkable lady your mom was. I’m surprised how often I think of my own parents. Maybe surprised at the many layers of their lives that I continue to uncover long after they’ve gone. New discoveries because I reflect in newly informed ways as I get older. To me it’s one of the fair trade offs for what we lose in our physicality as we age. The ability to see more clearly, feel more deeply, and imagine the lives of others. I feel the gift of it. Thanks, Becky.

    1. Tamie, that’s a lovely sentiment. When I think of my parents as I age, I’m struck by how little about them I knew at the time I was around them the most. But kids tend to live in a world that revolves around only themselves. And maybe that’s the gift good parents give, allowing you to come into your own without extra drama. But seeing your parents for the people they were/are is a gift too. Not just as “Becky’s mom or dad” but as actual people with hopes and dreams, foibles and failures.

      1. Dear Becky,
        What a grand lady memorialized so beautifully. Your words let me learn so much more about her. I’ll always remember her around Lu’s kitchen table in Guthrie, surely with coffee (or at least Lu always had a cup) laughing and telling stories, often about those famous camping trips when the norm was to peel five pounds of potatoes at a time to fry for all the many kids of the the two families! When she was in her last apartment Dick and I visited with her for a night. I remember her insisting on sleeping on the sofa bed so Dick and I could have her bed. She would not hear of any other arrangement. During that visit, we three had dinner out with Bob and Marianne and your Mom was again telling stories, and joining us for a beer, or was it wine? Surely it was wine.

        I liked your Mom so much; she was always so lively and much fun. I called her EJ, maybe because Lu called her that. I asked her once how many names she had. Her reply, ‘Oh, I answer to all of them, it makes no difference to me’. And I’m pretty sure she added, ‘Just as long as you call me!’. BTW, she and Trevor visited us once in Atlanta, in the RV, so I got to meet him. They were a great couple and she was so happy.

        Thanks for so beautifully reminding us what a strong, happy, loving woman she was. You all were blessed to have had her as your mother.


        1. Vicki, I remember that trip you and Dick made to see her. She enjoyed your visit so much!

          I do feel compelled to make a slight correction about the potatoes. I’m sure they had to peel at least 10# because she’d peel 5# just for us! And none of us were burly football players!

          You are correct, though, that we were all very lucky to have spent time with her over the years. She was one of a kind! (As was Aunt Lu. Loved that woman and all of her stories!)

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