As I mentioned in THIS POST, the Covid-19 lockdown has given me time to explore several bins of photographs in our garage.
Through this clearing out, I have discovered facets of my mother’s life I never knew.
Mom passed from this life fairly recently (Jan. 15, at the age of 99 and 1/2) and I’ve reflected on her life more in the past few weeks than I did the week she became sick and died.
It was a good death, all the nurses said.
Mom developed a UTI that we couldn’t seem to get a handle on. Within just a few days, she stopped eating. She spent her last 24 hours here resting peacefully but completely disengaged from this life. The 24 hours before that she fidgeted and tugged at her clothes, as though she was uncomfortable. She was restless and flushed. I suspected she was suffering on some level, and that was the worst day for me. My constant prayer for her as I sat in her room was for her to be at peace, and for one day, she was not.
Mom’s wonderful palliative care nurse, Felice, suggested a little morphine to ease Mom’s discomfort. Dad hesitated. His experience with morphine was from his Navy days, 70 years prior. They gave morphine to the seriously injured to speed their journey toward death. Felice explained that Mom was not eating, and meds had been discontinued. She had begun her journey already. Our role was to make her comfortable.
Dad reluctantly agreed and within the hour, Mom settled. To the unknowing eye, she simply appeared to be sleeping.
The following day, about two hours before Mom passed, she roused a bit and murmured, “Oh Lord, Oh Lord,” and then drifted back into oblivion. I believe she saw Jesus. A few minutes later, she mumbled a sentence of which only one word was clear: Eleanor.
Eleanor was mom’s best friend, her “soul mate” Mom had called her. Eleanor died in 2003. I believe Eleanor escorted Mom into heaven. I imagine they are laughing and catching up right now.
As those who have lost a loved one know, the quiet days of grieving come after the frenzy of funeral arrangements, immediate paperwork, the departure of beloved company, and myriad casserole dishes.
I had barely embarked on that journey of mourning and reflection with Dad when murmurs began to circulate about an unknown, but serious illness that was creeping into the population. Shortly after that, Dad’s assisted living facility began to bar visitors. We have not visited with Dad in over a month.
We talk with him daily. Our daughter just purchased for him an Echo Show, a tablet that enables him to video chat with us any time. The activities director at his ALF installed it for him. He doesn’t quite understand it yet, but he’s learning.
I expected to have cherished, healing days with Dad after Mom passed, days where we would process this lost together. We had but a few moments before Covid-19 separated us.
So, at Dad’s request, we began to look through photographs. 70 years of pictures.
We deliver bags of photographs to Dad’s ALF where a masked employee takes the bag at the front door and delivers it to Dad. He sorts and tosses and makes new piles for us to pick up a few days later. I keep what I want and then fill envelopes with photographs to mail to friends and family.
While I’m looking at all these photographs…this is where I’m processing the loss of my mother.
It unfolded in reverse. Seeing pictures of Mom from the past 10 years – the years I was her caretaker – mainly I felt gratitude that she is no longer in that body. It was curled and fragmented, unaccommodating, and unsupportive. It was not her friend anymore.
As I moved further back in time, I was reminded of her healthier days. Her busy days as a teacher, prayer group leader, lector, writer, counselor to so many, and then a grandmother. These were my junior high school days and beyond.
When I opened the cedar chest where Mom kept her pre-marriage days memorabilia, I was transported back 70 years. And I was captivated.
I had never seen this photograph before.
From what I can determine, Mom is 16-18 here, it’s 1938-39. Such a bright smile, so cute and carefree.
I love studying this image of Mom, as most of my years growing up, she and Dad were weighted down with worries concerning my older, special-needs brother, Greg. He had epilepsy, which eventually led to some brain damage, and for twenty years, they were involved with finding the doctors/meds that would control seizures. When I was about 8 or 9, they founded a school in our small town in Indiana for handicapped children. There were no special ed programs there at the time, so my parents created them. This, to me, is remarkable. The older I get, the more remarkable.
Here are a few more photographs I unearthed. I had never seen these either.
These are photographs from Mom’s Navy days. (She served as a WAVE during the last two years of World War II.) She was stationed in Washington D.C. and Hawaii.
Mom spoke with pride about her years in the Navy. She wanted the Navy hymn (Eternal Father, Strong to Save) sung at her funeral. She made a few good friends in the Navy that she stayed in touch with all her life.
I’m still admiring the infectious smile. She loved this time of her life.
There is no note about who these guys are.
Or this one…
How I wish I had seen all these photographs when Mom was alive. I would love to have heard the stories.
And know who took this picture…
The Navy behind her, Mom went to Hanover college on the GI bill. Being a few years older (due to her time in the Navy first), she was confident and motivated. She majored in Journalism/English and loved it.
As I perused all four of her college yearbooks, I was amazed to find her on so many pages. She served on the school paper, the yearbook, the poetry club, student council, and more. Here she is (on the left) with a friend in front of their sorority house. I never knew she had such thick, curly hair.
I found a college diary of Mom’s, where several different beaus are mentioned. During her first two years, she writes of many dances, mixers, ballgame dates, and “coke dates.” The evidence suggests she was regularly pursued. She was “pinned” to one gentleman for a brief time, discussed marriage with another one, and had a tearful breakup with a third guy. Having grown up on a working farm (which she hated), it’s clear Mom embraced all the academic and social opportunities college offered.
Interestingly, just this past year, Mom casually remarked to our daughter, “I’m so glad I waited for Klinedale.”
Still, I wished I could have known more about what her young heart experienced.
This is Mom’s 1950 college graduation photograph along with a note of all the clubs to which she belonged over 4 years.
I don’t know why I was so surprised to see the level of Mom’s involvement in college. She had always been serious and steadfast about every endeavor she started. It was just an eye-opener to discover she was so happy and so passionate about learning and being engaged in everything. She told me once a few years ago that, as a teenager, she always dreamed she would go to New York and become a journalist. That’s what she wanted to do.
But then, World War II progressed. College was offered at no charge.
And then…she met this guy.
I didn’t know Dad was at Mom’s college graduation. They were married just weeks after she left Hanover.
Unfortunately, their wedding photographer never showed up, so their wedding photographs are terrible, taken I assume by a friend or family member.
A honeymoon picture from Canada. A headwrap to keep the wayward locks harnessed.
After the wedding photographs, there are many image gaps in the following years.
My folks had 4 babies (and one miscarriage) right in a row. Mom was a fulltime homemaker until I (the baby) was about 8 or 9. She then did some teaching, some social work, and carved out the path to build the Rosemary Kennedy school for Greg and other special needs children.
My brother and sister and I (due to a head injury from a fall, Greg passed away when was 23) remember Mom as a solemn worker bee. There was a proper way to do things, no wasting time, and no fooling around. (Dad was the adventurous, fun parent.) She ran a structured, orderly home. They were a good balance, although complete opposites. To this day, my siblings and I puzzle over how they ever got together.
I am so grateful I’ve had this time at home to journey through my mom’s cedar chest and discover snippets of her single life. Growing up, we never think our parents’ lives are interesting; we’re too absorbed with our own. Now that Mom is gone, I’m missing the tales that would have accompanied these precious photographs.
Instead, I’m piecing together her 20’s from her writings and photos and memories she did share while here. I’m so glad she embraced military service and travel and college – endeavors most women at the time did not pursue. She was a bit of a trailblazer and more confident than I have ever been.
Mom continued to write all her life. At the age of 86, she published a collection of her poems and memoirs called Love Makes the Ride Worthwhile. She was determined and spunky until the end. I so admire her many accomplishments (and, honestly, feel a bit slothful in comparison.)
Silly as it sounds, I am so proud of her.
Thank you, Mom, for gifting me with these priceless keepsakes. I’m so glad you had a full and vibrant life. I know you are now reaping the rewards of a job well done.