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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Remembering Mom

Mom died last week at the age of 93, two months after Dad’s funeral a few weeks after he turned 95. Although they were inseparable, fiercely loyal to one another throughout their 73 years together, they were the odd couple in temperament. Dad, seemingly untouched by grief, pleasure or pain, and Mom, freely expressing them all.

Mom was the middle child of eleven, with five brothers and five sisters. She had to drop out of school in 10th grade to help her family on their farm in Raleigh, North Dakota. Shortly after her 20th birthday Mom married Dad and moved 300 miles east to a tiny town just over the Montana state line. Eight months later my brother was born. A few years ago when I asked the two of them about his premature birth. Dad remained silent as Mom suggested with a smile, “You do the math.”

The 50’s had to be hard on mom. She hated being the little woman when that was the cultural norm. Hypocrisy and condescension were her sworn enemies. In her later years she came home from the market growling about young checkout clerks who called her “dear,” or “honey” in very loud voices. Older salesmen who addressed her as “young lady” found it the fastest way to lose a sale.

It also couldn’t have been easy for her to cope with the occasional self-important musings emanating from her highly educated husband and three sons: a high school principal, an FBI agent, a University administrator, and a judge. She may have been a high school dropout, but she quietly knew she was as smart or smarter than anyone else in the room.

Mom’s career was bringing up her three sons Ozzie and Harriet style. She listened carefully to our parish priest, who told parents they were responsible if their kids go bad. “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he warned. Those words must have echoed in her mind as all three of her overachieving sons left the church while meandering through a forest of failed marriages. A much wiser parish priest, as well as frequent prayerful chats with whom she called “the Man Upstairs,” helped Mom overcome her guilt.

She had a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor, often quoting Red Skelton’s observation about the afterlife, “Maybe the world is an ashtray and we’re just a bunch of snuffed out butts.”

Dad chose HOW GREAT THOU ART to be sung at his funeral, Mom’s choice was, SEND IN THE CLOWNS. She had a special affinity for them, collecting sketches, paintings and figurines of clowns as keepsakes. I think this may have come about from her need to put on a happy face during the exceptionally hard times in her life: Having to drop out of high school, pregnant before marriage, moving 300 miles away from her family and friends, moving repeatedly during the war years with two young sons, worrying about her brother Richard, captured in the Battle of the Bulge and held in a Nazi prison camp for a year, and her other brother Al, held throughout the war in a Japanese prison camp after his ship, the USS Houston, was sunk days after Pearl Harbor.

My fondest memories of Mom are sitting in the kitchen with her after school, drinking milk and eating her brownies as she listened patiently to the life-changing defeats and victories of a teenager wrapped up in his own world. Many years later, during my first year of teaching, I again poured out my troubles to her late into the night, long after dad had gone to bed.

You always knew where you stood with mom. She‘d tell you.

Her name was Rose Marie. Her beauty and hardiness calls to mind the Robert Frost poem I once sent her on her birthday.

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose--
But were always a rose.

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