Several days ago, Bets posted a “mama” meme. Bri shared a confusing/frustrating conversation she recently had with her mom. Relationships with moms are so complex. I’ve thought about my mom more in the past 72 hours than I have over the past year. This is good for me. You see, my mom died 26 years ago, when I was 19 and just coming into adulthood. I never knew her as an adult. My thoughts of her are clouded by time and colored with emotion. Her name was Sandra, but everyone except HER mom called her Sandy.
Sandy was born in Oklahoma in 1945 to a “good time girl”…my grandma Delores. Delores was an entertainer who had traveled with USO shows all around the world. Married and divorced 7 times, she left my mom to be raised by her grandparents (Dee & Winter) . Her father, Kenneth, was reportedly in Washington . Delores flitted in and out of Sandy’s life, bringing gifts and new boyfriends home every few months. Later on, as Sandy began her teen years, Delores moved her in with an abusive new stepfather who belittled and humiliated the plump teen. See, Sandy liked to smell things. Everything. No matter what it was, she would pick it up and give it a quick sniff. It was her way of “knowing” and identifying things. And she chewed on her bottom lip a lot, leaving a red, rashy area underneath. There are rumors that the abuse was more than verbal and physical. This is what I heard from her aunt anyway. Sandy was “shy, bookish, and excels academically.” This is a direct quote from a 10th grade report card urging my grandmother to have Sandy sign up for Honors English and providing information about college scholarship availability.
There is evidence that Sandy looked for her father. In the wooden box where the report card was, was another envelope addressed to Sandra. Inside was a handwritten letter from a woman who was Kenneths’ current wife. The letter stated “I don’t know what your mother told you, but you need to stop writing to Kenneth. He is not your father. Your mother was a whore that followed all the soldiers around. Kenneth is not your father and wants nothing to do with you.” This was sent by a grown woman to a 12 year old girl. How insanely cruel.
Sandy’s best girlfriends were Carol and her sister Judy. When they were about 15-16, they met “the boys”. “The boys”, were John, JC, and Paul….brothers ranging from 22-16…enlisted in the navy. Carol and John soon married and produced my cousin Paul. Sandy soon became pregnant too…..and married JC about 8 months after I was born. Paul returned to California where he met and married my aunt Gloria. (Uncle Paul and Aunt Gloria are my two FAVORITE people in the ENTIRE world). I was often left with my grandma Delores and great-grandma (Dee). In the wooden box of memorabilia with the report cards and letter, is a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1964 reporting the arrest of my mom and dad, aunt Carol and Uncle John, at the National Finals Rodeo. It appears from the report that the boys were drinking and trying to bring in a flask or bottle of whisky, and got into an altercation with security at the rodeo. My mom and Aunt Carol were arrested after they jumped onto the police officers’ backs to pull them off of “their men”. Their men getting in trouble with the law was a pattern that would repeat over and over for the rest of their lives. As a matter of fact, John died while incarcerated just a few years ago. JC was a little luckier…he didn't get caught as often.
Raised as a Catholic, and believing in love and commitment, Sandy was a devoted and loving wife to JC, through years of infidelity and verbal and physical abuse. She did the bookkeeping for JC s gas station. She had dinner on the table every night at 6pm. She kept an immaculate home. She went to the bars to make sure he’d have a ride home (and to keep him from going home with other women). This while working full time and caring for 2 kids. He was a very very mean drunk. Sandy would hide in her children’s bedrooms some nights when he would come home, not leaving until after he’d passed out. Once, he set our home on fire , once he drove his car through our front picture window. This, after she’d locked him out of the house in fear. I implored her time and time again to divorce this horror. But, she was Catholic, she was committed, and she had two kids. The violence escalated. To my mind at that time, she was spineless, weak, a doormat. The one and only time she “put her foot down” with me was to insist I take typing in high school. I was a teenager by then, and thought I had all the answers,.
Sandy had completed her GED and settled into a job as a secretary for an insurance agency. She remained there for 18 years, eventually promoted to assistant to the President. I didn’t see this professional, efficient, friendly, popular side of her until I was 16. I’d had a few jobs previously, lifeguard at the local pool, lots of babysitting, sales clerk at a nearby clothing boutique. I was saving for college and to get the hell outta dodge. My mom got me a part-time secretarial position in the company where she worked. (A little nepotism never hurt anyone). I saw her in a totally different light after that. Instead of the beaten down, mousy woman I knew, here was an energetic, smiling, friendly, compassionate person that everyone…everyone…went to for assistance, problem solving…getting things done. She was amazing. When she walked…she had her head up, walked briskly, and the top part of her body always got there before her bottom half…she was a forward thinker there. People liked her. They were always trying to get her attention, inviting her places. She was always gracious and kind to everyone. Even people who were mean, people who were idiots, or who were peripheral…the mailman, the delivery guy, the file clerk. She was always KIND. I started to get to know who she really was there…in that environment. We went shopping together or ate together once in a while, but her conversations about meal plans, coupons, etc…were of little interest to me. Her taste in clothing was vastly different from mine….and I unconsciously echoed JCs abuse when describing her lack of style. The only thing we had in common was our love of reading. We both devoured every book we could get our hands on. Every genre. Two video clip memories of us…one at the library when I was about 10…she is insistent that I read Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” (and I thought it was the best book I’d ever read at that time)…and again at Terry’s Used Bookstore…in the musty basement bookshelves, she turned me on to gothic romance…when I was about 12…I can picture her sitting at nighttime on the gold crushed velvet sofa, curled up in the corner with her feet under her, she is illuminated by circle of lamplight, nibbling at an index fingernail….reading….as she waited for the monster to come home.
When I was 13, I was taken away and placed in foster care for a couple of years. When I was able to come back home, after so-called “ family therapy” (you hafta remember, this was Oklahoma in the 60s and 70s), my mom said…”that chapter of our life is over, closed. We will never discuss it again.” And we didn’t. She would never allow it. Even as the abusive cycle slowly started up again….I remember crying and asking her to please let us leave….and her saying no..we can’t ….and me screaming…”I hate you, I hate you” at her. She slapped me hard across the face. And…I slapped her back…..just as hard. I was 16. Something intrinsic to our relationship changed in that moment. I think she began to see me no longer as a child….and I …well…I scared myself with my gumption and impulsiveness. But I also felt a sense of power and a sense of …maybe..self..for the first time. I moved out within a week. I continued to work with my mom in the afternoons, complete high school during the mornings. We still shared books, had friendly conversations, talked about my college plans. After graduation, she helped me make lists of things I’d need for my dorm room, helped me work out a budget.
In late August, I packed everything up , mailed boxes to my new dorm in Michigan, hopped on a Grayhound Bus and left. The weekend before, I’d had a bout of cold feet and started talking about “maybe just going to OU instead….like most of my friends”…but my mom said “NO…if you don’t get out of here now…you won’t ever leave…and if you don’t ever leave…you’ll never amount to anything”. ..
My freshman year, she mailed me letters and care packages every few months. We talked on the phone every week or so. I missed her horribly. She would send me books she’d read and then we’d talk about them on the phone. Sometimes, she’d send money. She bought me a warm winter coat and all I had to do was go to my local Sears to pick it up. I stayed in Michigan and worked over the summer. I had new friends, a new life. But in the fall, she told me..she was finally getting divorced. The abuse was too frequent..or too bad…or she’d just gotten tired of it…or her kids were finally raised…I don’t know what finally prompted her. I had my own problems at the time. Boyfriend trouble…nothing serious. But I decided to take the next semester off from school. After finals, I put my things in storage and flew to Oklahoma. I took a taxi to my mom’s building and walked into her office. She looked up and said “may I help you”…it took her a few seconds to realize it was me….it had been 15 months and she wasn’t expecting me home. She looked back at me and said “oh my gosh, what are you doing here, you’re so fat” all in one breath…I knew it wasn’t mean spiritied, I’d just surprised her. (I’d gained the freshman 40). She’d always been plump herself, but now was so tiny…a size 6…and dressed very chicly ( it had been polyester doubleknit pantsuits before)…and with painted manicured nails….her nails had always been bitten to the quick…a habit I inherited and have only broken in the last 10 years. Divorce was agreeing with her. We had a really nice holiday together. We fought a few times because she wouldn’t let me borrow her car and wanted to impose a curfew on my going out . But she let me have my old job back…”just until you go back to school, you are going to summer school to make this semester up aren't you?".
I’m really glad I went back. Looking back I don’t know what made me make the decision to take time off…maybe a premonition…who knows. But on February 2nd, one of her co-workers came to my cubicle and said “Lisa hurry your mom’s really sick”…she had passed out and was having a seizure in her office. She came too and complained of a severe headache…said she’d been taking Sine-Off all morning…I thought it was an overdose of medication…so I put her in my car and drove towards the hospital…on the way there, she had another seizure….and in the ER….a final one…and slipped into a coma. She’d had a cerebral aneurysm that had ruptured…today we call them hemorrhagic strokes. Dozens of people came to the hospital over the next few days. Waiting in the ICU area, around the clock. Some of my friends in a band set up speakers and started jamming in the hospital cafeteria….To this day the Neil Young song “Helpless” evokes that vignette and makes me tear up. She died on February 5th without regaining conscioussness. My younger brother (14 at the time) was in the room with her when she died. JC was drunk the whole time. Delores (her mom) was wacked out on pills crying “no one should have to bury their child” …it was always about her and how she felt…she didn’t bury her….I did. I made all the arrangements for the funeral and burial. I went through probate. I sorted out, gave away, and packed up her things. In doing so, I found out things about her that I didn’t know…..things like…a pair of black crotchless underwear….made me smile….and a card from a man that she worked with alluding to a weekend they’d had together in Chicago where he stated “ I can’t wait to held your pretty face between my hands again”…that brought tears to my eyes…because at last she did have love….someone who treated her to romance and loving words. I went to see this man a few years later. I told him thank you for loving my mom. We never said anything specific. (He was married). But we both were tearful…and I am still grateful to him.
So, it is a little difficult to come up with a mama meme, because I feel like I just barely began to scrape the surface in knowing who my mother was. …….and it is even more complicated by finding out just a few years ago that JC in fact is not my father, but his brother…my Uncle Paul….really is. Jerry Springer here I come! Overall though, I can pull out many positive things about my mom. She loved animals, especially cats. She had large art pictures of lions and tigers in our living room. She loved to go to the lake. She liked to try water skiing. She liked going to the state fair and ride the Scrambler…and eating pineapple whip softserve. She took me and my little brother to Woolaroc to see bison and go through the museum. She was a total lady. She never swore.When she was really really mad, she said “hell’s bells”. She drank diet Pepsi ALL THE TIME, except in the evening...then she drank TJ Swan "Happy Days". She loved babies and toddlers and had a special fondness for my cousin “Duckie” (Angie). She was kind. She had a great sense of humor. She was really smart. She would have enjoyed traveling I think. She only got to go to Chicago and Dallas and Branson MO in her lifetime. In retrospect, think she did the best she could considering her upbringing and the place and the time. I have missed her a lot. The first time I really missed her was after moving back to Michigan, and upon finishing a new Steven King novel, I immediately picked up the phone and dialed her number…and realized she wasn’t going to answer…and had a major grief meltdown…..four months after she died. I missed her after I got to travel to Europe, and Asia…because I wanted to share with her the pictures and the impressions of the people and buildings and cultures. I missed her again when at 30 I decided to finally commit to marriage with DH, and I was picking out a dress and planning our wedding. I missed her again a few years later when I became pregnant with what would have been her first grandchild-DD. I missed her when I graduated from college, and from my midwifery program. I miss her now that DD is a teen…it would have been nice to commiserate…and see if my teen self was as melodramatic….i will always wonder what she was really like, and who she would have become. She was only 35 when she died….I know that I have a different perspective at 45 than I did a decade ago.…and I will always miss her. I did tear up a few times while writing this. But the pain is old and familiar…like an arthritic ache in my heart instead of my knee…and it’s very tolerable now. I like to think I would have made her proud. There aren’t very many people around anymore who remember her. But I am sure those that do remember her…do so with fondness. She was just that kind of lady.