Trying to encapsulate a person's life, particularly one other than your own, is a far more daunting task than I should ever take up. I've little doubt I did a miserable job of it. But I wanted to write this for mother's day, to honor her pain I guess, and deliver good wishes for eternity. Unfortunately I'm an unworthy son and was always late with my mother's day gifts, most of which were pairs of bunny slippers. It's a long tale, don't feel it necessary unless inclined to read for enjoyment; though I would say knowing her somewhat gives a penny toward who I am. It's my mother. How could it be otherwise?
The phrase "a hard life" is a relative thing. For some it's the constant drip, drip, drip of minor disappointment finally boring a chasm through the soul. For others it might be being born a paraplegic and poverty stricken to parents living in a Rio slum. To others still, it could be so simple as being born at all as a Somali within viewing distance of Darfur. My mother's life was certainly not "hard" as compared to that, yet it was somewhere in the center of those extremes. About half way through this I discovered the impossibility of writing a mish mash of good and bad in some chronological order, so I'll begin with what made life untenable, and then what made her special.
Born in 1931, Mary Louise came into the world with a webbed hand. Her mother, according to stories heard since past both their deaths, thought this a punishment for having conceived her daughter out of wedlock, and spent the rest of her life a devout and mistake free woman. It was a bit of a scary looking thing, the skin cut and pulled so tight it became shiny, the nails more like wood chips that jutted rather than enamel that lay peacefully. She seldom if ever talked about it but I can't imagine she wasn't teased relentlessly about it when she was young, and even looked upon with disdain by some up until she died, for her physical abnormality. Beyond having graduated from 12 years of Catholic education, I can't testify as to much that happened in the first 20 years of her life save that she felt she was a daddy's girl and her sisters, with their mother, conspired against the two. He was by accounts a bit of a carouser, a flirt, a moderate drinker and a crabass. I was able to witness the latter as I was born about 12 years before he died, yet I saw his good side on a rare now and then. He certainly was no abuser, not reckless with household funds, not completely inattentive to the family's needs. He had his reasons to feel put upon, just as the rest of us do, and his were probably more than justified having been a wounded veteran of world war one, and having been tossed from his marital bed once the last of four daughters came along.
I'm not sure, but assume that her obsessive jealousy came from those two historical items; her "disfigurement" and the insinuations leveled at her father. She loved the man dearly, but no doubt being told he was a gadabout gave her the hate to match the love and the confusion that would set fire to her thoughts all too often. As for the hand, it's so not uncommon for someone with a visible physical anomaly to feel as if anyone who loves them (as a lover at least) is "overlooking" the issue, and at any moment could, and likely will come to their senses. Yet even these things were nothing more than a trigger for her mental illness, as common jealousy is little more than an annoyance until driven to biblical proportions.
She had me at age 21, my next sister at 23 and the next 11 months later. There's a possibility that there was a miscarriage, even within that time line. My living brother was born ten years after I, and the next, seven years after that. In the meantime, she had, that I know of though as a male I was not exactly privy to the news, seven miscarriages; some of which were close enough to term to have limbs and working parts. My sister says she'd heard twelve, and I can't argue as it could easily be true. I do know that a hundred changes took place in that time to my mother's health. She had always smoked, but between her mental state and the constant pressure of being pregnant, she smoked so heavily she drove herself into early emphysema, contracting the disease in her young thirties. At the same time, her teeth began to turn black. Imagine having your smile darken as you live through your twenties until it's the color of swamp mud, all the while thinking that women are inescapably attracted to your husband, the man who accepted you in spite of your imperfections.
Doctors claimed her problem was based on being forever pregnant, the fetus' apparently sucking the calcium right out of her body. Whatever the case, she lost all her teeth at about the same time she was diagnosed as having lung disease, and took on false choppers which would occasionally make an appearance above and beyond her lower lip whenever they became uncomfortable. She had been a very pretty woman, "looked like Doris Day" my dad would say; though I never saw the similarity, I did think she was quite attractive when younger. After the teeth replacement though, she became very thin, her cheeks sank and her lips pursed a bit.
My father had said he'd seen signs of her mental issues early on. I can only remember one instance when I was perhaps six, and a rage after a neighborhood dance was held in our newly peel and stick, checkerboard tiled basement. Mom had thought her husband was chatting up the ladies, perhaps even secretly stealing a wink and a nudge from most if not all of them. That their husbands didn't seem to notice was no comfort to her, my dad was a devious and ruthless man she'd said, with an inexhaustible libido.
The first and most dramatic moment I can remember fully, happened when I was somewhere near twelve In short form, my mother had a meltdown at an extended family dinner, accusing my dad of lusting after her sisters, culminating with a glass of wine to the face. A long drive home, a handful of pulled hair and other delights later, the cops got involved, a shrink was notified and within weeks commitment papers were drawn up. Then, the sheriffs came to take our mother away for an extended stay at a funny farm.
Schizophrenic Paranoid they called it, though they never really explained it to us kids. We were pretty much ignored by the medical community. My father passed on some info, but I'm not sure any of us were old enough to really understand the true gravity of the situation, nor that he truly understood it himself. From that time she would relapse on occasion, for the same reasons most people do I'd bet. Her illness was controlled by an anti-psychotic drug, at least once they stopped with the shock treatments and all that torture. As with any powerful drug it had side effects. She felt high, all the time. Sometimes she just couldn't take it anymore and thought, since she'd been fine for some time, whatever that time might have been, she could do life without the pills. A few weeks later she would begin to sulk, then hallucinate and finally come loose, saying or doing something that made it obvious she was again on the fringe of our dimension. For a while it seemed like every other week. I'm sure it was nowhere near that but when you're wired to see irrationality, you see it even when it doesn't exist. Let's just say she was in the hospital more than once, and usually a ward in which guards would need to unlock the doors to allow us a visit.
She started coughing early, that hard cough that goes on forever and never moves anything. If she got on a jag at church for instance, she would have to leave to take it outside, while everyone in the room took a good look at us so as to remember who exactly we were. Eventually she coughed hard enough that she would urinate or pass gas, making her desire to go anywhere within a closed public space unthinkable. She couldn't sleep obviously, so spent the majority of nights in the kitchen, with her cigarettes and doodle pads, making little triangles, filling an ash tray and staring out the window, no doubt cursing her existence. It was there we had a thousand conversations, as I am a night owl and accustomed to being awake on the back side of the night. In the daytime, when she wasn't caring for my eternally infant brother or doing the normal stay at home mommy chores, she was back in the kitchen, doodle pad and overfilled ashtray at the ready, glass coffee pot on the stove and percolating at least three times a day. Much of that span she'd be on the phone with one of her few friends, just chatting up the days for sometimes hours at a time.
Her illness made my father wary to be sure, and somewhat detached. His is yet another story so I won't elaborate here, but he withdrew some, accepting his fate, doing his duty and suffering the consequences. He did a remarkable job under the circumstances, in my estimation, but for a lot of their life together they were far more roommates than soul mates. Anytime he was not scheduled to work and not with the kids, he'd need to be within her periphery. That pretty much eliminated personal friends, so the only people they would see on any regular basis were high school friends of hers and their families, none of which my father could abide, but all of which he was genial to until they stepped over the line by insulting his kids or teasing my mother about her "jealous streak". No matter how many times it was explained to them, they never understood it was not some "moodiness" on her part, and a simple prodding could put our entire family in dire straits for months.
In the end her body became weaker and weaker but her episodes became fewer and fewer. I suppose it was fair trade, if she were destined to suffer anyway. When my dad lost his legs in a work accident, she crashed heavily. I'd never seen her like that, glazed, childlike. She never recovered really. Within a few months of his physical therapy beginning in earnest she'd developed congestive heart failure and was given a couple months to live. She lived two years, some of that time enjoyable as best one could make it, but much of that time in slow and certain agony. As I lived across the street from them I spent as much time as I could in their house; not doing anything really but being a presence, keeping a conversation alive, trying to make a horrible situation a milligram lighter. I lost a marriage over that time, among other reasons for that time and worry spent. I'm sorry my mother lived to see it coming as she didn't deserve yet one more poke in the eye. She died in '86, aged five years younger than I am today. She'd been ready and willing to die for all of that two years, and had been revived by firemen called by my poor brother who had given her cpr as they were en route, more than once.
Whether she ever knew the person I knew her to be is a question I can't answer. Let's eliminate the sick times, they were dreadful at best and rarely let in so much as a moment of light from any corner. But in the majority of my time with her, she was kind and gentle, thoughtful and sweet. She tried to be a disciplinarian, but just couldn't manage it well. She'd yell upstairs at me to get up for school a half dozen times every morning, but when I didn't come she went back to her doodling and chores. My mother was always there when I needed her. Always. Luckily I never needed her when she was sick:) She was talented in many ways, though seldom used her talent outside of paint by numberish crafting. A reasonable artist, a moderate piano player and a championship dancer. Apparently my father and she were a hit on the Lindy floor.
About me she had no illusions; I was no perfect son by any means. Yet she always had a good word for me, always believed in me, even to the point of my becoming angry about the exaggeration. Mary Lou was funny, and fun to make fun of. She never took herself too seriously and always laughed at jokes at her expense, so long as they were offered by the blood family. As example my mother had a gag reflex that could go off at any second, and we bad kids would sometimes walk up behind her and whisper "snot" just to see her wretch. I know, not so cute in retrospect but, it was funny at the time. For a family that lived under such a black cloud we certainly had a lot of laughs, and a lot of that had to do with my mother and her kind, forgiving spirit. A great cook in a common meal kinda way, a perfect event planner, industrious, dedicated, devout and an endless conversationalist.
I miss my mother terribly, though if she were alive you'd never have seen this as I would have spent most of my free time entertaining her. When she died I cried all night, and again all day at her funeral. I was inconsolable for weeks. It was a blinding loss, and obviously to my youngest brother as well as he died only a few short months later, partly no doubt because he understood she had passed. What amazes me in retrospect is how well she survived under the weight of her life, how calm she could be in the face of such extremes; and until the end, how accepting she was of her lot, without bitterness, without overwhelming shame... with class.