Friday, May 29, 2009

What My Mother Left Behind

Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. I say “would have been,” because she died 20 years ago, just short of being able to blow out 65 candles on a frosted cake. Her last couple of years were spent battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative ailment that steals hope as quickly as it does mobility. Everybody knew what her fate would be. We were prepared for her death, and yet no one can ever really be “prepared” to say good-bye to a loved one. I was only lucky to have visited her on the pleasant spring evening before she passed away, to kiss her forehead and wish her a fond goodnight. One last memory of the first woman in my life.

Only a few years ago, my aunt Jacqui--my mother’s 13-years-younger sister--gave my brother, Matt, and I copies of the photograph topping this post. It shows our mother at age 26 (almost three years before she was willing to marry and have children), standing somewhere on what I presume is the Oregon coast. Jacqui says this is how our mother wanted us to remember her, as a smiling, relaxed student of the earth, willing to see where the winds might take her. But my memories of my mother--Daphne Gwendolyn Sprinkling (later Daphne Pierce)--are far more complex than that.

She was the kind of person who would talk to anybody she thought might be interesting. On family vacations my father, brother, and I would often discover her conversing merrily with someone we’d never seen before--often to our embarrassment, as we overheard her talking about us. Her curiosity and desire for enlightenment were boundless. She’d bring books home from the local library about Chinese history and medieval art, and I’d happen upon her in corners of our family home, the concentration lines etching her forehead as she pored over those dusty volumes. I can only imagine how many kilowatt hours she’d have burned up on computers, had she lived long enough to investigate today’s Internet. After my brother and I went off to college, our mother went back to school, enrolling at the same university my brother attended--and making considerably better grades than he did.

She’d observed her own parents, and thought she knew what it meant to rear children--something my father, who had spent his youth amidst greater privilege, with considerably more distracted parents, never really seemed to learn. However, Matt and I could be handfuls at times. On occasion, our mother was conflicted by the need to control us. She knew the potential value of discipline, but had too warm a heart to administer it easily. I remember one time, after I’d done something meriting a harsher than normal response (don’t ask me what it was), my mother decided that I should be punished with a leather belt. She found one of my father’s belts, told me to bend over, and began striking me on the buttocks. After a few stinging strokes, though, I suddenly realized that the pain had ceased. And I heard crying behind me. When I turned around to see what had happened, I discovered my mother’s eyes filled with tears. She looked at me guiltily, put the belt away, and never again struck me so.

My mother disliked cooking for the family. Which is why we were always so well and creatively fed. Growing up, I would periodically go to stay or at least dine with friends, and it always seemed that their mothers had an overconstrained repertoire of menu staples. They prepared meatloaf, or they made roast beef and potatoes, or if they were really feeling creative, they’d put together spaghetti. Even my grandmother--my mother’s very British mother--had her meal standards, which usually ran the broad gamut from cuts of red meat, to boiled sausages and mashed potatoes, to casseroles of one indistinguishable sort or another. Not my mother, though. I suspect that, in the beginning she prepared meals for her husband that he liked. That, in itself, would have been limiting, as my father--despite having been reared in St. Louis and Atlanta under the culinary tutelage of African-American cooks--never liked spicy food. No, let me amend that: he never liked food with any flavor. Period. He was happy enough with fried fish, a hamburger patty, or a big ol’ plate of poached chicken and carrots cooked to within an inch of mushiness. Definitely not food that would make one rush to the table.

For many years, my mother suffered in the kitchen, trying to please both my father and my hyper-picky brother, who refused to eat pretty much everything (many items surreptitiously migrating from the dinner table to his pockets). But at some point, my mother made a life-changing decision. If she was going to have to cook for the three of us, and if she was to maintain her good humor and sanity, she was going to have to branch out. Way out. The results weren’t all that obvious at first. The leap from meatloaf to garlic-spiced meatballs and spaghetti hardly seemed earth-shattering. Neither did the evolution from boiled veggies to steamed veggies to vegetables prepared with peanut oil in a wok. But at some point, our dinner plates no longer offered beef slabs or chicken. Instead, we were served homemade sukiyaki and Indonesian stir-fries and Mexican moles, lasagna and Spanish paellas. The biggest jump came the day my mother bought a deep-fryer so she could make bagels. Bagels, of all things, in the mid-1970s. Hell, even the Jewish family next door didn’t make bagels. But my mother did. Soon she was dishing out big, fluffy, chewy bagels that could support half a pound of cream cheese each. My poor father didn’t know what had happened. He’d never had a bagel in his life, perhaps had never seen a bagel. Yet suddenly there were basketsful of the things in our house. If my father took some time to work up an appetite for them, my friends wasted no time in enjoying a good thing. They’d contrive any excuse to be in my mother’s kitchen when those cushiony concoctions came straight from the steamer. Once I went off to college, her baking found new fans. I’d decided to attend Lewis & Clark College in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, only about half an hour’s drive from my parents’ house. And I joined the school newspaper staff there. On nights when we were assembling the week’s pages, getting them prepared for the printer, my mother would drive out with large, aromatic bags of bagels for everybody. I never had so many friends as I did after my mother started making those scrumptious bread units.

My mother had her intrusive moments, though. She sometimes took a bit too much interest in my day-to-day life, being curious to know my friends, sometimes peering over my shoulder as I penned term papers, checking up on my reading material. If I had been a poor student or trouble-prone, this might have been justified; but I was an excellent pupil who almost never took a step out of line. So such attention was unnecessary, I thought. Once, after browsing my bookshelves, she discovered a copy of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s Fair Land, Fair Land, the sequel to his monumental historical work, The Big Sky (1947). In the 1984 Bantam paperback edition of the novel I owned, there was a teaser in the front suggesting that the book--which is about mountain men returning to their old but disappearing haunts--contained more sexual content than it did. The protagonist, Dick Summers, is asked by a cohort why they’re trekking into the wilderness; to which Summer replies, “One reason. To see what’s left. To pleasure ourselves while we can.” My mother evidently took this to mean that there was going to be lots of 19th-century whoring going on. So, under the teaser she wrote:
To live with all your faculties is to live beyond the scissors of fate, to have a natural instinct, a spur which pricketh you to withdraw from vice, and this spur is honor.
I don’t know whether that was a quote drawn from some famous source (my mother enjoyed peppering her own writings with Olde English-isms, so the “pricketh” told me nothing), but I took offense. I was so protective of my books, that I didn’t even loan them to friends. And here she was, writing in one. It was among the few times I was really angry with her.

But it didn’t last for very long, of course. My mother had too many endearing qualities to let me focus on those comparative few that rankled me. Like her father, my beloved Canadian grandfather, Ewart E. Sprinkling, my mother would do almost anything for the people she loved. She’d give up things she wanted so that her sons could have what they needed or desired. She would stay up late into the night, helping us study for tests or write reports. The summer we decided to start a neighborhood newspaper, The Daily Blab, she did a great deal of the artwork (having been a draughtsperson in her 20s, before she agreed to wed my architect father). She didn’t often step into our youthful disputes, but she did when she felt the odds were against us. In second grade, for instance, a teacher marked me wrong when, in response to a test question, “What color is night?” I answered “dark blue.” Well, the next day Mother (she never let us call her “Mom”) went down to my school, called out that teacher, and told her that I was right, that from our home in the sparsely populated hills above Portland, the sky was not only more star-filled than in other parts of the city, but it was dark blue. No ifs, ands, or buts. Although I was a bit embarrassed later to be informed that my teacher had changed my grade on the test, I nonetheless felt proud that my mother had stood up for me when she knew I was right.

My mother gave me my liberal politics. She gave me my love for animals, my interest in books and research, and my ardent appreciation for Christmas. My father was serious, my mother endeavored to be carefree, and I can be both.

As we grew older, I found myself drifting away from both my parents. It happens to most children; they need to find their own way, and parents have to accept that. My mother had some trouble at first, I know. She volunteered to keep doing my laundry, even after I’d left college and acquired an apartment of my own. If she discovered my refrigerator empty, she’d swing by with bags of food. And she would drop by occasionally, unannounced, to say hi--a habit that resulted once in the comic scene of my girlfriend of that time, hearing my mother’s approach down the hallway, rolling bare-assed naked off my bed and into the dust-filled cavity between the mattress and the adjacent wall, where she stayed--silent and hidden--until I’d managed to steer my mother out of the room on some pretext.

In the last months of her life, I tried to pay my mother back for some of what she’d given me over the previous decades. But I was living in Seattle, and she and my father were in Portland, and my brother was much closer to help out. I can’t describe how sad it was to see this vital human being who’d so long been at the center of my life, shrinking from her disease. She told Matt and I on occasion, in her darker moments, that if she’d had a chance to end it all, she would. However, she hung on, and we bought her books to read and music to enjoy, and shared the stories of our lives with her while we could. I was so happy when my father finally acquiesced to her lifelong wish to visit Europe. Despite the fact that she was confined by then to a wheelchair, my mother and father journeyed to London, where my maternal grandmother was born and had taught school, before immigrating to western Canada with her poet father; they visited Paris and took a leisurely tour down the Rhine River (their photographs of that journey showed a seemingly endless series of castles); they saw Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, and I can’t even remember what else. And inevitably, all along the way, my mother chatted with strangers, much to my father’s dismay.

I regret that my mother didn’t live long enough to see my first book published. That she didn’t live long enough to meet the woman I married. In both cases, she would have been pleased beyond measure. Even 20 years after she died, I still reflect on how my mother might look at my life now. I’ve made some good decisions along the way, and some wrong choices. I haven’t fulfilled all of my dreams, but enough of them have come true to keep my satisfied. I’ve made good friends, and lost a few. But my first real friend, my mother, is still with me, even if I never see her anymore, except in the occasional dream on a dark blue night.

I haven’t completely said good-bye. I still have the container of her cremated remains, hidden away in a closet of my home, beside those of my father, who just passed away five years ago. But the longer I live with the fact of her death, the more I understand that those ashes don’t connect me to her; my memories do. After my mother died, a girlfriend wrote me to say that it was obvious from my personality and behavior that I had been loved by a fine, caring mother. She had given me gifts, most of them not material in nature. And I think perhaps I finally need to give her one back: I need to let her go. My brother knows of a scenic place on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, Crown Point, where our parents went on one of their early dates, back in the 1950s. He thinks that would be an excellent spot from which to toss their ashes, together for all eternity.

I think he’s right.


sonny said...

thanks for sharing the beautiful piece on your mother.

Linda L. Richards said...

Oh my. What a beautiful tribute. And a lovely piece. I know I'll think of it -- and Daphne -- next time I encounter a dark blue night.

Linda Hunt said...

I was touched by this piece. I hope my sons will think fondly of me when I am gone. I have always raised them with that in mind.

Byron said...

Jeff, thanks for sharing these wonderful memories of your mother and your childhood. Your mother sounds like an incredible woman.

Her bagels were life savers.