Two Annual Markers: My Mother’s Birth, My Mother’s Death

I wasn’t around for my mother’s birth.  She was born at home, like most children in those pre-WWI days.  She would have been beyond a century old this year, if she’d lived that long.  But her birthday and her death day always give me a sharp jab in the ribs: I exist because she existed and because of choices she made.  She was born in spring, in April, in Texas, to a small family in a small house.  Her father was a traveling salesman for a wholesale hardware company, having worked up from a 14 year old stray on the Galveston docks who started by sweeping the warehouse. He had only three years of formal schooling.  Her mother Sophie was the second daughter of a widow who ran a boarding house in Houston, but had gotten all five of her children through high school and at least one year of post-HS training.   Lillian seems to have had a privileged childhood (she and her sister sent to a Young Ladies’ Seminary, where her sister learned formal art techniques) , then married someone in the railroad business and moved with him to Denver.  Her husband was killed in a train accident of some kind.

My mother was my birth-grandmother’s second living child, three years younger than her older brother.  She was born small, dusky blue, barely alive, and she lived because her great-aunt, for whom I was named, was a nurse (as nurses were back then) and was her mother’s midwife, and wrapped my mother in clean towels and put her in a box in the warming oven of the stove.  There were no incubators for infants then.   So she lived.  Her mother had no more living children.  Her mother had been injured as a child, falling while navigating the rail of a picket fence: she fell on it, on the pointy end of one of the pickets.  In the family, that was given as the reason she had trouble having babies.  Her mother, my mother’s grandmother,  had had five before being widowed: three girls and two boys.

As a child, my mother survived a bout of polio, and repeated attacks of malaria, plus the then-common childhood diseases except for mumps.  She caught  mumps from me when I had it.  It nearly killed her.  As an adult she had brucellosis, caught by drinking milk from an infected cow.  She did not find out until late in life that the polio had twisted her spine and was the probable cause of her “sexy” walk she’d been told was her fault.   She also developed chronic (and then later life-threatening) renal failure, probably from occupational exposure to toxic chemicals and from being given an early antibiotic that’s also damaging to kidneys.   She was athletic  but a girl’s athleticism didn’t matter; her older brother’s football skills won him a scholarship.  She was fourteen when her mother died, and she was left to the untender mercies of her maternal grandmother (Lillian) who thought she was ugly because of her straight black hair, dark eyes, and “unladylike” skin color (she tanned too easily, um hmm) and her aunt Iola.  She had a talent for art, for swimming and diving, and for math…lkeading her into engineering (not then considered a possible career for a woman) and medicine (she took nurses’ training but did not complete and take the exams for RN–got married instead.)  She did not get her engineering degree because of one required course, economics: the prof told her upfront he would flunk her because he didn’t like engineers and he did not think a woman should be one.  My parents married in the depths of the Depression and started out in poverty: in a dirt-floored chicken house.  Closer to WWII, my father got better jobs; she was still making their clothes, including his suits.

She lost at least four pregnancies, all male and much desired (over the long haul, my father never produced a living son, from any of his partners, but at the time the belief that women were totally responsible for any difficulties in procreation was just as strong at it is now…retrograde progress thanks to the GOP.  And though abortion was illegal then, the need for pregnancy termination if it risked the woman’s life or the fetus had died in utero was clearly understood.)  Her stillbirths were all late, third trimester and usually shortly before full-term.  In today’s world she’d probably have been imprisoned on suspicion of aborting…but they kept trying.   I was the first female and the only survivor.

My early memories of her are of a small, very slender, very active woman–a single mother (they’d divorced when I was a baby, separated during the war when she was pregnant and felt unsafe, fleeing over 1500 miles to get back home to South Texas.   In wartime, with rationing and all.  Some of you will ask “But was she unsafe?”  I consider that attitude insulting; there was evidence; I’m not going into it.  During the war, she had worked in the defense industry as a liaison engineer for the Army Air Corps in a Douglas aircraft factory that produced C-54 transport planes.  She survived attempts on her life in the factory (quite a few men did not like having a woman criticizing their work) ,  by the bitter winter weather, and….others.  She had learned to shoot from her father, and from the traveling sharp-shooters sent around by the gun & ammo manufacturers to give demos.  I remember her target shooting on the remote dunes of Boca Chica (where Elon Musk has his space facility.  We used to go down there to day-camp.)  She also took me to Padre Island, pre-bridge…we’d take a boat over to the island and spend hours on the beach.  She worked in the hardware store–my earliest memories of her at work–and at night at home, designing houses for clients, sewing my clothes.

She was always doing something productive.  Her father had encouraged “While you’re resting” occupations any time she was sitting down (I avoided that by claiming schoolwork and reading by the hour.)   She had learned all kinds of needlework from her grandmother: sewing  by hand or machine, designing clothes, knitting, crochet, embroidery, needlepoint.  (Not, however, tatting.)  She was a genius at cutting fabric to get the most out of a piece; she could also use scraps of wood to build useful items. She designed and built custom cabinets for her needlework supplies, using whatever bits of wood she could scrounge from carpenters’ supplies.  She was a good cook.  She designed a lot of what she sewed, knit, crocheted, etc.   She also painted, could put up, tape, & float drywall, lay tile, lay bricks (learned from her father) and do good basic carpentry.  When our son turned out to have developmental problems, in the last years of her life she made him clothes, made him “beanbags” to help learn letters and numbers and develop motor skills, etc.

So on this day I honor her birth and her life.  What I’ve written here is not the half–not even a quarter of it.


4 thoughts on “Two Annual Markers: My Mother’s Birth, My Mother’s Death

  1. Your mother was impressive many of us have some skills, but to be creative and competant across so many areas is not so common.

    I have been remembering my oldest born brother (my oldest brother was adopted because they thought they couldn’t have children, they went on to have five blood children) who died just after his birthday in March. He wasn’t able to be buried until last week because they had to do an autopsy, nothing susicious, but he hadn’t seen a doctor recently. He was ten years older than me and a significant presence in my life, taking up some of the slack caused by having six children to raise. He is there in my first clear memory when I was about two and a half, opening the back door so I could see the snow, taller than me shading from dark grey through light grey then white to the very top where there were single flakes refracting rainbows. It was the winter of 1963, unusually cold in the UK with lots of snow even in Oxford which was why my mother insisted we all saw the blocked back door, and he wanted to show me because he thought it was beautiful, and even at sixteeen sharing beauty was one of his defining charateristics. People like him and your mother make the world a better place.

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