I was a late in life baby. My mom was forty-three when I was born and my dad was fifty. When her monthlies stopped, she thought she was entering her change of life. Surprise! She was pregnant with me.
My mom and dad already had two children; my sister, Judy, was nine and my brother, Jerry, was six. They were both working hard to keep our small family farm going, and now a new baby came along to complicate things. But Mom rolled with the flow.
Mom always said that I kept her young. She did her best to keep up with me. I usually could distract her from her work by proposing a game of Go Fish or Chutes and Ladders. When I had my two children, she came to stay with me when I got home from the hospital, even though she was in her 70’s. She baby sat the kids when I went to a summer teacher training, although she did microwave some leftovers for 45 minutes, turning them into mummified remains.
Mom was a tomboy growing up. Her two older sisters were the social beauties, but she hung around with her one-year younger brother and his friends. She learned how to play football and baseball. Her claim to fame in family lore was when she kicked my brother’s football over the house. Dad lost part of his hand in a farm accident, so Mom was the one to demonstrate how to throw and kick balls. She regaled us with childhood stories about catching frogs and frying up their legs to eat, or pranking neighbors on Halloween. In winter, the gang “borrowed” sleds from the Hillcrest girls (a private boarding school) and skidded down hills at night.
Mom’s great adventure after graduating from high school in 1925 was taking the train to California by herself, where her older brother worked in the film studios. He found her a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She told stories of finding a scorpion in her shoe, and seeing Theda Bara try on clothes without wearing any underwear. Mom never got over the shock!
Naturally funny, Mom loved to tell a good story, like the bald shoe salesman at Penney’s and the near-sighted fat lady. When he bent down to help the lady try on shoes, she mistook his shiny head for her knee cap. Thinking her skirt had ridden up, she threw it over his head. Mom swore she saw it with her own eyes.
Since my brother and sister were in school, I became her traveling companion when I was small. She was always eager to drive somewhere. We’d go to Beaver Dam to get groceries at the A&P, or shop at Penney’s for clothes. A visit to my Aunt Ethel’s place of work, Fletcher Oil, was in order. My aunt would to slip me a dollar to spend at Drennen’s Five and Dime when we stopped at the lunch counter for a chocolate malt.
The champion of the misfits, Mom befriended the lost and the least. A woman in our rural neighborhood lived with an abusive husband, enduring his loud outbursts of anger. Other farmer’s wives shunned her, but not Mom. She stopped by for occasional visits, until they moved away. As I outgrew all my toys and clothes, mom took them to the neighbor lady who had triplets in addition to two other small children. Another woman had a child out of wedlock. a scandal in the 1950’s. That didn’t matter to Mom. She’d stop by the woman’s house and I’d play with her daughter. She scorned the man still living with his mother who wouldn’t marry her. Billy Beers, a strange little man who hitchhiked because he didn’t own a car, could always count on a ride from my mother whenever she saw him walking on the road.
Mom valued education, even though she never went beyond high school. She encouraged both my sister and me to go to college. (My brother partnered with Dad on the farm.) She worked in the shoe factory and wanted us to have a better job than hers. She helped me study for tests, quizzing me in the questions at the end of chapters. Our visits to the Cambria Library developed my love of reading. Any spare money went to Nancy Drew books. I was freed up from farm chores to do my homework and study. Her only expectation was that I’d do my best in school and help with supper.
Mom only wrote one letter to the adult me, dated April 1st, 1973 on two pages of lined notebook paper. I don’t remember what prompted it. My dad must have grumbled about doing something my future husband, Mike, suggested. She wrote, “Janice, about that stuff Dad said it’s all right. I said something to the rest and they all laugh(ed) but they all laugh(ed) when I sat down at the piano.” “They” must be my brother and sister and spouses because she mentions having them for dinner. She goes on, ”Well between us, maybe they won’t be so smart. Tell Mike not to be too disappointed. We may make it.” She wrote about my dad needing his teeth pulled and making him go to the dentist. An antique dealer offered my aunt $75 for some cut glass sugar bowls and creamers. How tired she was after cooking dinner for a crowd: “I could sleep right thru tomorrow.”
Her letter ends like this: “Well, I guess I better close + write more next time. Keep your chin up. Love, Mom.”
I don’t remember ever getting another long letter like this. Alzheimer’s disease stole my mom’s mind and her writing capability. I found this one years later tucked away in a book. For some reason, I saved it.
Alzheimer’s didn’t just steal Mom’s memory, it eventually stole her ability to talk, to swallow, and to breathe. Mom died the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I received a call at school on Monday from the nursing home. “We think It’s time.” I left work and immediately went to her side. I kept a lonely vigil that day and the next, with my brother and sister joining me at night. Mike and our kids came to say good-bye, but I stayed with mom. Since she was with me at the beginning of my life, I’d be with her at the end of hers. Although she hadn’t been able to speak in months, she managed to clearly say, “Take me, Jesus.” I believe it was a sign to me. She fixed her eyes on the unseen and wanted me to know there was something beyond this world.
I’m glad I saved that letter, because 50 years later, I can still listen to my mom’s advice. “Keep your chin up. Love, Mom”
Yes, Mom, my chin is up and I’ll always love you.