In once sense I can’t say that I really “Knew” my mother and that thought surprises me. At least not in the way that we can say we know the characters in our favorite televsion shows. These people who appear on the small screen in our living rooms every week, have had their lives broken down for us and parceled out every week in understandable pieces within a plot line that sometimes even lasts for more than the hour-long segment.
I do know her but have never really sat down to think about her in this way. I have my memories and the pictures in my head that go along with the events that span grade school and senior high and then some college and visits after Sandi and I had kids. But to say that I ever sat down with my mother over a glass of Merlot to discuss the issues of life, our hopes and our fears, I can’t remember that we ever did. That generation is just like that, I guess, in my experience. It was the same way with my dad as we visited after he had been diagnosed with cancer. Try as I might, I was never really able to engage him in the feeling type stuff that my generation thrived on with all its analysis and drama. My memory is that he just sat there and kind of squirmed until we changed the subject to something else entirely.
What I remember best about my mother is that she liked a good sale and would stash stuff away all year that would eventually end up wrapped in bright paper and given out as Christmas presents in December. Socks and ties and after shave lotion; little books of poetry and art and invention along with rings and watches and jewelry that ended up in a drawer someplace. It was almost embarrassing the amount of gifts she would send us during the years when she was working and still making good money. Lots of times, when the kids were young, we would put stuff into the closet and give them a present from grandma every week or so until they were all gone—Christmas could almost last a month or two at least. And when they were young they believed anything we told them about where the gifts were coming from—as they got older they knew better and wanted everything that came in the big boxes from grandma on the morning of the 25th.
She was a crafter and was always into something to decorate. We were the only family I knew of who had scuplted brick walls in our bathroom and barnwood wainscoating in our dining room years before it became fashionable.
Skipping ahead to later years when I left home for the first time in search of myself, I remember that she took my leaving very personal. She felt like she had done something wrong or else I wouldn’t have quit high school with only three months to go in order to travel around the USA and Europe. It didn’t matter what I tried to tell her about why I needed to go and find myself—she thought she had failed and that it was all her fault. That if she had been a better mother everything would have worked out right—it did work out right, just not according to our human time tables. I took a little longer to mature than the average bear and if the truth be known, am still being worked on in that area.
She had me before she was really ready to be a mom but in all those early black and white Kodax pictures she looked happy and that is what I will remember.
Like I said, we never really talked about our lives that much but what I remember gleaning from what she alluded to over the years, indirectly, is that she never really got to live the life that she thought was hers to live. Whether it was the late model cars we drove (my dad hated the thought of paying for a new car) or getting four kids through school before she could go back to work and make her own money, she never felt she ever fully arrived anywhere.
Our house was full of great looking antiques she found at sales wherever she went. One of her best friends was a dealer and that helped her always find the best deals. As I write this I remember feeling like a bull in a china shop and maybe that is why I mostly remember going to friends houses rather than them coming to mine. Of course back then we just did what we did and never really thought about the why’s and the where-for’s. My memories of childhood are like a bunch of events put into a blender and then mixed at high power for a few minutes—what is left is a great big smoothy with a lot of different flavors but all mushed together in one big cup. If you close your eyes you can begin to distinguish all the little nuances of taste that still remain, but it is easier to just take a big spoon and get on with the eating.
My mother was a card person—every birthday and holiday and anniversary was indexed by her with a card that always came a day or to early or right on time—never late. Hallmark made a lot of money over the years on my mother—I wish I could say I picked up that trait from her—but I can’t. I am always putting those things off until the drop dead moment and keep my fingers crossed hoping the stuff gets to where it is supposed to be on time. I got in the habit of sending flowers for that very reason—I could call a shop and get them delivered on the day I needed rather than miss the event all together.
During her later years, as her heatlh began to leave and the money with it, she found ways to keep herself occupied by reading and cutting up art magazines and making collages and decoupoge plaques out of the pictures which she would then send in boxes full for us to distribute at family affairs that distance keep us from being together at. She was more creative that she ever gave herself credit for and I guess in the end, that is what rubbed off on me. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art and never met a door handle I couldn’t figure out and fix.
She loved Stan Kenton and Billie Holiday and music that had that swing. And she always wanted more for her kids than what she had for herself.
That’s certainly not all that I could say about my mother—but like I said at the beginning, I didn’t really know her all that well. She was my mother.
Norma Henry (1927-2007)