Wading Barefoot

Rediscovering my barefoot-self

Esther

My mother was the most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. A product of the early twentieth century, she grew up in an age of great hardship and amazing discovery. Born in 1912, she was one of nine children of Swiss immigrants from Nova Scotia. Large families were common before birth control, but that was in contrast with a ten percent infant mortality rate. In other words, 100 of every thousand children died before their first birthday.

Growing up in rural New England at the turn of the twentieth century was no picnic; these people worked hard every day, just to get by. The mundane task of doing laundry took several hours and meant scrubbing your clothing on a rigid washboard then wringing them out by hand. Unless you were lucky enough to have a ringer washer, this was an awful lot of work. Even though the automobile had been invented, few had the money to afford them so the horse and buggy remained the primary mode of transportation. Mom would tell me about how, as a child she had to be home by the time the street lamps were lit. That’s right, street lamps; lit individually each evening by the lamplighter.

The Lamplighter
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at tea time and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street…
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

~Robert Lewis Stevenson

As WWI was winding down, my mother was entering the first grade. It was supposed to be a time of peace and presumed prosperity. That was short-lived as the Spanish Flu of 1918 hit and hit hard. During the next two years, over one fifth of the world’s population was wiped out by this pandemic. Most suffocated to death from a virulent viral pneumonia. In the United States, over 675,000 people, mostly adults, ages 20-40 lost their lives. To put that into perspective, it was ten times as many died in the previous four years of world war. Today it remains the world’s most devastating pandemic. It must have been very frightening for a seven year old to walk by houses and see black wreaths on the doors of those who lost loved ones. The wreaths served a double purpose, both as a sign of mourning as well as a warning to others not to come calling.

By 1920 life was starting to look up for many people, but in rural America the financial boon of the Roaring Twenties had yet to materialize. People moved to the cities where money was easier and opportunity more plentiful. By 1926 over a million people had migrated to the cities. My grandfather worked for the railroad so despite living in a very small town, forty miles outside of Boston, he made decent wage and was able to afford a housekeeper after he and my grandmother divorced.

Raising nine children was a daunting enough task in itself, but finding someone to watch that many children and keep house must have been a real challenge. Eventually the responsibility for her two youngest siblings fell to my mother. By the age of eighteen she’d worked harder than most people today ever will. She took a job as a switchboard operator at a local hospital and worked full-time until she retired in 1974. By the age of twenty and in the middle of the Great Depression, she met and married my father, a local boy with a bit of a reputation. One year later they had a son and as if on cue, the next year, to the day, my second brother was born. In all, my mother had five children with the first four being boys.

Growing up in my house meant you learned to be respectful and polite, to use proper etiquette and table manners, even at home. It was important to mom because it reflected on her parenting to have well-mannered children. In public it made her proud when people would comment about how polite we were. It gave her a degree of confidence about herself and her place in the community.

I think at some point, probably in the late 1960’s, she started to notice that polite society wasn’t as polite as it once was. What was called the peace movement, in my parent’s way of thinking, was the cause of so much pain and division. My father said that it harmed the fiber of America to treat homecoming soldiers with such disgrace. As young as I was, I did not disagree.

For the first time television news broadcast video footage of the fighting in Vietnam. Now instead of watching carefully selected newsreels at the manatee, you could bring the war home and watch it with super. We watched for only a few minutes before mom turned it off and started to cry. I remember feeling as if lightning had just struck and at any moment we would hear the clap of thunder, but the thunder never came. She cried right there in the living room. The only other time I could recall her doing anything like that was the day that JFK was shot and killed.

The times and customs may have changed but mom never would. “Some things never go out of style”, she’d say. What she really meant was, that it made her a little sad to see the small details and kindnesses that she felt made the world a better place, slip from sight and be forgotten by future generations. She worried that people would lose the art of graciousness and I suppose, in many ways, she was right. As her only daughter she did her best to teach me how to act a lady, with varying degrees of success. Frankly, with the exception of a couple of well placed pinches in church, I got the idea pretty fast.

Mom always remembered the little things, for instance, she would never send a birthday card to a child without first putting a buck or two inside and she did the same if she gave a purse or a wallet as a gift. Simple and thoughtful. If I were to complain that nobody wrote me letters she would remind me that you have to write them to receive them. It was a normal thing for her to whip up a batch of cookies and take them to work with her or send them with me to school. This was doubly thoughtful because it sure gave my popularity a boost. If a new neighbor moved in, had a baby or was home with a sick child, mom would make sure that something good to eat was sent to them.

I remember a neighbor whose husband was dying. When mom got wind that the woman hadn’t been eating properly because she was so tired, she sent me to their house with a plate of food. Every day after that mom made sure this woman had something hot to eat, so she didn’t have to worry about fixing dinner on top of caring for her husband. It is kindness such as this that my mother believed were God’s expression of love for humanity. She would no sooner turn down this chance to help someone in need than she would be to let me out of delivering it every day, as task I am ashamed to say, I resented.

My parents were married for fifty years and nine days when my father died. All at once mom found herself alone for the first time in five decades. It didn’t take long for the three of us to feel the space left by our family’s patriarch. For a while it was as if time paused while we went though the motions of our daily lives, it didn’t feel real somehow. Vicky went to daycare, I went back to work and mom… She tried her best to keep a regular routine, but as weeks wore on she stopped going to the post office every to pick up her mail and her refrigerator grew a little emptier. It was as if she was waiting for something, a signal that her life would someday be happy again.

As a little nudge, I bought her one of those journal books with lined paper and a beautifully decorated cover. I encouraged her to write. For me, being able to put my feelings and thoughts to paper has been very therapeutic, I had no idea how well it would work for her. But it was worth a try. The journal helped to keep her busy and I think in a way, it kept her company. If she couldn’t sleep she would get up in the middle of the night and just write. Eventually she filled three full journal books all about her earliest memories growing up until that present day.

One afternoon I found her burning a pile of yard debris but instead of throwing more branches onto the fire she was tearing pages out of the journals she spent so much time writing. I ran over to her and pleaded with her to stop; all I could think of was the precious history she was throwing away. If she didn’t want them, I did. She wouldn’t be talked out of it though, so we stood there holding hands, watching in silence. Years later she told me that, as she watched those pages burn, she found inside herself the ability to forgive and through that forgiveness, she was freed from the weight of those memories. In the years to follow she found it easier to share many of those very personal and sometimes painful memories with me. I look back now and marvel at what an impact that bonfire had on her.

I’ve often wondered what it was in her background that made my mother so amazingly thoughtful, so exceptionally kind. Maybe the extremes in which she lived caused her to cherish the small details that often brought her comfort. I think that if the quality of thoughtfulness is inheritable, my oldest daughter got a full helping. Victoria is so much like her grandmother that I often feel my mother’s presence when I’m with her. Still today, every birthday, mother’s day and Christmas, I receive a card or beautiful handwritten note from Victoria. Sometimes they come for no reason at all. I can spot them a mile away because they are always in the most beautiful envelopes, decorated by hand with patience and care. She, like her grandma, puts herself into those special touches that make others smile. They were so very close, in fact after my father died, it was Victoria that helped my mom pull thorough those sad, dark and lonely days. They would go to the library on Saturday morning followed by lunch and swimming at the local Holiday Inn, where they had a summer swim pass. Sunday’s they’d go to church and bake cookies. They had pajama parties, just the two of them. You could always find them together. Victoria seemed to give mom the reason she needed to get up and go on with her life; she became the spark that brought my mother through the darkest of days. They were inseparable!

There were many qualities that my mother and daughter shared. They both enjoyed making order out of chaos. They could clean and organize a house faster than you could imagine. Neat freaks I think they are called. They also both have an uncanny knack of making every place they live feel instantly like home. I personally don’t have this talent. I’ve lived in the same home for the last sixteen years and there are still boxes waiting to be unpacked!

It was around the holidays though that their talents would really shine. When I would get frustrated and throw up my hands, they would calmly take over and have that tree up and decorated before I could blink. One Christmas while we were living in Tennessee, I’d been exceptionally busy with work and didn’t want much to do with the whole tree decorating thing. It was fun when I was a kid but as I grew up I learned to respect my limited patience. It was agreed that I would get the tree and they would take it from there. I went out to the woods behind our house, cut the tree and brought it back where Vicky and mom were waiting eagerly. I was so grateful that my part of the tree festivities were over. Cutting one down was more my speed, decorating one was not my idea of fun. They didn’t even mind that two year-old Jennifer was running around them like a buzzing bee. I think that was the best tree we ever had and looking back, it was probably the best Christmas too.

It’s only now, when the memories are all that remain, do we get the chance to see how loved we really were. I know without any doubt how much my mother loved me. Her love was fierce and she graced me with the very best she had. I’m also certain that mom knew how much I loved and cherished her too. This January she would have been 100 years old. She died of pneumonia in the autumn of 2002. She is deeply missed but never more that a heartbeat away.

Just the other day I got a call from Victoria, and not her usual “hi mom” call, she was in tears. As it happened, she was at work, when out of the blue she felt her grandmother’s presence all around her. She could smell her and almost feel her touch. She said that for a moment she was overjoyed. As all kinds of memories came flooding back to her, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had really shown her grandmother how much she loved and appreciated her. “Do you think she really knew how much she meant to me?” she asked, trying to talk through tears. Yes sweetheart, grandma knew just how much she meant to you and now I hope you know how much you meant to her.

© Kathleen Ryan-McCullough, 2011

September 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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