Where is my Mother? | Part 3 of 3
Is there a better question? This past week I searched for an answer to ‘Where is my Mother?’ But I couldn’t find one; I kept getting mired in unfathomable complexity. Yes, Mother was a complex person, especially in contrast to my father. But I needed to find another approach.
Given what I’ve written so far about her childhood, youth and early married life, I’m convinced of three things:
- Mother had a strategy
- She worked it relentlessly
- It was in place long before she got polio
Though polio didn’t give birth to her strategy, it was a life-changer for our entire family.
- Mother never recovers fully. In later years post-polio syndrome relentlessly chips away at her progress.
- My parents never receive an overseas missionary assignment. Instead, they become members of the mission’s home staff—needed personnel, but without the glory or status of being overseas missionaries. This is hard on my father. He built his adult life around a dream to become a missionary—a member of God’s Army, not Uncle Sam’s Army.
- My parents now live in a mission home and provide hospitality from time to time. It is not, however, the exciting, unpredictable challenge of being in a central communal mission house in a big city. We are definitely in the backwaters.
- Along with Daughter #2, I now become responsible for daily household chores. Mother instructs us as we learn to do things we never had to do before. There are no other women around. Daughter #3 is too young; Mother can’t do all this by herself.
Yet in the midst of this upheaval, she already has a clear strategy.
What is Mother’s Strategy? (the better question)
- Do whatever needs to be done
- Be loyal to my husband
- Take care of my children
- Manage chronic pain
Do whatever needs to be done — PrimarilyWomen’s Work, which includes such things as
- Cooking, cleaning, canning food, baking, ironing, mending, showing hospitality
- Being a good girl/woman and showing up on time
- Working with children in Sunday School, after-school Bible clubs, or summer camps
- Supporting and helping people who need her
- Feeling guilty if she takes time off or is missing in action
It’s summertime in the 1950s. We’re on the dock with friends from our church–a young mother with her daughters and her latest baby, a boy. He just learned to stand up by holding on to something. The tide is full. We’re eating a picnic lunch. I hear a big splash.
Suddenly Mother kicks off her shoes and jumps from the dock into the water. Her friend’s baby just lost his balance and fell into the river. He’s face down. Mother treads water and pulls him out, lifting him up to the floating dock. Just doing what needs to be done.
Be loyal to my husband — Another version of Women’s Work; includes all the items listed above, plus such things as
- Dressing and behaving modestly—not flashy and not, as Father once described my maternal grandmother, “looking as though she had just poured herself into that dress”
- Never second-guessing Father or contradicting him publicly—like her mother did with her husband
- Never leaving him for another man or another life—as her mother did
- Making sure he’s prepared, well-dressed and on time for church and meetings
- Presenting a united front, with him as the leader
- Remembering that she is the pastor’s wife, not the pastor
- Modulating her comments so that he always has or seems to have the last word
- Knowing when it’s safe to poke fun at him without negative consequences and without belittling him
- Taking care of his health needs—especially during the 5 years after he has tuberculosis and needs to see a doctor for bi-weekly injections of a pint of air between his chest wall and left lung
- Taking care of his sexual needs
- Making sure this marriage works, especially since her father had doubts about it
Mother’s protection of Father is phenomenal. I don’t remember whether she said the words ‘Don’t criticize your father.’ In any case, her demeanor and her refusal to take a stand on my behalf said it all.
As a child I didn’t ask for her help with regard to him. As an adult I tried on two occasions to discuss troubling patterns in my father’s behavior toward me when I was a young teenager. She would hear none of it. She remembered nothing like that at all. I should just get on with my life. Besides, those things sometimes happen.
Take care of my children — Also a version of Women’s Work; supports Father’s role as head of the house and pastor; includes items from above along with others such as
- Being present to her daughters as much as possible—not absent or invisible like our maternal grandmother was
- Making sure our clothes are neat, clean, mended and modest
- Organizing our dresser drawers and closets so they’re neat and tidy
- Sorting through bags of ‘missionary clothes’ to see whether anything might be altered for one of us
- Making us Easter dresses and costumes for school events
- Baking birthday cakes and planning birthday surprises and parties
- Taking us to the beach, the park, the public library, piano lessons, lifeguard training and school events
- Taking our temperature and bringing us home-made soup when we’re sick in bed
- Taking us to visit family members and church friends
- Teaching us to sing in harmony, including four-part harmony with her
- Taking us to the doctor, the dentist, the orthodontist, or the eye doctor as needed
I learned quickly that the best way to get caring attention from Mother was to get sick. Genuinely sick. I have happy memories of being physically miserable, confined to bed, but enjoying the attention Mother paid to me. I wasn’t a sickly child. Too bad. She was a wonderful home nurse.
She feels my forehead to see whether it’s hot, takes my temperature, straightens up the sheets and blankets, and brings me whatever I want to eat or drink to soothe my sore throat or cough. She brings books to read, plays small Golden Records on our children’s record player, or turns on the radio to an approved children’s radio program. My favorite is Big John and Sparky on Saturday mornings. A small taste of heaven on earth.
Manage chronic pain — In addition to staying busy with some of the above instead of dwelling on her pain, this includes such things as
- Keeping a lid on the past; dredging it up will simply cause more pain, especially emotional pain
- Being cheery and looking on the bright side wherever she can find it
- Being mindful of her energy level; rationing it each day to avoid reaching her limit and crashing early
- Giving herself injections of Vitamin B12 to boost her energy
- Taking naps during the day, often to make up for restlessness and pain during the night due to insomnia or crippling leg cramps
- Taking small bites of soft food, chewing it carefully and swallowing it mindfully—turning her head slightly to one side to help it go down the right way instead of into her windpipe
- Never talking with food in her mouth and sipping drinks slowly to avoid choking
- Taking prescription drugs to take the edge off pain in her back, muscles, joints, neck, hands and fingers
- Going to doctors and health facilities for things like massage therapy, water/swimming therapy and chiropractic adjustments
- Wearing specially made undergarments to ease her back pain
- Wearing a lightweight speaker in later years to help project her voice so her throat will stay relaxed
The list is endless, as is her pain. She keeps a small tray on the kitchen table with vitamins, painkillers and prescription drugs. She takes phenobarbital daily, along with other prescription drugs. She goes from doctor to doctor—sometimes because we move, other times because the doctors don’t always know how to treat her as a polio survivor. For years one of her doctors thinks she is lying about having had polio, and treats her accordingly.
* * * * *
Bottom line for me: Mother’s strategy has two top priority items. They do not include caring for her children or even doing whatever needs to be done. They are loyalty to her husband and managing chronic pain. Of these, loyalty to Father is her absolutely first priority.
I don’t like seeing this. However, Father is her only short and long-term insurance against emergencies due to her health. Sometimes he comes through for her; other times he flounders and makes things worse. Nonetheless, she is beholden to him. Her daughters will be gone in a few years.
As an adult I often felt I was watching a sad dance of death between the two of them. Sometimes Mother’s spirit breaks out and asserts its startling independence from him. But she can’t make it on her own. The bond between them has thick roots, tangled knots. It resembles the bonding that happens between victims and their captors. Utter dependence born of the need to survive. A bond that includes something like love and loyalty—but without being life-giving for either of them.
Today I honor my Mother’s valiant effort and spirit. I love her for her unspeakable courage, the priceless gift she gave me wrapped up in that baby grand piano, and those precious few piano lessons that got me started on my way.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 Feb 2014