January 7, 1987
I know it was a sensible decision, but I’m sorry that there wasn’t some way that all of our family could have gotten together this week. It somehow seems important at a time like this to share the memories that have accumulated over so many years. I remember so well the reunion in New Haven when Gramp died 31 years ago. Rather than a rite of sorrow, it was a joyous recapitulation of what a marvelous person he had been for so many years.
I think you know how much it has meant to me to be able to talk to you as memories have surfaced. I know of no one as fortunate as Mother was in her choice of daughters-in-law. You two had a special relationship for those few years when she had to sign your grade cards. And you still have a very special relationship with me!
Today there is a sudden emptiness. Early this morning my mother died in her sleep after a very brief illness. It is, of course, a shock to find that I have become the oldest living member of my family, but I can only feel grateful that her passing was as easy as it was. She had been rapidly losing touch with reality the last two years. When I last saw her on Thanksgiving Day she knew I was someone nice, but didn’t remember just who. And now, after 93 years of a happy and productive life, she remembers nothing.
Now is a time to think, not of the sweet confused old lady of the last few years, but of the wonderful Mother who meant so much to me for the six decades before then. I always felt that she loved me not just because I was her son, but for the person I was. And before that (I was a most obnoxious child in many ways), for the person she believed I could become. It is trite to say today, “Everything I am, I owe to my Mother.” But with a less loving and understanding mother, I could well have taken a really wrong turn with my life.
There was an incident when I was about nine. We employed a cook who lived in the house (in the 1920’s that didn’t mean you were rich). I’ve long forgotten the details, but she was a thoroughly nasty person and apparently I had said something to her which a nine-year-old should not have said to an adult, no matter what the provocation. My mother insisted that I apologize, but by some magic did so in a way which made me feel that she was totally on my side.
A few years later I thought I was being clever by slipping some silverware up my sleeve when we were at a restaurant. A knife clattered out of my sleeve a block away, and my mother made me go alone into the restaurant and return the items. But again, she somehow succeeded in that elusive goal of all good parents of conveying to me the fact that although my action was wrong, it in no way diluted her love for me.
Other memories are pure joy. I was a Boy Scout and went out for the Merit Badge for hiking. This required me to walk 5 miles a day, six days a week, for three months, including 6 hikes of ten miles and one of twenty. At the time she was working in a knitting shop about 2½ miles from where we lived and frequently for my day’s hike I would walk to her shop in the afternoon and we’d walk home together.
As a high-school senior I was once asked to conduct the sophomore math class on a day when the teacher was sick. That same evening was the high school prom for which I had bought my first tuxedo and was taking a girl from a different school. We got to the dance all right, but then the excitement caught up with me and I was violently sick! I had to call my parents to come and get us and take my girl home. When I view the incident now, as an adult, I’m sure the whole thing had its amusing aspects for my mother, but I certainly never suspected it at the time.
One of the most difficult periods in my mother’s life was the early part of World War II. I was away at Antioch College and was seriously considering registering for the draft as a Conscientious Objector, even if it meant going to jail. My father saw the significance of Nazi Germany more than most people in this country and was trying to figure how he could best play a meaningful part in the war he considered inevitable. He and I found it difficult or impossible to talk about our differences, but somehow my mother managed to keep the family together. She could listen to and understand my reasoning while at the same time agreeing with my father’s assessment of the situation. I’m sure that my being able to discuss my viewpoint with her, rather than feel I had to defend it, had an influence on my final decision to join the Merchant Marine where I was a part of the war effort but didn’t have to carry a gun.
I have always felt close to my mother, and as I became an adult, responsible for making my own decisions, I wanted to share my successes with her. How can I describe her responses to my first published paper, to my first promotion, to my first book? Somehow she managed to find exactly the right words to tell me how pleased and proud she was without falling into the trap on either side: the one where you read between the lines “There were so many things wrong with you as a child that I’m really surprised you did so well” and the other which you interpret as “since you’re my child you’re obviously wonderful and this honor is only to be expected.”
As I relive and share with you a few of my many memories, I realize that I was wrong to say, “Now is a time to think not of the sweet confused old lady of the last few years…” For during the 10 years since my father died, I have had an opportunity to repay in some small way the love with which she cherished me. From being a shoulder to lean on, to giving advice, to making decisions for her, I made the gradual transition to having to take complete legal charge. We, her children, had become the parents, and she, the parent, had become the child. The experience was painful at times, but it had its rewards, too.
On my last visit but one Mother and I were sitting together on the couch at my sister’s just holding hands and feeling comfortably fed. I dozed off for a few minutes and woke to find her looking at me as if sixty plus years had slipped away and I was her first baby, asleep in her arms.
For over a year Mary and I had joint legal responsibility for my mother. We had to choose her nursing home, manage her finances, and make all decisions for her and concerning her. In doing all this, each of us has been able to lean on the different strengths of the other. Thus, even in her final years my mother gave something to her family by bringing the two of us closer together.
January 4, 1987