June 8, 2015

Hellos and Good-byes

You were born a child of light’s wonderful secret - you return to the beauty you have always been. - Aberjhani

Beginnings and endings. Every story shares these two elements and this is where the similarities end when that story is of a life.

This past week I was ecstatic to welcome a new grandson to the beginning of his story and heartbroken to experience the final chapter of my husband's mother's story. 

I picked up the Book of Mom quite late in the plot. She was in her late 80's when I met her. Small, thin, white haired, and full of spit and vinegar -  a force to be reckoned with. Even in her advanced age, one look into her steely eyes said "Don't even think about it."

She was a kind woman but no one would dare call her "sweet." She'd seen too much, lived too much, and been too much for that.

She married late in life - a man 23 years her senior. My husband was the only child of that union. In her gruff, no nonsense fashion she'd told me on more than one occasion that she hadn't wanted children - but guessed it had turned out alright.

I judged her for that. Being a mother to six myself and loving the experience, it was difficult for me to process. That's something I deeply regret now as I'm starting to understand her through papers, poems she's written, and a radio interview she'd given years ago, while her mind was sharp, about her life's experience. I'm sure she felt motherhood was one job her impressive resume had not prepared her for.

Mom lost her mother early and was raised by a stepmother - who from all accounts was an iron willed, ambitious woman who was way ahead of her time, with little preoccupation for empathy or warmth. She was the mayor of the Canadian city in which she lived and on the school board long before it was reasonable for a woman to even consider such things. 

This proved to be life defining for mom. On the one hand she never ascribed to the glass ceiling placed on women and as a result, wasn't hampered by it. When the Second World War broke out, the steel company where she worked offered her the position of a man who had left to join the war effort. She accepted - on condition of also receiving his pay along with it. After a short probation, she received it.

On the other hand she never learned the softness usually associated with mothering. It wasn't in her nature to nurture though she did a fine job providing the daily essentials necessary for my husband to grow and become an independent and well educated man. I wonder now if knowing that she'd be a young widow played into her feelings about having children as well.

I never understood the distant seeming relationship between my husband and Mom - how they seemed so disconnected and contentious. I wasn't there to see how it started and they both seemed equally at fault. Strangely, it seemed to work for them. My husband took great pains to see that all of mother's needs were well met and her affairs were well attended to. They loved each other - even when they didn't like each other much.

After the steel company, Mom moved to New York alone to pursue a better paying job that was listed only as clerical. Upon arriving she found herself working with British Intelligence typing Morris code and transmitting the messages she received over the wire to the places where the information was critical.

Later she volunteered to return to Canada to a military installation where spies were trained and top secret information was distributed. "Camp X" as it was called, was only recently declassified and the operations that took place there were key in the efforts against the Nazis. Not even her parents knew what she was really doing during that time.

She lived in Japan working for the Canadian Embassy, and in Chicago as a legal secretary - eventually marrying her boss.

She skied, golfed, played tennis and basketball and was the original fashionista. She dressed to the 9's every day she was able to include pantyhose and jewelry. She was well known for her collection of berets which she wore tilted to one side - just so. I'd often muse at how genuinely regal she presented.

Then as life happens, in her early 90's mom fell and broke her hip. We were told that most didn't survive a year following that type of injury and recovery would be tedious. They didn't know mom. She recovered well enough to break the other hip a year later and pull through that as well.

With each surgery what she did lose was part of her memory. Anesthesia does that to people of advanced years apparently. Her condition declined and her independence with it.

She lived close by at an assisted living facility where she continued to sport her berets. She told me once - "When you come to this place, you'd better bring your sense of humor!" 

As I walked the halls of the facility, especially those of the "memory care" unit where those who lived there were far removed from their former selves, I wondered about the lives they'd lived. The staff and other visitors could have never known about Mom's life and all she'd been and accomplished before arriving there. What they saw was a breaking down woman who was from time to time cantankerous as independence is a state of mind that doesn't seem to fall prey to the usual decline. Even they loved her though. She was never boring!

At 96, as she lived her life on her own terms she also left it behind - putting together a puzzle one minute and gone the next. 

Mom's was a long and full story - filled with travel, friends, intrigue, theater, and fun. She saw her share of heartaches and survived and thrived through them all. I remember her saying "If I wanted to do something, I did it." What a wonderful epitaph. 

We'd each do well to follow her example. This is after all "our story." We write in and write out the supporting cast, define the plot, and choose the direction it goes. We pick the experiences - and when we don't - we pick the responses to them that thicken the plot.

As I consider my new grandson - the pen just newly in his tender hand, I hope he writes a rich and full adventure that someone will write about in years to come - at his story's end. I hope the same for us all!

So today I say - Hello my beautiful new grandson - full of wonder and potential. Good-bye Mom. I love you and marvel at the epic tale that was your life.


  1. Your Mother in law definitely sounds interesting! That was a lovely tribute to her.
    Congratulations on your new grandson!! Hopefully he will inherit your love of the pen :)

    1. Thank you. She was incredibly interesting. I'm only now learning the half of it.

  2. Another loss. I'm so sorry, but what a wonderful tribute to an amazing woman of her time! And, such a beautiful welcome to the new grandson, too.

    1. The tides roll in and out and though I try hard to surf, losing people doesn't seem to improve with practice. There's no remedy for missing them but to spend time with the memories. Writing helps me do that. Thanks Suzan.

  3. As always, your thoughts are so well expressed. She was truly an admirable woman and one who earned every day she spent on earth. Thanks also for your kind wishes for Baby B. I, too, hope his life is rich and full of adventure... And inspired by the stories of all the strong men and women in his life.

  4. Your mother-in-law reminds me of my husband’s feisty grandmother – both dynamic ladies way ahead of their time. I remember after I met Anne for the first time, I had to ask my husband whether she liked me, even a little bit. He chuckled and replied that indeed she did, otherwise she wouldn’t have offered me any tea. Anne and I got along after that. Anita, I’m sorry for your loss. I hope the ensuing chapter with your new grandson will be a joyous one for you.

    1. Yes Kate, feisty is a great word to describe mom. Thank you for your kind concern and best wishes for my new grandson. Sorry for the delay in responding. I've been taking time to let it all settle in.

  5. Hello from the Internet dead zone!! :)
    I'm so happy for you on the birth of your new grandson and so sad for you on the loss of Mom. Life can be so bittersweet and full of juxtapositions.
    You wrote such a lovely tribute; I had no idea you had a "Canadian connection". :) Did you know that the CBC produced a television show just this past winter about Camp X? The work they did in Europe during WW2 was really fascinating.
    Well, I must slip out again. I have a limited amount of time "connected" at the moment (and construction free), so I have a few virtual visits to make. :)
    Take care

    1. Thank you. Yes, we have quite a Canadian clan living in Toronto as Mom was born there. The whole crew will be coming this weekend for the memorial service. Bittersweet about sums up these past few months and really - life in general. It's those tender moments of joy that make the sadness tolerable and bring the desperately needed comic relief. Keep me posted on your adventure as well! I need the distraction.

  6. That is so nice to read such stories and that is so great to have site like yours.