The month of May, for so many a reminder of life’s renewal after a bleak winter, will forever be bittersweet for me. It was May, 2008, that my family celebrated what we knew was my mother’s last Mother’s Day and birthday. A week later, on May 23rd, she took her last breath – coincidentally also on my grandson’s first birthday.
Wilma Jeanne Davis was born on May 15, 1928, in rural Oklahoma. She was the second of nine children; no doubt her birth order contributed mightily to the essence of who she was - a natural caretaker and nurturer. She learned early in life that everyone in the family had a job to do. My grandfather worked the property, the children helping him out as soon as they were able. My grandmother tended the small children, and the older girls took care of the household chores while Grandma focused on the babies. Mom told me once that she had very vivid memories of being so small she had to stand on an apple crate to dry the dishes her older sister, Peggy, washed. The operation of such a large household was very systematic. It had to be. And as a result, my mother was amazingly well-organized, strictly adhering to her belief in the power of a tidy house and a daily routine – a conviction that sadly didn’t stick with me.
A turning point in my mother’s life was her family’s migration to California. My grandfather simply couldn’t sustain life on an unforgiving land, so he followed many of his cousins to more lucrative work in the shipyards of the San Francisco bay area during WWII. My 15-year-old mother endured first a three- day journey through the desert in an old Chevy crammed with six of her siblings, her mother, and her uncle, then moved into a cramped apartment in Richmond, California. Shortly thereafter, she was enrolled in a gigantic high school where, as an Okie, she was a foreigner in a sea of teenage strangers…a somebody who became a nobody. She was miserable. What a shock to say goodbye to all your aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends with whom you had grown up – to exchange your tiny rural school and house on wide-open land for cramped living quarters and endless miles of traffic and people stacked upon people.
I’m not surprised she married my father at age 18, soon after she graduated. Why would she NOT be eager to exchange her tedious dual role as cashier in a five and dime and caretaker of younger siblings (by this time another brother had been born) to live in her own home, traveling the country as the military wife of a handsome, fun-loving charmer like my dad? Unfortunately, though, like the four women who succeeded her, she married my dad during his bipolar “high,” when he was charismatic and witty and the life of every party. By the time I was born, she was trapped with a man prone to highs and lows in the extreme. His lows took him to the depths of a
black hole that only hospitalization could fish him out of, and his highs were even more wretched, as his drinking, irritability, and verbal abuse reduced the remnants of her self-esteem to ashes.
But my mother stayed the course until I left for college. After she and my dad dropped me off at my dorm at North Texas State University, they drove to East Texas, picked up their divorce papers, and went their separate ways. When I asked her once why she had endured nineteen years of marriage to my mercurial, philandering father, she told me she realized early on that she had made a huge mistake, but by that time she was pregnant, and she had no way to support me as a single mom. And in those days the oath to “love, honor, and obey,” was taken seriously and not to be questioned.
Miraculously, however, through all the years of chaos - of constant moving and my dad’s extremes in behavior, my mother kept me grounded. She protected me as best she could from my dad’s withering diatribes and taught me the importance of self-discipline, education, honestly, and the value of caring for other human beings. She sewed my clothes, fixed my meals, attended my school events, encouraged me to set lofty goals, and sacrificed her own desires and needs so that mine were met. It was from her that I learned tolerance and devotion, genuineness and empathy, the value of hard work, and the significance of giving while expecting nothing in return.
In 1969, when she married her soul mate, Herb, a funny, generous, and loving man, I was ecstatic for her and grew to love him as much as any daughter would love a father. One of the greatest gifts of my life was their unexpected decision to pull up roots in Salt Lake City to move to Texas to be near my budding family. How fortunate my family was that, for almost thirty years, Mom and Herb lived only ten minutes away. My children and grandchildren spent untold hours with Granny and Paw Paw, who indulged them and delighted in them the way only a grandparent can. They were there to celebrate the births of a son, two granddaughters, and two grandsons and more holidays and birthdays than I could possibly ever count. They were also there to support us in our times of sorrow, fear, and disappointment. Their arms were always open – no matter the painful circumstance.
I remember once telling a friend that if my mother died first, the gravediggers might as well dig a hole next to hers and throw me in because I couldn’t live without her. And yet, when her death came, I was relieved she would no longer have to suffer. For years her lung disease had made her weaker and weaker –a slave to oxygen machines, inhalers and nebulizers, steroids, and dozens of other medications. Watching her fight for breath was terrifying, and I dreaded Herb’s inevitable call that she had once more been hospitalized with ravaging bronchitis or life-threatening pneumonia. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, only a few months before her death, she was tired of struggling, and she chose to go into palliative care rather than continue to fight. I supported that decision. Even then, I found it ironic that SHE comforted me when I couldn’t fight my tears, assuring me that this was what she wanted, and that I would be OK after she was gone.
And I was. I continued to see Herb, whose own health was failing, almost every day until his own sudden death four years later. I’ve gone about my rather untidy life the best way I know how, and the raw emptiness left by her passing has gradually resolved itself. But I still think about her every day, and I long to sit once more at her kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking about life, to hear her laugh and to once more be warmed by her radiant smile. I can’t believe it’s been 12 years since she left us all behind. But I pray I’ll see her again – where I’ll hold her hands and gaze with joy into her beautiful green eyes - because, in the words of fictional character, Charley Benetto, "When you are looking at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know."