This week, my mother will celebrate her 75th birthday. Seems like just yesterday we were marking her mother’s 75th birthday. That was 1977 and my mother then was younger (by almost a decade) than I am now. How does that happen? Tick, tock! Tick, tock!
Mom was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Eddie Gines, had come there from Shreveport in about 1920; for what reason, I do not know. Her mother, Annie Florida Corrine Long, was a native of Kansas City. Mom was one of seven children, four of whom survive.
Mom had red hair as a child, a fact which lately I’ve come to regard as a genealogical clue. Her mother reportedly said that no black child had any business with red hair, and therefore combed Mom’s hair with coffee every day in the hope that it would turn black. Mom still has red hair seventy-five years later and my sister was born with red hair.
I never had the impression of my mother as “bookish,” but she did go to college at age 16, and majoring in education. graduated at age 20. She met my father during their college years (she was a junior when he was a freshman). And speaking of “bookish,” the story goes that when he asked her to a basketball game for their first date, she brought a book and spent the whole game reading it! Fortunately for me, that did not keep them from continuing to date and eventually marry.
My parents live in California now, far from where either of them was raised. I doubt that as a child or even as a young adult, my mother ever foresaw living in California. I’m not sure what her dreams were as an adolescent. I do know that she gave up a postgraduate fellowship to become a wife and mother.
I can see my mother dressed as the archetypal 1950s housewife. My father was an Army officer; she was in the Officers Wives Club–a much-maligned institution by the late 1960s and 1970s. We went to Mass every Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation; Mom was in the Ladies’ Soldality. She took an active interest in our schooling and was in the PTA. She stood for propriety, integrity, good manners, and respect for others.
But at the same time, I never saw Mom as a June Cleaver or a Stepford Wife. She was fiercely protective of her brood; indeed, there were sometimes battles to be fought for us at a time when kids our age were being shut out of public school or being blown up by domestic terrorists at Sunday school.
My earliest recollection of my mother involves a tornado. We lived in Jefferson City, Missouri. Mom was hanging laundry on the clothesline in the back and I was sitting on a step at the back door. The winds picked up suddenly and the sky turned green. Mom hurriedly took the wash down said we had to get inside. Then I next recall us living at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Mom was pregnant with my sister. She was sweeping the floor when she began coughing violently. I didn’t know what to do. As she bent over double in pain, the lady next door came over. Mom was taken to the hospital where it was discovered that she had coughed so hard that she had broken a rib.
We went to Germany in 1958 on the same troop ship as one recently drafted Private Elvis Aaron Presley. Mom appears in a photograph taken on the ship which appears on the back of one of Elvis’ first post-Army albums. In Germany, Elvis was extremely popular. One day, a young German man appeared at our apartment and asked if we had any pictures of Elvis. Mom said, “No,” and began n to close the door. The young man now demanded a picture of Elvis and punctuated his demand by pulling a knife. Mom forced the door closed with all of her weight (perhaps 110 pounds); locked it and called the police.
I’ve never seen my mother take a drink of alcohol, although she maintains a supply in the house for guests. I saw my mother smoke a cigarette just once. And the circumstances were strange. We lived in Albuquerque then and the lady who lived next door (and is now likely deceased) smoked like a chimney. One spring day, when I was about twelve, I came home from school to find Mom and the neighbor lady sitting in the front yard in lawn chairs. Each was smoking a cigarette. I was shocked to see Mom with a cigarette in her hand. I said, “Mom, what are you doing?” She said, “I am smoking. Would you like to try it?” I hesitated, and then said, “Okay.” She handed me the cigarette and told me to draw the smoke into my lungs. I tried to do so and ended up coughing my head off. Mom asked, “What do you think?” I said, “it’s awful!” She said, “That’s right, so don’t ever do it again.” That was the only time I had a cigarette and the first and last time I ever saw my mother with a cigarette.
In 1965, my father got orders to go to Korea. It was what the Army calls an “unaccompanied tour.” That meant that we would stay in Albuquerque during his year Korea. Mom would do the job of two parents. She made it look effortless all the while making sure we thought of and wrote to our father often. Again, in 1968, Dad got orders to go to Vietnam for one year. And again, Mom had to be two parents. I can’t imagine this is easy for any mother, but it must be particularly difficult f or a woman with three adolescent boys with typical adolescent boy interests.
Mom has a great sense of humor. That’s a good thing for her children who occasionally make fun of her Midwestern accent! She has certain favorite sayings. (“That’s wrong; that’s wrong as two left feet!”). And of course we knew we were in real trouble when she called us by our full names! She cried with us when our first pet, parakeet named Billie Boy, died suddenly.
My mother probably wouldn’t in the first instance describe herself as an animal lover. But the facts may prove it. In 1966, when he was back from Korea, Dad one night found a a jet black Persian kitten under his car. Mom said we could keep the kitten just until we found the real owner. She made it clear that the cat wasn’t staying. Seventeen years later, my mother called me at my Air Force base in Britain to tell me that Topcat had passed away. When my grandmother’s husband passed away, leaving their dog King homeless, Mom welcomed him to her house. When my brother was sent to Germany by the Army, Mom took it in his dog, Tiger and ended up keeping him until the dog died away six years later.
Today, my mother still works a forty hour a week job. She’s a Eucharistic minister at her church. (It is a bit of an adjustment for a pre-Vatican II Catholic boy such as my self to get used to taking communion from his mother!). She takes pride in the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren.
So this week, we’ll celebrate Mom’s Jubilee, knowing that no celebration can possibly convey the joy we feel and the joy we’ve always felt at being lucky enough to have her as our mother.
July 8, 2007 Sunday at 8:05 pm