With Mother’s Day approaching, I was thinking about my Mom, who was a complex woman. She had very little common sense but was shrewd, had secrets and considered herself a survivor, and grew more and more negative as she got older. Since her passing in 2017 at the age of 105, I’ve been trying to figure out why she was the way she was. One thing I do know is that she had a fear of being left on her own. Throughout her life, there was always someone to take care of her.
In 1914, at the age of two, her father died in a logging accident. She, along with her mother and eight-year-old sister, were taken in by relatives for a few years.
They eventually ended up in Seattle where Mom’s mother ran a boarding house. Mom mentioned that she had to sleep in the kitchen some of the time and didn’t like all the strangers living in the same house. It must have been a hard life for Mom and a very hard life for her mother, who did all the cleaning, cooking, etc.
She had no father growing up and a mother who had little time for her. From what she said, school was not easy. I think she had little self-confidence and developed an inferiority complex that stayed with her the rest of her life. After high school, she had a few jobs as nanny and waitress.
Wife and Mother
Her mother died when Mom was 21. She moved in with a married friend who lived in Oakland, CA, and got a job as a waitress at a diner at the airport. After some time, her friend needed the room Mom was staying in for her baby that was due soon. Mom had to move out. So, she convinced a fellow she worked with in the diner to marry her. She knew he was sweet on her. The marriage lasted five years and there were no children. When he decided he wanted to attend classes to become a pilot rather than stay a cook forever, my Mom told me she “simply couldn’t have that” and left him and moved in with her sister in Long Beach, CA. That’s where she met Dad.
Their courtship was in Southern California, but he was in the Navy and his ship, the USS Oklahoma, was sent to Hawaii. Her sister’s husband was also in the Navy and his ship was also going to Hawaii. So, the two sisters traveled to Hawaii together aboard the SS Lurline ocean liner.
My parents got married in Hawaii, and after some time, Mom became pregnant. In September of 1941, my Dad’s tour of duty was up, and he chose to be discharged in Seattle. After he left, life became exciting. I was born in November, Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, and a few months later, Mom and I traveled via troop transport surrounded by destroyers to the states. My Mom and I eventually met up with Dad in Seattle.
The years in Seattle saw my sister and brother born in rapid succession. Then Dad reenlisted during the last year of the war. Mom was terribly unhappy with three children all under four years old to manage and her husband away. She never forgave Dad for that.
The years living in their own homes in Vancouver, WA, Portland, OR, and in the Kern River Valley north of Bakersfield, CA, was a time when she was a committed wife and mother. Mondays were for laundry, Tuesdays for ironing, etc. She had a routine for all the household chores and every day after breakfast read the newspaper. She cooked all our meals and did a wonderful job on pies. She and Dad loved to dance and would often go out dancing, and I was usually the babysitter.
She was a room mother at school more than once, and I remember a few birthday parties where we invited friends. Dad bought her a sewing machine, and she learned to sew. I remember a coat she made me when I was in the middle grades. And in high school, I had several lovely dresses to wear to dances that she made. I loved that coat and those dresses.
Years in Southern California
After 24 years living in the Kern River Valley, all three children had gone onto college and married. Mom was very proud of her children but didn’t much care for their spouses. Mom and Dad moved to Southern California, when Dad was transferred to a power plant near Redondo Beach. That’s when Mom started showing some independence. She rode buses to go shopping and made friends.
Then they moved farther south to San Marcos when Dad transferred again to the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in the late 1970s. It didn’t take Mom long to become a volunteer at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. She took buses to get there and spent about 15 years there, making some long-lasting friendships.
Then Dad retired and they started taking vacations on cruise ships. Her years living in San Marcos were among her happiest and most satisfying. She was highly valued by the doctors and nurses at the clinic and thrived. When visiting her during those years, it seemed like she was talking about her full-time job, instead of a once-a-week volunteer situation. She loved it, and it was good for her. And she loved all the trips that she and Dad made.
Health Problems & Move to Bakersfield
In the late 1990s, they both began having health problems that required my brother or sister, who both lived in Bakersfield, to make numerous trips to San Marcos. My brother and sister both had full-time careers and it wasn’t easy to keep requesting time off. I was working full-time also and lived in Oregon and had a husband who was not well, but came down twice a year for a couple of weeks each time.
In 2002, Mom and Dad finally moved to Bakersfield. It was good timing because Dad was beginning to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Mom did not want to move to Bakersfield. So, she let everyone know how unhappy she was. She did not make friends or join any groups. And she called on my brother and sister for everything all the time. I came down three times a year and stayed a couple of weeks each time to help out. She stayed unhappy about the move for as long as she lived.
After Dad died in 2010, she became even more difficult to be around. Nearly all her comments were negative and anything you told her she remembered and would use against you, if it suited her purposes. And she belittled her children’s advice, but would believe whatever anybody else said. Whenever I was around her, it was like walking on eggshells and you had to think through everything you were going to say. She could turn from pleasant to mean in a heartbeat.
We thought about having her move into assisted living, but she absolutely refused to even consider it. She had become very self-centered and liked being treated like a queen bee. So, we hired a caregiver for four hours each morning with my sister and brother alternated meals each evening and my brother continued to handle finances and my sister the yard work. After a few years, we added help to come a few hours each evening, relieving my brother and sister of the evening visits.
As to her secrets, we didn’t know her true age until Dad discovered that instead of 72 as we all thought, she was actually 77. I think that’s why she never learned to drive. She didn’t want to have to carry a license with her actual age on it.
After Dad died in 2010, the attorney asked us whether there were any children from Mom’s first marriage. My sister told him that he must be talking about someone else, because none of us knew about a previous marriage. But he had the papers in front of him. When Mom was confronted with this, she said it wasn’t any of our business. And she never talked about it until she was 104 with me just months before she died. I think the five years difference in her age was her way of deleting the five years of her first marriage.
Like I said, she was a complex woman. Learning how to deal with her, prepared me for dealing with almost anybody throughout my life!
I wish all mothers reading this, a very happy Mother’s Day.