Most men speak of their mothers as angels, and in that regard I guess I’m not unique. Some would probably argue that my mother was not unique either, that she was merely one of millions of moms from the greatest generation.
Modern-day feminists would have been horrified by Mom’s lifestyle. Her day-to-day world consisted primarily of cooking, shopping, keeping her home running smoothly, and, above all, taking care of her children. I think she just assumed that these were the most important things in every woman’s life.
During her most vibrant years, one of my mother’s greatest joys was her regular canasta and mahjong games with her girlfriends. I remember her once telling me that her friends were always amazed whenever I came home from school during one of their hotly contested hands and bent over to kiss her on the cheek. I always felt good that that made her so happy.
Like Ayn Rand, my mother lived through the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Her father came to the United States first, then brought the rest of the family to America about five years later.
My mom never forgot the long, queasy trip across the Atlantic Ocean and the harrowing experience of being processed, like cattle, through Ellis Island. Throughout her lifetime, she never boarded another ship and, for the most part, refused to talk about her childhood experiences in Russia. For my mom, America was the promised land, and, thanks to my hard-working father, she was able to live the American Dream.
Probably as a result of her frightening experience as a child in Russia, Mom never showed any interest in politics. It was simply outside the realm of her sheltered little world.
Interestingly, in 1996, after she had been living in a nursing home for some time, I asked her who she had voted for in the presidential election. When she told me it was Bill Clinton, I grimaced and asked her why. “He seems like a nice man,” she said matter-of-factly. So when the Democratic vote-gathering troops showed up at her nursing home, she dutifully accommodated them.
Perhaps the one thing that helps offset some of the remorse I’ve experienced for not visiting my mother as much as I would have liked to during the last years of her life is the knowledge that I never once got mad at her, never raised my voice to her, and never showed any disrespect toward her. Why would I? She was my mother.
I still have vivid recollections of picking debris up off the floor when I was only six or seven years old because I didn’t want her to have to bend over. She never asked me to do it. It was instinctual.
After I moved away in 1970, I made it a ritual to call her every Sunday from wherever I was, even when I lived in New Zealand and Australia. It wasn’t as good as being there with her in person, but it was my way of letting her know that she was always on my mind.
When it came to health, my mom drew an inside straight. She never contracted cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or any other serious illness or medical condition. Though less than five feet tall, she seemed indestructible. She outlived her husband, one of her children, two of her grandchildren, and all of her friends. As one birthday after another passed, the standard family line was, “She’ll probably outlive all of us.”
But when Mom was about ninety, she developed a bad case of shingles, and, like a great quarterback who suffers an arm injury in his older years, she never quite recovered. Then came the fall and the broken hip.
One by one, her cherished girlfriends answered God’s call. But with a zest for life, she replaced her departed friends with new canasta partners in the nursing home. Sadly, the Grim Reaper relentlessly took each of them as well, until, finally, she was the only one left. Even so, she never complained and never tried to make anyone feel sorry for her.
She still had her family and her one great passion in life, reading. Not politics or philosophy, but fiction. She was a reading machine, having read thousands of books in her lifetime.
But as her new friends in the nursing home died off, life became increasingly somber and boring for Mom. She stayed in her room most of the time, because she didn’t want to be in the open area with “those old people.”
Over the past couple of months, my mother became increasingly disoriented and agitated. She kept trying to get up out of her wheelchair, which resulted in her falling three times. I believe she felt imprisoned and wanted to escape the nursing home. Finally, she stopped eating, and that’s when her organs began to shut down.
When the phone rang at 7:30 a.m. last Tuesday, I knew before I answered it what it meant. After more than a century without a life-threatening medical condition, I believe my mom, who never once talked about dying, finally decided it was time to go.
At her advanced age, I never thought it would be difficult for me to accept her departure. How wrong I was. It’s hard for me to process the fact that I will never see her or hear her voice again. An integral part of my life is now gone forever. This past Sunday, the reality hit me that it was the first time in more than forty-one years that I had no mother to call.
About a year ago, I asked Mom something that I had never seriously discussed with her before. “Mom,” I said, “you believe in God, don’t you?” Without hesitation, she answered, “Of course I do.” It was very comforting to hear her say that.
Perhaps Paul Johnson explained my feelings best when he wrote, in
The Quest for God:
“It is because sensible men the world over, at all times, recognised and accepted the inevitability of mighty death, that they have turned to God to explain its significance. Without God, death is horrific. With God, death is still fearsome, but it can be seen to have a meaning and purpose and a hope.”
Meaning, purpose, and hope. Mom would have liked those words.