My mom turned 79 years old today. Happy birthday, Mom. Here’s my post from her last birthday. And, I dug up something I wrote three years ago about my mother. It’s the first part of a longer story, and please, it’s very unpolished and dusty from just sitting for three years, so have a little mercy! Here it is:
Mom and Jane
I remember how my heart quickened as I drove around the corner toward our big red house and caught sight of the plump, brownish-gray haired woman wearing a pretty, white knit sweater. It was early spring in Central Oregon, and hope hung in the air as the snows melted and the ever-present sunshine began to coax tender plants through the earth. The woman was slowly walking to the community mailbox, leaning a bit on her silver cane. An elderly woman living on my block, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’m sure she’ll be perfect, I had thought eagerly.
I pulled into my driveway and quickly unloaded the four kids. I raced to the pantry, scouring it for some small token to give to the lady. I found an unopened container of green tea from Trader Joe’s, a reminder of our recent move from Eugene to Redmond, Oregon, which was sadly lacking my favorite store. This will work, I half smiled to myself with satisfaction, brushing away the hint of selfishness that arose at the thought of parting with this precious commodity. I hastily tied a red ribbon around it and dashed out the front door. She was gone.
Mom had been living with me for several years, and my constant desire was for her to have friends. Even one friend. At age 76, it was becoming harder for her to get out and she tired easily. But the truth is that she’d spent a lifetime without being meaningfully connected to anyone outside of family. This didn’t appear to bother her, but it disturbed me to no end. I’m such a social creature that it seemed like a sad existence to me. I panicked when, six years earlier, she had suddenly announced she was moving from her family home of Michigan out to Oregon, where I had already relocated. No one but me to look after her, I had thought with dread, accompanied by guilt for having such broodings.
Days went by with me scanning the street for the older woman I’d seen walking to the mailbox. I kept the box of green tea in my van, just in case. I was pretty sure she lived in the yellow house on the corner, and even walked down with the kids a few times to knock on the door, but no answer. Chance would eventually win out, considering she retrieved her mail daily, and I was driving back and forth several times a day, chauffering kids to preschool, getting groceries, and running other errands that stay-at-home moms fill their days with.
So the day came, not a week later, when I drove around the corner and spotted the little lady. “Look, kids, it’s her!” I practically shouted, turning our white mini-van into the curb. They had been on the lookout for her all week, too, as I had explained that we should be good neighbors and invite her over to meet Grandma Daniel.
I leaned out my window and waved to her, chattering so fast I don’t know if she understood a word I said. “I live in the two-story red house over there,” I said, pointing to the cute, craftsman-style home. “My mother lives with me, and I’d like you to come meet her sometime.”
“Oh, and here’s a little gift for you,” I said, thrusting the box of tea out the window. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might strike her as odd that a complete stranger was carrying around a present for her. “Thank you,” she said with a mix of sweetness and astonishment. “My name is Jane.”
Two days later, I ushered the sought-after woman through my door. “Mom,” I yelled up the stairs, “come and meet Jane, she lives on our street. I’ve invited her over for tea.” Mom was also aware that I’d been pursuing this neighbor, but in her reticent manner hadn’t initiated any efforts herself. “Jane, this is my mother, Daniel,” I had said with a nagging embarrassment. “Danielle?” Jane replied. “No,” I answered for Mom, feeling a rush of color on my cheeks. “It’s Daniel.” I didn’t want to explain that she’d changed her name because she believed that God told her to, in a vision that involved Daniel of the Bible. I desperately wanted to say, “Her name is really Nelda,” but I couldn’t bring myself to dishonor my mother’s convictions. It had been almost ten years since she had legally changed her name, but I still couldn’t get used to introducing her that way. What would Jane think of my mother?
As crazy as I thought my mom was, she did have a sense of duty and social justice. She had spent an entire year painting her face black in an effort to show solidarity with African Americans. Never mind she had a black man pull a knife on her outside of an all-black church where she was showing up on Sundays. They saw it as mockery, not solidarity. And I’ll never forget when, at my innocent age of 10, she insisted I sign a contract she had written, stating that I would never drink alcohol. She took similar petitions around to the neighbors. I had spent a lifetime enduring never-ending eccentric behavior, and only now, well into my 30s, was I beginning, just barely, to see through to a beautiful soul.
As we sat around the table sipping tea, I noticed the unique blend of similarities and differences between these two older women. Jane, like Mom, was short, barely five feet tall, but more ample than my petite mother. Jane’s stylish outfit, bright lipstick and manicured nails told me she was probably a society girl in her day. On the other hand, I’d never known my mom to wear makeup or care about her clothes, though she was naturally quite pretty. Jane liked to talk, Mom liked to listen. And I discovered that Jane indeed was about the age of my mother, though I expected her to be perhaps a decade younger, based on her flawless, porcelain skin. “You’re not 80!” I had gasped in disbelief when she revealed her age.
Spring was now in full swing, with signs of life dashing here and there. Neighbors mowed their lawns, children drew chalk pictures on the sidewalks, and the sweet smell of flowers was almost intoxicating. A new season and a new energy infused our household as well. Mom went about the house whistling a little tune, and several days after the first tea-time with Jane, the two women began walking. I could hardly hold back my great surprise when Mom had come downstairs that morning to use the telephone. It’s hard to believe, but I could not recall a time when she had ever phoned a friend. “Hi, Jane, this is Daniel. Would you like to walk this morning?” It was a 30 second conversation, the first of many such half-minute calls.
I was delighted with this blossoming friendship, but that delight was underlaid with a touch of anxiety. Will it last? Jane would prove to calm my fears, however, and accepted my mother for who she was. Jane enjoyed Mom’s quirkiness, and with a giggle she would tell me that she always called my mom “Danielle.” And Mom proved to hold her own. Always the introvert, she nevertheless found it within her to carry on endless dialogue with Jane. My children were a great source of conversation, and Mom would relay their latest antics. For these older women of the same generation, it was also comforting to speak of the past days, The War, The Depression, lost loves. “My Cory loved to play cards,” Jane would begin, and launch into a humorous story of her beloved, deceased husband. “When we lived on the ranch,” Mom would reply, “Andy used to shoot the rattlesnakes with his revolver.”
******THE END of Part I