My Mom was a ghost, walking in the everyday world; she was there, but she wasn’t.
She was there for me, but she wasn’t.
Her name was Vernette. She married my grandfather (whom I grew up to referring as “Dad”) three years before I was born. Born herself on the prairies of Montana, she was a dark beauty, with jet black hair, olive-toned skin, hazel eyes and beautifully straight, white teeth that people now pay to acquire.
Her parents and her brother, Victor, were fair, blond and blue-eyed. She believed with her whole heart that she was not really a part of that family, but some Indian baby found on the prairie and taken in by them. Caught up in her tale, I refer to her high school graduation photo as her “Indian princess picture.” She was gorgeous.
Whether they were truly her parents or not, she adored her father, a barber named Fred. Somehow, they came back to live in Indiana near their wealthier relatives and practiced their religion of Christian Science. She graduated, went to business college, married and was left divorced with two young sons when she met my Dad on a blind date. Mom was working as a telephone operator at the time.
Though she said she did not love him, she married him anyway. Being a divorced, working mother was still unusual in the late 1940s. As part of the marriage, she gained two step-daughters, the oldest of whom would go on to give her me, the little girl she said she had always wanted.
Even though she didn’t give birth to me, I without a doubt knew my mother loved me, even when she became a ghost of her former self after the unexpected death of her elder son when he was only 20.
It was his death that left her in that wraith-like state, unable to speak above a whisper for several years due to hysterical laryngitis, a white streak adorning the front of her dark hair where her hand had gone as the state trooper informed her of Gary’s death.
It also broke her heart so thoroughly not long after she would suffer the first of several heart attacks and a case of angina that would plague her the rest of her life. She would become somewhat reclusive, but never to me.
For me, her silence was comfortable companionship to which I clung as I nestled next to her in the gray leather rocker she preferred in our house by the lake.
I didn’t know until much later – after we lost it as collateral on a restaurant deal of Dad’s gone bad – that she had bought the house out of the insurance money from Gary’s death. It was one of many things I wouldn’t grasp until I was older.
I knew my Mom was different from the other Moms of my schoolmates. While their Moms provided home-baked goods for school events, my Mom would purchase a package of cookies to send. She never dropped them off at school and stay like the other mothers.
While she never learned to drive, I don’t think that was why. She had no friends among the other mothers; unlike my phone, hers never rang with people calling to share their latest news. It was only ever Dad, telling her he was sending someone to pick her up to come help him at the bar when he was too busy to serve both drinks and food.
Both my parents were fabulous cooks. Mom did hers in servitude to Dad.
That she saw her marriage as a form of bondage rather than a sacramental bond was something she never hid from me as I grew older. While I loved my Dad, like her I grew to hate his vituperative nature that grew nastier toward her with every passing year of his highly alcoholic life.
She and I would both sit quietly and passively each evening he came home late cursing to a supper grown cold because he stayed behind to have a “few” beers after a day of bar tending and drinking.
While it was before the advent of the microwave, I suppose she could have kept dinner warming in the oven for him. It was a small revenge for the way he cussed her and you know what they say about revenge: a dish best served cold.
But throughout her trials and tribulations, Mom was never cold to me. She was my refuge against the taunts and terrors of my classmates, where I would take the shards of my broken heart.
Hers was the lap in which I would bury my head to cry my own bitter tears, her hand stroking my hair until I became quiet and settled down to enjoy the comforting safety of her presence.
She was the one who taught me right from wrong, who encouraged my ceaseless love of reading, who made sure the pursuit of knowledge and education were ingrained within me.
While she did not get to attend my college graduation in California, I knew she was proud of my accomplishment, especially as I achieved it after ten years of effort that included a stint in the Navy, a marriage that ended in divorce and a toddler in tow.
She wouldn’t be very happy I have become Catholic, as her view was Catholics sinned all week then went to Church and confessed, only to turn around and sin again.
But then, since she never forgave God for Gary’s death, it could have been any religion that I chose; she still would have objected.
Usually it is lovers who have songs together. My Mom and I had one…”You’ve Got A Friend” by James Taylor. Ironically, I would have a “song” with only one other love in my life – “Meet Me Halfway.” But that is a different story. Maybe for another time.
For my sixteenth Christmas, my Mom gave me a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets From The Portuguese.” In it she wrote: “With loads of love Sweetheart. Books are like good friends; cherish them & treat them kindly – they will give you a lot of enjoyment in return.”
My Mom was longsuffering and gentle. In her I had a friend.
“And not only that, but we also find glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation exercises patience, and patience leads to proving, yet truly proving leads to hope.” (Romans 4:3-4)
“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.” -St. Francis de Sales