Mom called me from her ICU room this morning to wish me happy birthday. Ironically, she was in the same hospital 56 years ago today delivering me. Her little 95 year old self sounded so frail and tired. But I know the iron and steel behind that frail sound. Momma has been a fighter since the day she took her first breath and has lived to witness much happiness, lots of tragedy, and almost a century of history.
Late December 1921, when Warren G. Harding was the 29th president of the United States, my mom was making a two month premature entrance into this world. The doctor and the mid-wife were at my grandmother’s house. A lifeless, tiny one pound baby girl came into this world. The midwife put the dead baby into a shoe box and returned to tend to my grandmother. Once finished, the midwife was about to prepare the baby for burial when she noticed the tiny baby kicking and full of life. 1921, no neonatal, no oxygen tents, no major medical advancements, this little miracle survived and became a full-fledged fighter. While that little baby was making her entrance, the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled labor injunctions and picketing unconstitutional. People were flocking to see The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which vaulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom (maybe because he did that sexy tango dance in a smoke filled Argentian cantina), and the kids were dancing to I Ain’t Got Nobody by Miss Marion Harris, and Ain’t We Got Fun by Van & Schenck.
Valentino’s sexy tango was nothing compared to my mom’s parents going through a divorce in the late 20s. Scandalous. Her daddy left her, a little sister, a sick baby brother and a good wife, all for wayward women. That left an impression on my mother all the way to this day. This made her fight for everyone she loved, to keep them close and protect them from the hurt she felt as a child.
The Great Depression came, but being poor was nothing new. After her dad left, the family, once thriving and financially fit, was thrust into a world of poverty. But my mother only grew stronger.
In 1939, mom graduated high school at 17 and married my daddy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States. Lisa Meitner, a Jewish woman in exile in Sweden, published her discovery of nuclear fission, otherwise known as atom splitting. The United States declared its neutrality regarding the war in Europe. Kids were dancing to Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, When the Saints Go Marching in by Louis Armstrong and crooning to Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland and Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller. My mom and her friends flocked to see Gone With the Wind to hear Rhett Butler say that famous phrase with the curse word, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The 1940s came, growing my mom’s family and taking my daddy off to WWII. My mom was told she would never have children, that her insides were too small and deformed from being a preemie. That didn’t stop my momma. In 1944, while WWII was raging and FDR was re-elected, making him the only U.S. president elected to serve a 4th term, momma delivered a bouncing baby boy. The favored movie that year was Arsenic and Old Lace about two sweet old spinster sisters poisoning lonely gentlemen callers and burying them in the cellar. The last line of the film was censored and changed from “I’m a bastard” to “I’m the son of a sea cook.” Kids were dancing to Swinging on a Star by Bing Crosby and the Trolly Song by Judy Garland.
In 1948, my mom thought her family was complete when they welcomed a daughter into the fold. Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president of the United States, and he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Korea (to be completed in 1949). Ella Fitzgerald sang Tea Leaves and Judy Garland starred in Easter Parade.
The 1950s brought some surprises. In 1956, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and the Methodist Church opened fully ordained clergy status to women and called for an end to segregation within the denomination. And 8 years after they thought their family was complete with a boy and a girl, mom and dad welcomed the birth of a 3rd child, their second daughter. Surely this was the final child and the baby of the family. Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, was re-elected. The movies to catch that year were Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The King & I, and the Ten Commandments. Doris Day sang Que Sera Sera and Elvis Presley shocked audiences with his grinding hips while singing Heartbreak Hotel. My mom thought he was so vulgar.
So if mom and dad thought the 50s brought surprises, they were in for it in the 60s. Six years after their little bundle of joy, my mom was sick and not getting better. She finally went to the doctor for tests. The doctor later called her and asked, “Gladys, you really don’t know what is wrong with you.?” She said “no I don’t and you are scaring me.” He said, “You are pregnant.” Momma cried. She said this baby will be in kindergarten and she will be walking with a cane. My daddy couldn’t believe he was going to have kids going on dates while a baby still played on the floor. They accepted this fact and just knew they were having a baby boy, which they would christen Matthew. Surprise again. Their 4th child and 3rd girl was born. John F. Kennedy was our 35th president, the U. S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and West Side Story were the popular movies and Patsy Cline was rising to fame, signing I Fall to Pieces.
In 1962, their son graduated high school and joined the Franciscan Seminary. In 1963 a horrible tragedy struck and Kennedy was assassinated. In 1965, their oldest daughter got married. But a terrible tragedy close to home was about to happen. In 1967, their oldest child, their only son, would succumb to throat cancer. While movie goers were being shocked by The Graduate, and young girls were fainting at the sight of The Beatles, my mom was burying her first born.
My momma’s heart was pierced. Mom had a picture of the Blessed Mother hanging in her room. Mary’s heart was pierced by a small sword. That picture used to scare me until my mom said it was a representation of how Mary’s heart felt after the crucifixion of her son and how her heart felt after losing Eric. Well now I was terrified by that picture. Whatif my mom died of heartbreak and left me? After that I was truly protective of my mom’s heart. I was so afraid of her fracturing. But my mom was tough – a true steel magnolia. In 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I saw tears streaming down my mom’s face. The pain on her face was so raw. I knew she was thinking about Eric. I was so heartbroken for her. But she plowed on and tried to make things as normal as possible for us.
Onward to the 70s, and we were hoping for a calm decade. In 1975, as President Ford (our 38th president) announced that the Vietnam War was “finished as far as America is concerned.” He said that “the fate of responsible men and women everywhere, in the final decision, is in their own hands, not ours.” We were rather oblivious to this though because my oldest sister was about to give birth. My mom and dad were having their very first grandchild, a little girl. Such exciting times. Jaws and Rocky Horror Picture show were the box office hits, and John Denver was thankful he was a country boy. At the end of the decade, mom’s 3rd child was preparing to get married, and her 4th child was going to graduate from high school. Things were looking bright (except that Jimmy Carter was our 39th president). But fate would try to smack down my momma again. As people were watching Alien and dancing to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough, my mom was burying her husband of 39 years.
In 1980 mom welcomed another grandchild, but also found out her 2nd born (and 1st daughter) had cancer. How can that be? How can fate deal this. My mom lost one child to cancer, and now another had this horrid disease. This just could not be. But it was. We lost Donna in 1981. While the world impatiently waited to find out Who Shot J.R., my mom was burying a 2nd child.
Life moved on. Mom married off her youngest child (me!) in 1982, welcomed two more grandchildren in 1985 and 1988, and married a wonderful man – our neighbor. I told her that brought on a whole new meaning to Love thy Neighbor. We welcomed new siblings and grandchildren to the family, faced the deaths of mom’s mother, her aunts, her sister and her brother. Now it is just mom and her sister 11 years younger than her. And that youngest sister has developed dementia these past few years. My mom is the lone one standing out of her siblings – the oldest – and still kicking.
Mom was born when the United States had only seen 29 presidents and she recently just watched the swearing in of the 45th president. She has lived through highs and death blow lows. I truly believe had my mom not had me or my sister late in life, she would have succumbed to sadness after the death of her second child. Eric died at 23, Donna died at 33. The year Kris turned 43, my mom cried the entire year, fully expecting to lose another child. Alas, the spell was broken and mom didn’t even wince when I turned 53. Mom never expected to see me, her baby, grow up. But she has surpassed that. She has watched me become a senior citizen and has seen her great grandchildren.
Yes she called me from ICU this morning, but she is going to recover fully and live to be 100 just like she promised me.