My mother died last night. It seems odd to say of someone who lived to be 90 that she died prematurely, but in her case it is true. We all had expected her to be with us for another decade, at least. Any of her four sons will tell you that she was the toughest person we knew.
Her early years were idyllic. Her father was the president of a bank in a tiny Minnesota town. But within the space of a few months, when my mother was 12, the bank failed and her father died. My grandmother, left penniless, moved with her two daughters, my mother and her older sister, to the nearest city, Sioux Falls.
My grandmother worked three jobs at a time, not only to support herself and her daughters but–remarkably, especially for the time–to provide for their education. Unable to afford meat, they subsisted largely on noodles. To the end of her life, my mother scorned pasta. It was, to her, a symbol of poverty.
My parents were college classmates. They graduated in 1943, and my father enlisted in the Army. It was understood that they would be married if he returned alive from the war. He did, narrowly.
My mother was a beauty in her youth–really, into middle age and beyond. But no one seems to have cared much; what impressed people was her character.
In her later years, she was considered a great lady. A lady she certainly was: I never heard her utter a crude word, or do or say anything vulgar, or indulge in gossip.
For one so conspicuously free of faults, she was remarkably tolerant of the vices of others. Putting a charitable construction on all that her neighbors did was not just a religious duty, but a natural inclination. Our childhood friends, if they were temporarily in disgrace at home, could always find a haven at our house, no questions asked.
Her happiest days, I think, were spent in a ramshackle cottage on a lake where we lived during the summer. It was primitive: no running hot water, no heat, no beds for us boys–we slept on army cots–no telephone, little protection from the rain which poured through holes in the roof, under which we placed pots and pans. And, of course, no television. In the summer, my brothers and I lived more like Huck Finn than just about any 20th century boys could hope for, and our mother enjoyed it as much as we did.
She was a stoic, indifferent to pain. She was, in all circumstances, unfazed. My mother told me once that she had heard people talk about being nervous, but didn’t think she had ever experienced such a sensation, and didn’t really understand what they were referring to. One of the few things that angered her was when one of her sons would complain about a real or perceived injustice. Unfairness, to her, was another word for life. It was to be overcome by hard work, not complained about.
She was a fanatical housekeeper and an excellent cook–no one I know of could match her mastery with wild ducks and geese. She served in endless volunteer capacities, including among many others service on the board of directors of a local bank.
Her end came with stunning suddenness. She had always been fearless. When she and my father were 76 years old, they went hiking in the Canadian Rockies with my family. They climbed, if not mountains, very substantial hills. One day when we were about to set off on a seven-mile hike, I felt I should mention that a grizzly sow had been spotted in the area, in case they wanted to beg off. My mother shrugged: “I’m not afraid of bears,” she said. Nor was she afraid of much else. But cancer was an enemy she couldn’t beat.
We visited my parents less than a week before she died. We had a rollicking time, the last, I believe, that she enjoyed. She was lucid to the end; in one of her last conversations she gave her minister instructions for her funeral. Her courage never failed. We will miss her more than we can say.