Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ruth Margie

Ruth Margie, or my mom, was born nearly 100 years ago in 1922. Were she still alive, she would be 97 years old today, February 7th, 2019. She is not alive, however, she died 10 years ago at the age of 86 from complications caused by Alzheimer's Disease. I missed her death at the time by two days, but it may as well have been 1000 days, because when your mother dies, time both stops and turns into an eternity.

She was born in Pocatello, Idaho, a city I may have been to--it is not the kind of city you would remember had you ever passed through, despite its size. The city I grew up in, Chula Vista, could be described in the same way. A lot of people know of it, they just don't have much to say about it.

From what I know, my mother did not grow up in the city portion--the family was poor and probably lived on the outskirts, but I remember Mom telling me that she did not know they were poor (does a fish know it is in water?). She reported feeling loved by her parents and tended to--her mother was crafty with the sewing machine--a talent my mother picked up, and I suppose that back "in those days" kids did not need quite as much as they do now.

They also worked. If not formally, then certainly at home. Child labor laws had yet to take effect in many states, but to be honest, I don't know much about what little Ruth Margie did in her childhood. I just know that she looked like this:

As you can see, they called her "Ruthie", a nickname that her sister Edith continued to use with her well into adulthood. Some things just never change!

My mother married four times, with my father being the fourth, and last, husband. The story of those marriages differs depending on who you are talking to, but this is the one I like the best: she first married young to a man who, like many men in those days, knew little about what goes into a marriage, leading to a hasty divorce shortly after he returned from the war. Mom moved to California with her young daughter soon afterward to live with one of her sisters in the Bay Area, and according to my sister, she married the next two husbands because they were "nice enough" and allowed her to appease the family back home, none of whom were too happy about having a divorced daughter with a child roaming about.

Mom and Dad early in the marriage
She met my father in San Diego, where they both worked for Safeway grocery stores, and as luck would have it, she fell in love. I have written about their marriage before, and I stick to the story that in the early days they were great together--two mature, intelligent adults who loved to dance and have fun. By the time I came around, Mom was already 40 years old. Can you imagine that in 1962? It was almost unheard of back then, unlike today where women are having their first child at much later ages. I was the last of her children--after me she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy because she was told, at the time, that it was "for the best".

Mom on her 60th birthday
There are pluses and minuses associated with being the child of an older parent. The plus is that they usually know what the hell they are doing by that time, and the family life is established and stable. The minus is that you don't often get to have them around as you get older. I never thought of my mom as older, she was just "Mom". I suppose it is the same for most kids. She was 50 when I was 10, and 60 by the time I reached 20, and yet she did not really begin to age until she neared 80. But when it came, it came fast--I remember once wondering, during a visit after I had been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, how she had become an old woman all of a sudden.

Of course little did we know that the acceleration of the Alzheimers was starting to take its toll on her vitality and health.

She died in the middle of the night, alone in a care home, two days before I was scheduled to fly in to be with her, but it may as well have been 1000 days before. When I found out that she died, I went to work to take care of some orders that had to be done because I was not ready to face it. I then left work at lunchtime and came home, where I drew the curtains and proceeded to wail for nearly three hours straight. If anyone is capable of corraling extreme grief, it would be me. I grieved alone that day, much as my mother died.

These days, my missing of her is like mood--it comes and goes, sometimes loudly and sometimes softly. That's a lie, actually, it never really "goes", it just gets really quiet, or else the world gets louder--not sure which it is. I do not seek "closure" around my grief--it is the one thing that keeps her present for me--that and the lock of her red hair that I asked for before her cremation. As impractical as it is, I can certainly understand why people want to bury their dead in a coffin. It is hard enough to process a loved one dying, it is harder still to grasp the idea that their physical body is actually "gone". I suppose this is why it is torture to lose someone in a plane crash or in war when you don't even get to see the body--those left behind must live in a limbo where a part of them suspects that their beloved is not really dead. I was not that unfortunate--I did see my mother's body, despite being two days late, and while it did not give me solace, it did move me toward acceptance.

I wish she were around, but not as a 97 year-old woman. I wish she were around as, say, a 76 year-old woman, which she would have been had I been born when she was 20. I would like her to see my life now, to know what I have become, who I have become, to meet Keshav, to see how it all "worked out after all". Some have said that she acted out of fear when she married all those men one after another--that she caved in to family and societal pressure to "do the right thing" and preserve her reputation. But don't agree with their assessment.

Were she alive today, I would tell her that I think she was brave. Like many mothers, she usually made choices based not on what was best for her, but what was best for her child. She had the courage to leave marriages once they stopped being good (except for my father, but she gets a pass on that one because by then she felt she was "too old" to start over). In reality, she acted both out of courage and fear, because courage cannot exist without fear--it is by definition a response to fear. Throughout the rest of her life she played tug-of-war with both. But most of us do, let's face it. It does not make us any less of a person as it did not make her any less of a mother.

This is why I continue to honor her with my life and my words. She earned it with her love for me, which, by the way, was unwavering even if her understanding of me was shaky. She earned my love by showing me firsthand an example of what it is to be human, farts and all.

So on the tenth anniversary of her death and the 97th anniversary of her birth, I write to say, "Happy Birthday, Ruth Margie. Happy Birthday, Mom." It all turned out okay after all.