You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone

The words from that old Joni Mitchell song surfaced in my head today:  You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till is gone.  That one line is playing over and over for two reasons.  Number one is that Joni Mitchell is having serious health challenges. I’m sorry about that and wish her well, but the other reason for thinking about those words has to do with this coming Sunday–Mother’s Day.

It’s only now that she’s gone and I’m much older that I’ve come to understand the profound impact my mother had on my life.  Sitting here all these years later, I can still see her outside with clothes pins in her mouth hanging freshly laundered clothes on the line.  That always happened on Mondays.  On Tuesdays her ironing board was set up in the living room so she could do the ironing with one eye on the TV set.  

In South Dakota she drove her Ford tractor like nobody’s business, but when we came to Arizona and she needed to learn to drive a stick shift car, it wasn’t at all the same thing. I remember sitting in the back seat with my older sisters issuing timely warnings, “Hold on.  Mommy’s gonna jerk.”  I also remember a series of four black and white photos of her, all of them taken with her fold-out Kodak camera.  In each of those pictures she’s standing before the front gate of the house on Yuma Trail, holding a newborn baby in her arms as she brought my three younger brothers and one younger sister home from the hospital.

Bad daughter that I am, I don’t remember the exact day she passed away.  (By the way, I am one of those people who doesn’t use the word “passed” alone in that regard.  In my lexicon, the word “passed” must be followed by the word “away.”  Passed all by itself seems unfinished somehow, or maybe even naked.)  I do remember where I was when my sister called to give me the news that our mother was gone.  Bill and I were in a room in River Place in Portland, so it must have been at one end or the other of a book tour.  I also don’t remember exactly what was said during the last conversation between my mother and me, with the  two of us talking quietly in her room at the convalescent center in Sierra Vista–her home during the final months of her life.  It was spring when we spoke. I knew that in a few days Bill and I would be heading north to Seattle for the summer.  I suspected that was the last time I’d see her, and it was

She was totally with it that day.  She knew who I was, and she knew I was leaving soon.  We talked about nothing in particular which, at that point, is also about everything in general.  No tears were shed, at least not in the room.  I saved mine for later during my solitary drive back to Tucson.  

I’m always surprised and grateful when Evie’s words surface unexpectedly in my blog or in my books.  Her wit and wisdom creep into Beaumont’s memory when he’s recalling his mother.  And my own mother is certainly in my mind’s eye and ear when I’m putting words into the mouths of either Joanna’s mother, Eleanor Lathrop Winfield, or Ali’s mother, Edie Larson.  

It was my mother, with her seventh grade education, who put my feet firmly on an academic path when I was in high school.  That encouragement came in the guise of a bribe.  She told me that if I’d take seven solids—no study halls—I wouldn’t have to do as much housework as my older sisters had to do.  For someone who was smart but lazy, that was a no-brainer.  Taking seven solids for the next four years was part of what helped me go on to college.  That was almost entirely due to my mother’s sage advice.  It had nothing to do with the school counselor, Miss Woundy, who took pains to tell me I was NOT college-bound material.  I’m so glad that my mother was there on that December day in 2000 when the University of Arizona awarded me an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.  I was the one on stage receiving the degree, but I felt my mother should have been there, too.  It was her honorary degree every bit as much as it was mine.

For Evie Busk, children were “to be seen but not heard.”  She also didn’t believe in “sparing the rod and spoiling the child,” nor did she pull the old “Wait ‘till your father comes home,” routine.  In our father’s absence, she was perfectly capable of dishing out the “flyswatter treatment,” thank you very much.  My most well deserved bout with that came after my friend, Donna Angeleri, and I ill-advisedly went wading in a “mine water” pond.  I did so in my brand new hand-me-down green and white sun suit.  The chemicals in the mine water wrecked the suit completely, and it was immediately consigned to the rag-drawer, never to surface again. I remember the frilly sun suit, but I remember the flyswatter encounter even more.

On those occasions when the whole family piled into our woody, nine-passenger Mercury station wagon, that’s how our mother maintained order.  My father would be at the wheel, with my mother in the front passenger seat, holding a baby in one arm with a fly swatter in her other hand.  If things got out of hand somewhere behind the front seat—arguments over whose turn it was to sit by a window or who was tormenting the kid next to him–my mother’s flyswatter arm could reach bare thighs even in the far back back.

With very little money and seven children to raise, my mother couldn’t afford to spoil any of us, and she was sparing with compliments.  The new parenting stand-by, “good job,” were words that never passed Evie Busk’s lips.  I vividly recall the circumstances surrounding one of the rare compliments she gave to me.  It was the late seventies.  I was living and working in Bisbee, selling life insurance.  These were the old days when female “dress for success” costumes called for a two piece suit, high heels, and pantyhose.  We had stopped off at my sister’s house on Bisbee Road for some reason.  My mother was driving.  She stayed in the car with my two kids in the back seat while I walked up the sidewalk and onto the porch.  It turned out my sister wasn’t home, but when I got back into the car, my mother uttered four words that I’ve never forgotten—“You’ve got good legs.”  I was nothing short of astonished.

I’m seventy now.  My legs aren’t what they used to be when I was a thirty-something, but I still treasure that compliment and because my mother said those words once, and they still feel true.  I’m sure my brothers and sisters have pieces of our mother’s verbal treasures tucked away in their hearts as well.  I know we all remember the lyrics of each of the songs she taught us, helping us learn to sing them in three-part harmony.

So yes, Joni Mitchell is probably right.  We don’t know what we’ve got ‘till it’s gone, but at least I’ve got it figured out now.

Thanks, Evie, and Happy Mother’s Day.

You were one great Mommy.