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.

10 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone

  1. What a nice tribute to your Mom. Mine was much the same. She didn’t say much, but when she did we listened. She was kept busy on the farm with the housework and the gardens. She had one of those Kodak fold-out cameras, too. She took many photos. Each one of a family member standing in the yard has a dog in it.

    One of her favorite sayings was “He/She meant well.” when some acquaintance did something stupid. And if someone said, “On the other hand, ” she’d quickly say “She wore a glove.” She thought that was so funny.

    Her idea of a perfect Saturday night was sitting in the living room watching Lawrence Welk’s TV show. She loved his music and danced the polka, too.

    • I also after many years appreciate my mother more , my mom died in “77 . It takes getting older to appreciate just how much they meant. When younger, we are too concerned with our own life and not so much time for moms. My own are great and give me much.

  2. Don’t worry about not remembering the day of your mom’s passing away. I don’t remember that day of my mom. I think my mom would be happy that I remember other times (better times). I think your mom would be pleased that your remember her fondly. Your tribute is touching.

  3. Your right … I never loved or listened to my mom more until she was gone. I won’the say that the world changed after she passed away,but my world was never the same. It’s been 12 years and I will always miss her smile. Her sense of humor and most of all her love. She didn’t have her parents long so she made sure that her 3 children knew they were loved.
    She showed love in many ways , even with her switch… lol yes she believed in spanking. But not abuse . Gerry Blake Brown you were one of a kind and I only hope and pray I was half the Mother you were.

  4. I remember the flyswatter on bare thighs, too!

    My mother’s vision wasn’t too large, but she insisted my sister and I take typing class so we would never have to be a waitress “and stand on your feet all day” like she did. She always had high expectation for grades, including conduct. I remember one of us trying to tell her that a C in conduct was okay because it’s just average. She was very upset – none of my children are average! She also taught us manners: to this day if someone bumps into me I’ll be the one to say sorry, and I still will not cross into someone’s yard or otherwise invade their space or property. She was a tough feisty woman who became a widow with 4 children before she was 40 and had to deal with a very domineering mother her entire life. Miss my mom!

  5. I loved reading the fond, loving memories of your mom as they stirred up nostalgic recollections of my mother!

    It still amazes me how she managed to keep 6 stair-step children in line. Let’s see–there was the backhand, paddle (from the toy with the rubber band and ball removed), bar soap, and the back side of the Fuller hair brush. Some might call this child abuse but all 6 of us adults still agree it was good parenting for that time.
    Her discipline was always laced with life lessons, accountability, and love. Mom would be so honored to see how we all turned out!

    Happy Mother’s Day to all you wonderful moms!

  6. My Mom was very much like your Mom, but the one thing that I remember she always said is that she now, as an adult with children, recognized and appreciated what her own Mom had done for their family. Unlike you, I was with my Mom when she died – even had to sign the order to take her off of life support, so believe me when I say that not remembering the day your Mom died may be a blessing. However, I will say that I was proud to give her the peace that she so much deserved. Now, as I age, I’m becoming more and more like her every day…and I love it…Take care of yourself and Happy Mother’s Day to you and all our Moms who aren’t here anymore…they aren’t forgotten.

  7. I’ve wondered sometimes that my mother had three more after her first (me), since it took her 42 hours of labor to birth me! She said that there was a 6-year span in which she had 3 kids in night-time diapers (plus more daytime ones for the youngest), and most of that time she was lucky enough to have a wringer washer (of course, little Kenny was curious about that, put his arm through the wringer) and an outdoor clothesline she could use when Seattle weather cooperated (otherwise, she hung laundry on the lines in the basement). For some years, we all bathed in an old round washtub.
    During her last years, she finally agreed to move in with me and my cats, though after a few years, we learned she was having TIAs and could no longer spend her days alone while I was at work, and she moved to an adult family home and finally to a nursing home (she had Alzheimer’s [diagnosed by post-mortem autopsy, the only provable method] for those last years, gradually losing memories and the ability to recognize most people. Still, I could always see that she was happy to see me when I visited (several times a week), though I was often unsure whether that day I was her daughter or her sister, such as when she’d ask if I “had seen Mother lately” [her mother had died 40 years before that]. She was unable to get out of bed on her own, had to be dressed and lifted into her wheelchair, but she happily spent her days “driving Mother to _____ [church, shopping, doctor.” Sure, she would have preferred to be back home at my house, but didn’t fuss or complain about it.
    My sister and I had had a serious “end-of-life” discussion with her years before, where we each agreed that at the end, if emergency measure were needed to save our lives, the question had to be asked: would that put us back to a “normal” kind of life?” and if the answer was “No,” then that was the time to say “No” to such measures; it would be our “time” to leave. That made a hard time easier for me and my sister when that time came for Mother, and again a few years later, when it was my sister’s turn.
    I do miss Mother on Mother’s Day, but I still have lots of great memories.

  8. As I was leaving my mom in the hospital for the last time, I told her my dog Recky (short for recalcitrant) was in the car. Not being totally aware of where she was, she offered to take the dog out for a walk. But that was Mom; a wonderful mother and caring human being who became my best friend, not that she coddled me as a child. She set high standards for us, but was ready to fight for us if she found it necessary. I had some of the best moments of my life with Mom’s family: music and hugs and wonderful laughter. The greatest compliment I have ever received was that I was like her.
    I see that my friend Diane Schranck has commented above. We taught high school together many years ago in Houston, Texas. We have even been invited to the 40th reunion there, which is a great compliment to us, possibly as “surrogate” mothers or mentors to students long ago.
    Thanks for your touching tribute; I love to hear stories of the Busks of Bisbee.

  9. Remember the old flyswatter on bare legs! Mom passed away last summer at the age of 91. I miss our long talks and her encouragement. Thanks for sharing memories of yours.

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