Mother’s Day Memory

I do a lot of my blog thinking and planning while I’m outside getting my steps, and that was the case yesterday. Regular readers already know that many of my blogs have their origins in reminiscences of things long past. In that regard, I’m blessed with having a very good memory. But yesterday I found a surprising hole in those otherwise trusty “little grey cells,” as Hercule Poirot called them.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Here we go again. This is going to be about Evie!” Well, you’re certainly right on that score because Evie Busk is the only mother I ever had. She and my dad, Norman, are the people who made me who and what I am today, both literally and figuratively speaking. So when I was thinking about the Mother’s Day blog, naturally my thoughts turned to them. And that’s when I encountered my memory black hole—I have no idea of how long either one of them has been gone. I don’t remember the exact years or the dates in question. When the call came in about my father, I was at an American Cancer Society overnight Relay for Life with the Cancer Fighting Flamingos. Years later, when the call came about my mother, Bill and I were at the Riverplace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, winding up a book tour.

My folks were married for 68 years. They were able to remain in their own home in Bisbee for much longer than they would have otherwise because my younger brother, Jim ,was there to keep an eye on them. When he passed away at age fifty-one in the summer of 2001 (I remember that year!) the folks were forced to move into assisted living, and that’s where they were when my father died of a sudden stroke. My mother was devastated. According to her, Norman had no right to go off and leave her alone like that after so many years.

Of all her kids, Jim was the apple of Evie’s eye, and those two losses, one after the other, were more than she could bear. She insisted on leaving assisted living and moved in with my younger sister. While there her personality underwent a complete change. She lost the wonderful sense of humor that had sustained our family all the way along. She became manipulative, mean, and spiteful. When she stayed with Bill and me in Tucson for three weeks, she could have me in tears before I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee. My sister and her family made that prickly live-in situation work for four years. Bill and I lasted a total of three weeks. Talk about the weak sister!

Eventually, the decision was made that my mother needed more care than my sister and her family could provide, and my mother was moved to a nursing home facility in Sierra Vista. That’s where she was the last time I visited with her in person. As I recall it was a pleasant conversation although I have no recollection of what we discussed. When Janie called me in Portland months later to say our mother was gone, I didn’t cry because, without Norman by her side, gone was exactly where Evie wanted to be. When it came time for her funeral, I didn’t cry then, either. The tears came later.

My folks always had forenoon coffee together, either at home, at various restaurants around town, or at any number of nearby picnic tables out along some highway or other. They always carried a red-and-white checked oilcloth in the trunk of their various vehicles so they could spread something out over those not so hygienic tables. Their steaming coffee was served from a plaid-covered Scotsman thermos and poured into two faded melamine coffee cups rescued from a garage sale at the high school cafeteria. With the coffee they usually shared a single cinnamon roll which my mother would cut in half with the paring knife she always carried in her purse. (Believe me, Evie’s purse was a wonder and a marvel!)

Is any of this sounding familiar? If you’ve read my Joanna Brady books, you may remember that in Damage Control there’s a very similar scene. In the story readers encounter an elderly couple having forenoon coffee at the picnic area in Coronado Pass at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains. Once finished, they stow their coffee cups, thermos, and table cloth in the trunk of their Buick. The paring knife goes back into the woman’s purse. Leaving the picnic table behind, the couple climbs into their waiting vehicle. Once inside, holding hands but without fastening seatbelts, the old guy puts the car in gear, hits the gas pedal, and away they go flying off the mountainside together.

I believe my folks had hoped to go out just like that, in a Thelma-and-Louise style blaze of glory. My father’s stroke robbed them of that in real life, but I was able to give it to them in fiction, and while I was crafting those scenes, I cried like a baby. It was a writer’s way of honoring my parents, and a writer’s way of grieving for them.

So what memories do I have? There are lots of them related to riding in miserably hot cars on summertime trips from Arizona to South Dakota. My father was always at the wheel while Evie, with a Road Atlas open on her lap, functioned as both navigator and song leader. She knew countless songs—all the words and all the verses. I remember all those long ago times when gathered around the gray formica table at suppertime to eat the food Evie had whipped up in her pressure cooker. (I was terrified of that, but the way. And I remember many summer nights, when we sat with my parents on the cool front porch while our father read to us from the Treasury of the Familiar.

What are my favorite memories of my mother alone? Seeing her lying in the snow at the Wonderland of Rocks teaching Graciella Groppa, a foreign student from Argentina, how to make snow angels. I remember another scene in the Wonderland of Rocks, when, the week after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, my seventy-two year-old mother gave my then fourteen year-old daughter a first hand lesson in tree climbing.

There were always two sides to Evie. The best compliment she ever gave me came in the the mid-seventies, I was living in Bisbee and selling life insurance. One afternoon, while wearing my dress-for-success costume—skirt, blazer, heels, and hose, I left my mother waiting in the car while I walked up onto my sister’s porch. When I came back to the car Evie told me, “You have very nice legs.” I was gobsmacked! As for the most crushing put-down? Once, after letting down my braided hair down to wash it, I thought the waves left behind were downright gorgeous. My mother took one look and said, “Yup, just like the waves on a slop pail!” When it came to Evie’s opinions, you had to take the good with the bad.

My mother was a farm girl who could drive a tractor like nobody’s business, but it wasn’t until we moved to Bisbee and our father was working as a long-haul trucker that she had to learn to drive a car with a standard transmission. I remember sitting in the back seat and hearing one of my older sisters call out the usual warning, “Hold on. Mommy’s going to jerk!”

Evie made three meals a day for a family of nine. Without fail, she washed clothes on Monday and ironed on Tuesday. That’s why, almost sixty years after the event in question, I know for sure that one of the most life-changing phone calls of my life—the one that led to my attending the University of Arizona–occurred on a Tuesday afternoon in May of 1962. Why do I know that? Because, when the phone rang, I answered it, Evie was ironing.

So, no I don’t remember the dates either one of my parents died, and I’m not apologizing for that, either. As Mother’s Day approaches, my heart is too full remembering their lives. And maybe that’s a good thing for all off us to do—remember the good and forget the bad. As that old song says:

Sweet, sweet the memories they gave me.
You can’t beat the memories they gave me.
Memories are made of this.