An Ode That’s Owed

Once upon a time a young woman left her home in Bisbee and set off for the University of Arizona. She was the first member of her nuclear family to attend and graduate from a four-year college.

Eight years later, with her degrees in hand, she was teaching on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, married to the man she had always thought was “the one,” and living in an isolated ranch house miles from the nearest neighbor and/or telephone.

Her husband was a serious drinker who had told her early on that “there was only going to be one writer in their family,” and he was it. Wanting to stay married, she put her own novel writing ambitions aside. But on those long, lonely evenings when he was passed out in his recliner, she sat at the dining room table, writing anyway, jotting off snippets of poetry and hiding them away in the strong box.

She wrote about what she saw around her. A framed photo of her as a bride sat on a nearby table. Unable to afford a photographer, the wedding photos had been taken by friends. The bridal portrait, shot in a church basement, was posed beside the closet where extra chairs were stored. The door was secured with a padlock that was positioned next to the flowing white skirt of her wedding gown. Several years later, when she sat down to write a poem about that bride and that photo, all she could see was the padlock.

One poem was about her concern for a younger sister who seemed to be about to make the same kind of marital mistake she herself had made. She also wrote a poem about their mother, Evie Busk.

When Evie was in the seventh grade, she came down with scarlet fever and missed that year of school. After doing seventh grade for the second time, she was done. She dropped out of school and went to work as a house maid in Minneapolis.

Sitting there, thinking about her poor, uneducated, stay-at-home mother, this is what that arrogant young woman with her newly-minted degrees and dawning feminism scribbled onto the page:

My hopes and fears are alien to her.
When we speak, it is as though our words
Come from two different languages
With no hope of finding an interpreter
To reconcile them.

She has lived her life by the old rules
Spent her time cooking, cleaning, bearing children.
My abandonment of the kitchen
She regards as the ultimate treachery,
A final defection.

I see her as “just a housewife;”
See her years as mother a waste
Of human potential, of intellect, of being.
Until we both can look at one another
With minds washed clean of prejudice,
Until we can see the difference and the value
Of both separate lives, it will be
Impossible for my mother and me
To be sisters.

At that point in that self-important young woman’s life, she couldn’t help but feel incredibly superior to her poor benighted mother. Of course, by then her mother had already raised seven kids while the young woman hadn’t raised any. Once she had children of her own, her derogatory opinions of her mother began to change as she began to see Evie in a whole new light.

She came to appreciate how her mother had cooked three meals a day for all those people all the while keeping track of their school, extracurricular, paper route, and church schedules and responsibilities. She kept the house clean by organizing all those kids into Saturday morning cleaning crews whose weekly chores often ended with a fun game of indoor tag.

The young woman grew to respect the fact that her mother was never one of those “wait ’til your father gets home” kinds of mothers. If misbehavior required it, Evie was perfectly capable of wielding the dreaded fly-swatter all by her little lonesome.

And, as the young woman’s own marriage deteriorated, she came to understand how her parents’ true partnership—a marriage that lasted for sixty-eight years—had thrived on love, hard work, mutual respect, honesty, and humor.

For decades Evie carried an official looking backseat driver’s license in her pocketbook. That came in handy in the latter years of their marriage. Suffering from macular degeneration, she was unable to drive while her husband’s short-term memory loss made it hard for him to remember where he was going or how to get back home. At that point and for the next while, before moving into assisted living, they navigated the streets of Bisbee, with him at the wheel and with her using that still-valid backseat driver’s license to tell him where to turn.

Evie had a marvelous sense of humor, and she was a tomboy at heart. At age 76, in the aftermath of their 50th wedding anniversary celebration, there was a family picnic in the Wonderland of Rocks. Soon, everyone was astonished to see Evie climbing trees with the grandkids. And, despite her “lack of “formal education,” she could whip out NYTimes Crossword Puzzles well into her eighties—something her English major daughter has NEVER been able to do.

Evie was never a complainer. Her head was always filled with a catalog of lyrics, and she filled her children’s lives with songs they sang in four-part harmony.

In the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death, however, Evie seemed to undergo a personality transplant. This once cheerful, hardworking, incredibly kind woman became mean spirited and manipulative. And the now no-longer young woman couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the loving mother who eventually really had become her sister.

It took years for the daughter to understand that, at the end of her life, it’s likely her mother was dealing with an undiagnosed case of dementia which accounted for that disturbing change in personality.

That realization gave the once arrogant and no-longer young woman the chance to let go of those troubling and hurtful more recent memories of her mother and take back the much happier and carefree ones from days gone by.

I hope you’ll forgive my sharing this pean to Evie in honor of Mother’s Day. It’s the least I can do in her honor.

PS: Thanks to my loyal DTR paperback readers, Blessing of the Lost Girls is #5 on this week’s NYTimes bestseller list.

50 thoughts on “An Ode That’s Owed

  1. That was a great tribute to a loving mother. Wonderful that you were able to reach detanté while there was still time. And that you came to understand her later changes before it poisoned all your memories.

  2. What a wonderful read… even though it made me cry. Thank you for sharing. You did a very good job honoring your Mom. My Mom and I were best friends, other than that, our Moms had very similar personalities and physical problems toward the end of their lives. Very touching Judy.

  3. Thank you for telling this to us. My Mom was a busy Iowa farm wife with all that involves. There were five of us to take care of. She raised chickens and sold eggs to buy us the extras. I never saw her just sit at the end of the day. She always had some piece of needlework to keep her mind and hands occupied.

    I never asked her what she’d rather have been doing. It never entered my mind as she seemed so content. She died at 78. Her heart just stopped.

  4. 5 stars for this blog, JA! Lovely tribute. My mum died 16 years ago and I still miss her every day. I feel so lucky to have had her in my life. I just wish she still could be.

  5. How healing it can be when time and our experiences change our perspective for the better! Your ode to your mother reminds me of my own. When I was a child I thought my mother was the meanest one on the block, because she made me practice the piano for half an hour a day, while the other children were playing outside with no chores or responsibilities. But as an adult, realizing how many fun doors my musical knowledge were opening for me, I thanked her repeatedly for that useful discipline. And now, after years of earning my living at other occupations because an uncle had told me, when I was a teenager, that music teaching wasn’t work, I’ve come full circle and am making my living doing just that. Again, my gratitude to my mother’s farsightedness and strength in overcoming my stubbornness. And thank YOU for starting us off in thinking of our mothers with a loving attitude!

  6. This one first made me sad then made me smile, then made me sad and smile again. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to your mom. In some ways it reminds me of my mom, who was the best. I will miss her until I join her.

  7. A lovely tribute to your Mom. Mines been gone 23 years but I still miss her but also still feel blessed that I had her for 56 years (my oldest sister had her for almost 75 years). My mom was 96 when she passed. Your heartfelt tribute was a welcome read this morning on what would have been our son’s 52nd birthday. Throughly enjoyed Blessings Of The Lost Girls. Happy Mother’s Day to you!

  8. Thank you for sharing the memories of your Mom and days gone past. Time has a very noticeable effect on people as is passes. It’s good to remember the people and times, especially our Moms. I will take your lead and remember my Mom this weekend. Even though she’s been gone for decades, there are many memories of the family she raised, just like you have shared with us. Again, thank you…

  9. It’s amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see the past and understand what we couldn’t at the time. Each year, I learn more about how my view of things was no where near accurate. We can’t know what we can’t know, unfortunately. Wish we could understand life better, earlier, and appreciate our parents’ and our lives earlier. As it is, I’m glad to have learned how wrong I was about some things.

    • Catherine, my family was the strong quiet type—Swedish descent. We didn’t show emotion easily. I didn’t know until many years later what was going on with my parents and other relatives. Nothing criminal, but the usual bickering and hurt feelings. It would have helped to have understood it at the time, but that’s the way it was. Mom would excuse bad behavior by saying “They meant well.” 🙂

  10. Wow, what a beautiful tribute and everything you said is so true to many of us.
    thanks for sharing and being there for us.

  11. Beautiful Mothers day tribute. The gifts of love, laughter, and music are among the greatest gifts a mother can give.

  12. I appreciate all your blogs but this one touched me deeply. I wish I had grown mature enough (before my “mama” died) to let that remarkable mother in my life know how much I admired her, both as a mother and a person. It is sad tha too many of us realize what amazing parents we have.

  13. Your message made me cry. Sitting here alone missing my own Mom and sharing the same feelings because of her dementia I thank you for letting the tears flow. Have a blessed day.

  14. I love your story about Evie! She sounds like an incredible person, wife, mother, and dare I say your Best friend!
    Blessings to you on this Mother’s Day!

  15. Ive read all your books and attended many of your book signings. I lost my mom a few years ago, and it was difficult. This is one of the best blogs I have read, and I truly enjoyed it. It seems to speak volumns to all of us. I want to take this time to wish you a very Happy Mothers Day.

  16. Thank you thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful writing. I am like you astonished at people who can do as she did, manage a household of young kids, keep a wonderful sense of humor, and wonder of wonders learn how to climb trees into her sixties seventies with that same of humor…and be able to do the NYTimes crossword puzzle well into her eighties. My grandmother Nan was like that, a beacon to all of us around her, the kind yet tough old lady who would be there for all of us…and meanwhile could do the NYTimes crossword…in ink…no less right up through her late nineties. Her writing went into a long and thoughtful journal that showed what she was made of. She had her faults, but one of them was the humor that saved me and others in our family …and did it with a wry sense of humor. Thanks to your share I can now go back to what Nan meant to all of us. Thank you for an absolutely beautiful piece about your mother! (Oh and I keep each and every one of your journal entries for the past few years, and just query on J A Jance whenever I am down…and get lifted right up! also love having met you three times in my life both here and in Tucson.)

  17. Judy, this was such a wonderful tribute to your mom. You write with such a vulnerable insight into your life that is very heartfelt, emotional and incredibly touching. Thank you for sharing this part of your life. This reflection back to your journey of understanding and appreciating. Like others have mentioned, it not only makes me appreciate you more and get to know you better, but also lets us reflect on our memories of our moms. My mom also died of dementia, but I was fortunate to have her as my best friend too. Going through dementia was the hardest time in our lives. I’m glad I can reflect on all the good times we had together.

  18. Happy Mothers Day JA……pet the dogs and tell your Hubby hey….. maybe a road trip to Az for a book signing is in the near future…..your “Northern Arizona Stalker……yes it’s Dann??

  19. Wow, you sure touched a sensitive timely topic! Thank you for your introspective memories. A lesson for all of us as brought out in everyone’s comments today. My lesson is what an ungrateful, selfish, thoughtless, demanding, self-centered child I was. Wishing for do-overs.
    Happy Mother’s Day!

  20. Wonderful story and so happy about the book rating.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you J. A.

  21. It us amazing how our perspectives to or moms changes as we age. The Commonalities bring you together and you gain respect for all our moms went through. And all they did without us ever asking them to.
    But, most importantly, the love you shared with your mom never goes away.
    And that is what matters.

  22. Thank you for this reminder to remember the farther back good times beyond the near hurtful times. Happy Mother’s Day

  23. Awesome! Congrats on the rating. You so deserve it!! Hoping to catch up with you in the Seattle area/East side to have my hardcover copy signed soon.

  24. Loved everything about your blog today…truly touched my heart. Thinking of my mother and my subsequent mothering of four kids, and, now watching four grandkids entering their adult years, realizing every generation gets the opportunity to get the parenting thing “right”, whatever “right” turns out to be. Wishing you and all your blog mothers a fabulously happy Mother’s Day.

  25. Thank you for sharing. It is amazing how we come to understand our mothers over time.
    This is a wonderful tribute.
    When you write about Bisbee I am transported back to Tombstone Canyon, Warren and other great places in my mind.

  26. What a heart-warming tribute to your mother and your love for her. Here’s wishing you a Happy Mother’s Day with those you hold dear to your heart.

  27. My godmother was my true Mother-figure- She raised not only her four step-children, as well as her three biological daughters, but her second husband’s three orphaned grandchildren, without complaint- She genuinely loved children and rejoiced in and celebrated their accomplishments- She loved her four grandchildren, who loved her-
    On Mother’s Day, I urge those who play the parts of aunt- and- uncle-figures to take comfort in knowing how important they are to the well-being of children in their extended families- Those whose parents are not really cut out to be maternal or paternal, benefit greatly from these “second parents-” Those who have loving parents also benefit from relationships with all kinds of “adjunct” nurturing figures- There is no such thing as “Too much love!”

    Evie Busk was an incredibly gifted mother and all-around person- Thanks SO MUCH for sharing her with us! I always enjoy your stories about her-
    I am also glad that you came to recognize that she was experiencing dementia along with grief at the end- That allows not only you, but all of her fans through you, to appreciate who she really was throughout her long life-

    • So well said…
      My biological mother was in and out of my life, frequently unavailable…
      However, I was blessed by outstanding angels in my life, friends’ parents, neighbors, teachers, modeling positive values and behavior, people who were there for me, who believed in me, caring for me, and encouraging me…giving me what my mother was unable to give.
      My mother lived to be 98, I cared for her and had hours to simply be together.
      She once said, “I did the best I could.” I believed her and told her, “Yes, I know you did.”
      On Mother’s Day my memories and tributes honor my biological mother, and all the angels who were there for me when she was unable to.

  28. Oh, ouch.
    I imagine that many who received this beautifully written omage can directly relate to the same pangs and remembrances of feelings that came too late to make those declarations of love and respect in person to our moms.

    Maybe the best we can do is to remember and then pass on the love we should have given to someone who needs it now.

    Thank you

  29. Your mother would be happy with this post and so proud of you! We do the best we can with what we have. Your mother sounds like a smart woman to me! Happy Mother’s Day! I love your books!

  30. Well, you made me cry. Yes, this once semi-feminist woman announced during a discussion at a family dinner of her husband’s parents’ house that she would determine who she would sleep with – it was her body. Now I absolutely cringe. Apparently, I had forgotten my vows. I had bought the feminist thought, line hook and sinker. What a fool! I am in a loving relationship with my husband and could not be happier, remembering my vows always but never, ever, wanting anything or anyone different. (My in-laws continued to love me and we had a fantastic relationship, dispite my short-lived stupidity.)

  31. Thank you for sharing the story of your Mother. Every thing is different when you step into the other persons shoes. It’s wonderful to have the great memories you have of her in the earlier years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *