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.