Here’S A Tough Question; Maybe The Toughest

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My mother, God bless her, was one in a million. I know every son thinks of his mother that way because of all the selfless things mothers do, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something quite different. Mom was one of those people who never seemed to age. She just went on year after year, looking very much the same as long as I can remember. 

I have pictures taken of Mom in her 40s. I have others of her 70s. You would find it hard to tell them apart if it weren’t for changes in clothing styles. For one thing, Mom’s hair never turned gray, though there a few gray strands here and there, which she always laughed about, saying that four sons did that.

I was very young when I learned that people thought Mom was unusually young looking. It was 1938, my kindergarten year. I had a thin, little, navy blue jacket, which must have been some kind of kid’s style in those days because all the kids wore them. I wore mine to school most chilly days and always hung it up in the “cloak room” as we called the closet where we hung our coats. One day I went to the cloak room after school to get my jacket and it was gone. There was one like it, but made of cheaper cloth. What could I do? I took that one. And then came the oddest coincidence.

That weekend, Mrs. Dissarro, the lady who lived next door, came outside while Mom was sweeping the front porch. They got talking, Mom happened to mention that I had come home with the wrong little blue jacket and Mrs. Dissarro went inside and brought out — of all things! — my jacket. It turned out that her son had come home with the wrong jacket too. We were too young to know each other yet, but by a remarkable coincidence we happened to live right next door to each other. Mom and Mrs. Dissarro traded jackets and then talked about Mom’s four sons, two of them out of high school, and about Mrs. Dissarro’s three sons, also out of high school. Then Mom went inside to put my jacket away. 

Mrs. Dissarro looked at me. “My! Your mother looks so young!”

My dumb comment? “Oh, no! She’s not young! She’s forty-two!”

Mom came out just in time to hear that, and though she should have killed me, she just laughed and said, “Thanks a lot, Tommy!”

I do not remember any other great words I spoke that day, but it is from that incident that I am able to calculate my mother’s birth year: 1896, or 42 years before 1938.

Mom never seemed to age. While Lolly and I were in England planning what we would do after I retired, Mom sent us some photos, and I swear she still looked like a woman in her 40s, although she was 77 at the time. And when we arrived home we saw that the photographs hadn’t lied. It was amazing. 

We made that home visit longer than we should have. We had only a couple of weeks to get ourselves and our two kids more than 2,000 miles across the country to a university, and we also knew we were facing hard times. My meager Air Force retirement, and the equally meager funds from the GI Bill, were not going to put me through college and support a wife and family at the same time. Nevertheless, we had made it a long visit because we knew that a lot of years would go by before we made it home again.

Mom and Lolly always got along like two peas in a pod, and Mom was always thrilled to have someone to cook for and fuss over, so it was, as always, a happy visit — except for one thing. One day Lolly stayed with the kids, then 10 and 12, as I drove Mom to the supermarket. It was a happy enough drive, but as we passed a house down the street Mom let out an uncharacteristic sigh.

I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t want to talk about it. However, after a little gentle prodding she finally told me. It was something I had never thought of. Because Mom had lived so long, all of her brothers and sisters were gone, all five of them, as well as all 11 of Daddy’s side of the family. So were all Mom’s childhood friends. So were all the good friends she had made back in New York and the entire second set of friends she had made in New London. And now, she told me, one of the people in her third set of friends had passed away just a week back.

“Living a long time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Mom told me sadly. “I sometimes think it’s easier to go first.”

Well, that moment of sadness soon passed, swallowed up by the joy of our all being together. Mom was her old self again. Our visit home was great. And I forgot all about what she said. 

Until now, Johnny. Until the last few months.

How long Mom might have lived I do not know. She passed away in 1978 at age 82, the result of a fall. She fell in the kitchen, severely injuring her gall bladder and poisoning her system, which led to her death eight months later. Sadly, when the call came from my brother Charlie, I knew there was no way I could fly home for Mom’s funeral, so I was glad we had stayed as long as possible when we were last home, even though we had barely arrived in time in the small town where I attended college. What a madhouse those days had been! Finding a place to live. Getting the power and gas turned on. Getting household goods delivered and the house set up. Getting the kids enrolled in school and me enrolled in college. And finding a job for Lolly because I was on an accelerated 18-month program, couldn’t work, and she insisted on doing it.

When that sad call came from Charlie we were in the throes of yet another family move. We were in a still-empty house, awaiting the arrival of our household goods, with kids changing schools again, and a very short deadline before I began teaching chemistry and physical science. There was no possible way I could just hop on a plane and fly home. The result was that Mom’s passing was even more of a shock than it might have been because I felt I should be there, but I just could not go.

That talk with Mom about living a long time was years ago. I never gave it a thought until last year, when the world suddenly decided to yank the rug out from under me. One by one the bright lights that had filled our universe, began blinking out. Six old friends went. Just like that. Gone! Then came two telephone calls in one week. Charlie was gone. Then Frank’s wife. And then Frank went, just three days later, the last of my brothers.

Lolly is still here, and I thank God for that, but I thank Him almost as much that she doesn’t know how things have changed, how suddenly empty the world is.

Now, at last, I know what Mom was feeling that day long ago. It is not a good feeling.

So look out, Johnny! Here comes a hard one. If you had your choice ...?

Last Man Standing? Or go first and run the Welcome Wagon?

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