A Portrait of My Mother as a Young Woman

I’m taking a drawing class-my first. Last week we drew faces. I had taken to class a photograph of my mother as a young woman. The teacher says, after my first attempt, that the eyes are really good. She helps me see where I otherwise went wrong. I begin again. She says it is hard to draw people we know, we care too much that it be perfect. As I work, though, I begin to know my mother when her whole life stretched ahead of her.

I see in her eyes the woman before she knew she really would find the love of her life; when she hiked in a skirt with her girlfriends all over the Smoky Mountains and worked behind the counter at the five and dime, hoping her monthly bleeding would not soak through the rags before she could get to the ladies’ room during her prescribed brief break, but wearing her coat over her dress just in case. I see in the set of her jaw when she went to college and was told that girls couldn’t be missionaries-to China or anywhere else-and, giving up that dream, studied her bookkeeping lessons and Gregg shorthand (that mystifying language that will die with her generation) by kerosene lantern light in her mother’s boarding house. I see the hope in her eyes when she worked as the secretary to the boss and met my father when he came to her floor in their workplace and asked her out and the future in her not-quite-smile before her lips met his for the first time. I see her courage when the war took her husband away for four years and she moved around the country alone: to Florida, Washington, Michigan, Tennessee; living with her brother’s wife, her mother, her in-laws, strangers. And I see her when he came back, both of them changed, and they moved to Washington to finally begin their life together.

I showed my mother my drawing without telling her who my model had been. She didn’t recognize herself; and, though the second one was better, neither did I. I continued to work on it deep into the inky night, the cat sleeping behind my head and my mother’s breathing in and out over the baby monitor receiver in my room. I became obsessed with trying to catch the way the photographer’s light made her strawberry blond hair translucent; hair that her mother had tied up in rags the night before. I wanted to capture the enigmatic turn of her lips and the glint in her eye. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t do justice to her beauty, but now I do recognize the woman I never knew. When I show it to my mother again, in the light of day, she says the eyes are good.

                                                                          ❧  ❧  ❧

The year my mother was born-1916-the life expectancy of a woman was 54. She had never seen an airplane until Lindbergh flew around the world. Her family had indoor plumbing only once, briefly, when she was growing up in east Tennessee; and they never had a telephone. They had a car off and on, and though they had electricity, they could never afford to turn it on. With no electricity, her family did not have a radio and they kept their food in an icebox, when they had the coins for ice. My mother lived in a dozen houses before she graduated from high school. She dreamed of getting married and living in one house forever.

Mama’s childhood was hardscrabble, with a father-a widower with six children-who abused his 20-years-younger wife. Her mother scraped together an income for her family-including four children of her own that were not wanted by their father and that he tried to abort with drugs from an herbalist that my grandmother pretended to take, and other unspeakable means-as a seamstress and a rooming house proprietor. She didn’t have enough money or encouragement to finish the college degree she dreamed of, her brother scamming her of her savings at her mother’s urging. My mother worked as a secretary and bookkeeper. She typed on a manual typewriter. She lived through the ration-stamp Depression and emerged with all the fears of her dying-off generation: that it will happen again and we had best be ready. She waited out a war like I have never known for her new husband to return. She has lived in this house that I am sharing with her now for more than 50 years and the years have been, finally, relatively carefree. She raised her children and kept the home fires burning and experienced little strife.

Today the life expectancy is 82, up from 66 when I was born in 1952. The space shuttle program has been retired. I live in a house with four toilets, a dishwasher, and a washing machine-as I did in my childhood. I am typing this on a computer on my lap and looking up statistics on the internet. A tiny phone is on the arm of the chair and every once in a while someone sends me a written message on it. My mother is upstairs watching the news on the television. She is 96. She still types, from muscle memory now, on a manual typewriter, from notes written in shorthand with a fat black pen that she can almost see when the light is right.

My father, her love, died nearly twenty years ago after 50 years of marriage. No one looks ahead to the downside years, often lived alone. My mother has moved through these years with the same strength and courage that sustained her in her early years.

Now she faces the next big challenge: the end years-increasing loss of vision, mobility, independence. She struggles with short-term memory loss, but easily recalls who she used to be and the stories of her past. She clings to this life with the same thread of tenacity she held on to in her first twenty years and the last twenty. And I walk with her and I learn from her. I learn how I want to face my own end years, and how I do not-if I have a choice. I try to remember she was not always old.

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