My mother wasn’t always old. She once had a straight spine and strong legs. Legs that rode a bicycle and climbed mountains. She met a man, fell in love, and survived the war years without him, writing and reading hundreds of letters that traveled for days, even weeks, to reach them across the ocean. She once drove a box of a car with a manual transmission to a paying job every day. She navigated a world of ration stamps and cheap retread tires—rubber going to the war effort—and shopped store to store looking for scarce products like a Schick razor to send her love in England. She found beauty in the springtime in a place she never called home. She bought war bonds with money her new husband sent her and a good portion of her own $2000-a-year income. For their future. She once could see, both what was right in front of her and the happiness well ahead. Her life used to be as big as the world.
She had a life before me.
As I stare into the past through these letters, I struggle to reconcile that young woman I never knew with the old one I know better than I ever dreamed I would.
May 21, 1944
George, my dearest –
This has been a good weekend. Two letters from you on Saturday – enough to last until Monday. They bring you close to me. Especially when I realize you’re thinking about the things that are also going through my mind: the things we need to do – the things we’re going to do.
And the things you dream about for the future are just the things I’ve thought much of. And like you I don’t know which is most inviting: the West (northwest — or Colorado) — the Tennessee Valley — or a place in the shadow of the Smokies (on the other side of the mountain).
Perhaps we can have them all. We can take a honeymoon in the West; later get a job with TVA and have a cabin not far away — maybe in N.C. But if we go west first we may like it so well we’ll want to stay. Then, as you said, if you go back to TVA first we may be so satisfied we’ll never get to the West. I’m pleased with all your ideas — they seem to be same as mine. I used to think you might want to settle down in Michigan and after I’ve spent some time here I can see that wouldn’t be hard to understand, though I used to hope you’d prefer some mountains.
I never spend a lot of time thinking about where we’ll spend our time when you get back. But I dream a lot about just being with you forever. It won’t matter much where we are — we’ll be happy together!
I’ll love you always, Stellajoe
I love this letter. So full of life, love, hope. The world was their pearl. And it makes me immeasurably sad as I immerse myself in their young love, their future ahead of them, and at the same time live in the present reality, all of it behind. So far behind.
She has no projects now, save sorting her clothes, or thinking about sorting her clothes. She tries to record her story—or rather her mother’s story—on an obsolete tape recorder she can’t see to operate and for which I can no longer buy tapes, except (hopefully) online.
Now her dreams are nightmares of dying. She struggles to dress herself. She slowly stirs on the stove the maple-favored Malt-o-Meal I measure out for her the night before. She doesn’t climb the stairs or go outside alone. She pushes her walker through the rooms of this house she has lived in for 55 years, running into furniture she used to use as markers as she walked darkly through the rooms, but in the way of the walker now. She won’t move them or eliminate them; she can’t imagine anything other than the way it’s always been. The walker bumps through doorways not built for such conveyances. I laugh to see in my mind my little sister—who never walked but ran—racing on her short legs down the hall through the same doorway into the kitchen, running into the same jamb as she wheeled around the corner.
My mother is utterly alone in spite of those of us walking this journey with her. Her love is forever gone this time. Hope is gone. All that is left is the waiting. Waiting. Waiting to leave this good life she has had and has no more.
This morning, as I transcribed another letter from 1944, I watched over the video monitor as she fumbled in her bedding to find her talking clock to see if it was time to get up or still the middle of the night. Getting up for what? How does she keep going? Is that brave woman who traveled 2300 miles across the country alone to take a job in a city sight unseen, still in there?
Someday I won’t climb mountains, travel alone, dream of the future, either. I won’t be my mother; I’ve never been my mother. I will have my own challenges—different from hers—as I have always had. I probably won’t lose my vision, or be as anxiety-ridden. I might be more grace-filled, more accepting of the way things are when the string gets short—I hope so. I don’t know if I will be as brave.
[Note: My mother is back to herself after a difficult month. My sister and I, and even the hospice nurse, have come to a hesitant conclusion that it was the low-dose anti-depressant that caused the plummet in her mental/emotional/physical health. She just has no tolerance for such medications. I deeply thank you all for your concern and well wishes. We have returned—for now—to the trials with which we are more familar.]