Remembering Aunt Bertha

 Dean, Bertha Mae (Larson) by Cheryl DeanBertha Dean

One of the most respected teachers in Torrance Co. passed away February 27, 2016.

Bertha was born November 24, 1914 in Moorhead, Iowa the daughter of Frank and Effie (Montgomery) Larson. Bertha, her parents and brothers Voyle and Merrill settled in the Estancia Valley in 1932. Bertha began her teaching career when she was eighteen in a one-room school house in Gran Quivera, NM with thirty students, grades one through eight.  She also taught in East View and Pedernal. Bertha taught fourth and sixth grades in Moriarty, retiring in 1976 after thirty-two years in education.  As a dedicated educator she served on the PTA book review and selection committee, participated on a committee for government aid for handicapped children and served as officer in the NM Education Association. She was honored in 1970 as one of the Outstanding Educators of America for her exceptional service and leadership in education, as Teacher of Today three times and  represented Moriarty for State Teacher of the Year in 1975. Bertha received her degree in Elementary Education from UNM in 1959.  Her students remember her as always there to help and inspire them to be the best they could be.

Bertha was a devoted Christian and always tried to teach good Christian values by her example to those around her.  She was one of the founding members of the Moriarty Baptist Church serving in many capacities through the years. Bertha served at the state level for six years on the Board of Directors of the NM Baptist Children’s Home and six years on the NM Baptist Mission Board and was honored by the NM Boys and Girls Ranch for her many years of support. One of her favorite quotes was I have seen yesterday, I love today and I am not afraid of tomorrow.

She enjoyed playing the piano, her flower and vegetable gardens, oil painting, needlepoint and many crafts. Bertha and her husband Bruce traveled in their RV to thirty-five states. In 2003 she took a cruise to Alaska with her daughter Peggy. Her family has many wonderful memories of her “Grandma cookies”, waiting for her Christmas boxes filled with their favorite holiday cookies and candies and special times on the Dean ranch. She will be greatly missed by her family and her many friends.

She is survived by son Dr. Allen Dean and wife Cheryl of Albuquerque, daughters Peggy Dean and Judy Spangler and husband Randall of Dallas, grandchildren Jimmy Thompson, Debbie and Kevin Dean, Larry and Jack Saiz, Rhonda Orr, Brett and Scott Spangler,  8 great grandchildren and 11 great great grandchildren, sister- in- law Zelda Dean and many nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her husband of 62 years Bruce, brothers Voyle and Merrill Larson, sisters-in-law Lois and Frances Larson, Ellis (Dean) Neel, brothers-in-law Crile Dean and Bud Neel and grand-daughter Lisa Spangler.

The family would like to thank Montebello Skilled Nursing for their kindness and care these last years. Also thank you to Ambercare for their support to Bertha and her family these last weeks.

In lieu of flowers you may make donations in her memory to The Ranches, 6209 Hendrix Rd, NE, Albuquerque, NM 87110 or NM Baptist Children’s Home, P.O. Box 629, Portales, NM 88130.

Advertisements

Ear Buds

google images:earbuds

 google images:earbuds

There’s a whole world that travels

from computer or smart phone up the thin

cords through the rubber ear buds

where it bursts into life and dance and frolic

that careens around the gray matter of my brain.

 

I’m wrapped in the swirling strains of Beethoven

and Adele and Liszt and the Beatles and Shostakovich and 60’s Doo Wap,

my imagination freed from the blare of the cooking show

Mother watches on TV, freed to the music,

alive with moods,

images,

words

and letters afloat.

 

The music pulls me into dank, deep forests of

unrealized goals where I wallow, gasping for air,

until weak armed I reach for lofty peaks

of hope in the strife to survive,

until I’m caught and gathered up

on the wisps of daylight

of tomorrow’s possibles.

 

They press glimmers

against the drag of the schedule of care

for this ancient house,

this fading generation,

this memoir to a way of life

that seems stilted to great-great grandchildren;

or to anyone with energy and stamina enough

to venture out into the frantic rush

of the city traffic that’s still alive

in its bustle of existence

and that continues

without either Mother or me.

 

These ear buds keep me tethered

to the expectancy that life won’t always be this.

Be here. Be staid.  Be constricted by age and frailty.

 

The ear bud wires hum,

my ears tingle,

the floating fragments settle

gel and ooze

down my arms

out my fingers on the keyboard

to live again in words on the page.

Family Tree

There’s a man on our family tree that is a mystery to my generation.  His name is there, Lawrence Carr, and his death date, 1930.  That’s all.  No pictures that I could find.  No specific details of his life before he met and married Ellis, my father’s sister; no details of their life together – except this one – he hung himself in the barn after losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash.

I peer over photographs of over eight decades ago, looking for clues.  Who was this man?  How was Ellis impacted by this early marriage that ended in shock and sorrow?  How did the rest of the family react to his short stay in the family?

Charley, Crile, Katie, Ellis Dean and friend, c 1925

Charley, Crile, Katie, Ellis Dean and friend, c 1925

I found this picture of the family in Daddy’s old photograph album. It was taken a few years prior to 1930, probably about 1925.  On the far left is my grandfather, Charley and my grandmother, Katie, with their daughter Ellis, and their youngest son, my father Crile, on a bridge of rough-hewn boards that span a low creek at the edge of a canyon, the walls of the creek held in place by a retaining wall of stones to keep the water from washing the hillside away.  The girl at the far right is about Ellis’ age and is probably a friend or cousin, but I know nothing about her.

As the photograph is in black and white, there are no colors to jump out or inform the mood, rather there are shapes and designs that vary from dark to light, from pattern to solid, from small to large, from rugged rocks to dainty detail on the hats.  There are hints as to the lives lived by these people captured in a casual photo on a cool day.

This is a family that lives and works on a ranch with sheep and horses and cattle just outside the small town of Moriarty, about forty miles northeast of Albuquerque.  Moriarty is flat land covered with sagebrush, some desert plants and a few houses scattered around one main road with a short line of small businesses.  The family’s home, known as the Dean Place, is about five miles out of town, toward the hills.  The town hasn’t changed must in the years between then and now, so it surprises me how trendy this family is dressed.

Grandmother Katie wears a shin length, heavy, dark coat with a wide fur collar and fur cuffs; her hat is a 1920’s cloche with a wide brim that is low on her face, her eyes shaded. At the top of her hat, there is some small decorative piece that reaches for the sky above.  It is small enough that using a magnifying glass doesn’t give much detail, but this is a stylish hat that covers all of her piled up brown hair, gone gray at the sides.  She wears dark stockings and dark, leather flats that lace up the front.

Ellis is about fifteen to sixteen years old, slim and with a vibrancy that suggests energy even as she stands next to her mother.  She’s about the same height as Katie, which suggests she will be taller by the time she gains her full height.  Ellis’ hair is styled in the late Twenties, short, flapper style, bangs drawn across her forehead; her dress is Twenties style loose, straight, ending just below the knee, low waisted and long sleeved, wide lapels along the collar with a contrasting placard opening at the neck; she wears dark hose and low heeled Mary Janes. Her hat, a beret, sits on the crown of her head above her bangs. The look on Ellis’ face is lively and alert; her smile wide, her eyes bright.

My father, Crile, is about five and is perched on the bridge railing between his mother and father. His ankle high leather shoes lace up the front, he wears heavy cotton pants and a long sleeved shirt with either a cowl neck or a scarf around his neck.  The lens caught him with his eyes closed, which is unusual for this wide-eyed child who smiles big for the camera.  I’m told they called him “Hap” as a boy because of his happy nature.  Life on the ranch meant hard work but it also meant freedom to explore and to grow into responsibility.  He told the story of packing up a frying pan, a rasher of bacon, a bedroll and a canteen of water then riding out into the desert on his horse to camp overnight by himself.  He was twelve.  His parents didn’t fear for his safety nor were they afraid he couldn’t handle himself.  He did it for fun.

His father, next to him in the photo, tall and slim, a full head taller than Katie, perches comfortably against the rail, his ankles crossed, hands in the pockets of his cuffed suit slacks, his shirt a long sleeved white and his tie, thin and dark, stops a full three inches above his waist.  His light colored hat is a ten-gallon with a wide brim that hides all of his brown hair with hints at gray to come.

This family, far from a large city, seems right up with the times. Perhaps they copied clothing from the Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue.  They might have gone in to Albuquerque to window shop.  Katie sewed, as did most of the working women of her generation, so as many clothes as possible were made at home. There was plenty of food for the ranch family but actual cash was more rare.

Daddy’s album has no more pictures of the family until about ten years later.  The world did not stand still in that time, nor did the family. The children grew and matured, spread their wings and made choices. Those choices led Ellis and Lawrence Carr together.  Ellis was twenty when she became a widow in 1930, so this was a marriage of her youth.  Daddy talked about how strong willed she was.  She had determination and drive to be something different than a school teacher like her mother or a wife on a ranch.  She moved into Albuquerque after high school and went to secretarial school and I’m guessing it was sometime in those days that Lawrence Carr entered her life.

This was The Roaring Twenties and those years carried with them a feeling of excitement and prosperity for those who had money and for those who could dream of making something of themselves.  The Great World War was behind; the future ahead was bright. The world economy was riding a wave of excess, people borrowed to have the capital to live life to the full, banks allowed borrowing heavily against the value of investments and the speculative bubble of stock values grew until 1929, when the market made a correction that burst the bubble.  Many investors lost everything

Production of goods, that had taken off when money was flowing, were no longer affordable by most as there was no money to pay for goods and food and so businesses and farms began to fail.  The world of the jazz age and gangsters lost their glamour in a wave of financial panic that affected even Europe as Weimar Germany had built up its economy on American loans.  As America demanded payment of those loans, its economy fell and Germany’s politics were ripe for the rise of Nazism.

The Stock Market crash was not the only news of the day.  1929 was the birth year of future Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, who was born in his grandfather’s house in Atlanta, Georgia.  In Chicago, Illinois, gangsters working for Al Capone killed seven rivals and citizens in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  JC Penney opened its Store #1252 in Milford, Delaware, the last state in the Union to have one of their stores. The growth of the nationwide chain indicated the prosperity of the decade only two weeks before the stock market crash of 1929 would ensue.

In other depressing news, The Teapot Dome scandal came to a close when Albert B. Fall, the former Secretary of the Interior, was convicted of accepting a $100,000 bribe for leasing the Elk Hills naval oil reserve. He was sentenced to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

Plummeting stock prices led to losses between 1929 and 1931 of an estimated $50 billion and started the worst American depression in the nation’s history with the economy not fully recovering until war production with WWII.  Some investors took their lives.  Lawrence Carr was one of them.

Still, many found hope and a reason to push forward.  Penicillin was first used to fight infection in 1929.   1930 saw many firsts: Mickey Mouse cartoon strip began; first radio broadcast of “The Lone Ranger”; Planet Pluto was discovered and photographed by Clyde Tombaugh, American astronomer; the first red and green traffic lights were installed in Manhattan, NYC; Clarence Birdseye developed quick freezing for foods; Gandhi began a 300 km protest march; “Blue Angel” starring unknown Marlene Dietrich premiered in the US; synthetic rubber was first produced; Britain, US, Japan, France and Italy signed a naval disarmament agreement; BBC radio reported on April 18, that on this day “There is no news.”; the Great Salmas Earthquake in Iran killed 4,000 people; the sculpted head of George Washington was dedicated at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota; and the Chocolate Chip cookie was invented at Toll House Inn, Whitman, Mass.

Life went on for most, but not for Lawence Carr.  All I have are pictures of the family before he joined it and after he was gone.

Bud and Ellis Neel, Bruce, Crile, Katie and Charley Dean 1935, Dean Place, Moriarty, New Mexico

Bud and Ellis Neel, Bruce, Crile, Katie and       Charley Dean 1935, Dean Place, Moriarty, New Mexico

The next photo I have of Aunt Ellis was taken in 1935, around five years after the death of Lawrence Carr.  The original photo is tiny but with a magnifying glass, I could see intriguing details. It looks like a spur of the moment photo as the family is arranged in front of a car (probably a late 1920’s Ford), the flat, empty high desert of New Mexico stretching out behind them, the car hidden by the people standing in front of it.  There’s Grandfather Charley, dressed much as he was ten years before: long sleeved white shirt and dark, thin tie that ends three inches from his waist and dark suit slacks.  Grandmother Katie wears a light blouse, a slightly darker, flared skirt that ends mid-calf and a sweater with a ruffled border down the sweater front.  Both Charlie and Katie are in their mid-fifties by this time, their hair has gone white and they are looking older and less energetic than they did in the 1925 photo.  A row of bushes directly in front of the car hides most of the feet in the photo, but the dust that blows across the desert can be seen on Charlie’s and Katie’s serviceable shoes.

The oldest son, Bruce, is looking in his prime at twenty-seven with a dark mustache, slicked back, dark hair, long sleeved, white dress shirt, dark slacks and light colored, thin tie.  Both his arms and his ankles are crossed as he leans casually against the fender in front of his brother, Crile, who at fifteen sits on top of the fender and rests his chin on Bruce’s shoulder. Crile’s face is shaded by a light colored, banded, fedora hat tipped down over one eye. The weather must be warm as Crile is wearing a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow and light colored cotton pants, his work shoes covered with dust.  Crile looks like contained energy, as if this pose won’t last long.

To the left of Bruce is Ellis, who is again up to date in the latest fashion with a short sleeved, light colored blouse tucked into Katherine Hepburn style palazzo pants; her hat a close fitting beret. Her smile is wide and her body is slightly angled towards the man to her right, F.M. “Bud” Neel, her second husband. Bud is angled toward Ellis, her right hand tucked into the curve of his arm.  Bud wears a light colored shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbow, light pants and dark belt and his hat is a wide brim fedora.  He looks strong, confident and in control.  Ellis is taller than Katie in this photo but still more than a head shorter than Bud.

My father, Crile, must have told Mother the history of his family, but by the time we kids were old enough to care to listen, it was Mother who was the historian and told the stories so it was from her that we learned Ellis had been married to Lawrence Carr before she married Uncle Bud.

We spent our growing up years in California and Nevada while the rest of Mother’s and Daddy’s families were in Moriarty and Albuquerque, New Mexico.  About once every four years we took trips back across the deserts of the Southwest to see extended family which made us mostly strangers who had to get reacquainted on each visit.  I don’t recall a time in those trips that anyone talked of Aunt Ellis’ husband, Lawrence.  A suicide by one’s first husband would hardly be topic for polite conversation.  Instead those trips were jam packed with visits with the living as we moved from house to house, making full use of their generosity to feed and house two adults and four kids.

Uncle Bud was a genial person who loved to tease and never met a stranger. I remember him fondly.  I remember he and Ellis were deeply devoted to each other and their relationship, at least to my childhood and teenage eyes, was strong and exclusive.

I’ve often wondered if Bud was the opposite of Lawrence; if Ellis was swallowed by the relationship in response to the loss and betrayal of a young husband who couldn’t handle stress and difficulty.  Not that she was retiring or shy or house bound, after all this was the girl who left the small town ranch for the big city of Albuquerque, who wore pants that scandalized her conservative family and who worked for more than thirty years as legal secretary to an Albuquerque attorney, but her life outside the work world was Bud and his life with horses and the Shriners.  Bud and Ellis had no children, which added to their two-some solidarity.  Some portion of their summers were spent at their cabin in the mountains above Albuquerque and included involvement in the lives of Bruce’s children as well as Bud’s nieces, but we kids, the children of Crile, were too far away to be included in those times.

Still, Daddy and Mother stayed in touch with Ellis and Bud and saw them whenever a trip to New Mexico was possible.  After I grew up, Daddy and Mother began going to the extended family reunion in New Mexico where Ellis and Bruce and their spouses got together with their cousins on their mother Katie’s side.  I took work vacations and met Daddy and Mother at three or four of those reunions and enjoyed getting better acquainted on those trips with Ellis and Bud, and Bruce and his wife, Bertha.

The last time I was able to spend time with Ellis was in Albuquerque when she was ninety-nine.  Bud had died nearly thirty years earlier and she had sold her home in Albuquerque and had taken an apartment in an assisted living community.  At that time she had a two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen but didn’t like cooking so used her walker to go to the dining hall for lunch and dinner.  She was pleased to see me and was anxious to go with me across town to another assisted living home to visit Bruce’s wife, Bertha, ninety-eight, in her one bedroom apartment.  Uncle Bruce had been dead about twenty years.

Ellis Neel, May 2010

Ellis Neel, May 2010

On this trip we were again semi-strangers who needed to get acquainted.  We talked about family and about Ellis’ house and her life after giving up her home.  I thought I might not have another chance, so I found the courage to ask her about Lawrence Carr.

“Who?” she asked as we stepped into the elevator on our way to the dining room.

“Lawrence Carr?  Your first husband who killed himself?”  I pushed the button for the first floor.

“Oh,” she paused as she thought, “that was so long ago.  I’ve forgotten,” she said as the door opened and the sound of tinkling silverware and chatting people drew us from the elevator.

She was tiny and frail with a full head of short, white hair.  She carefully made her way ahead of me into the dining room and found a table.  Lawrence was not mentioned again.  It had been nearly eighty years by that time and she had moved on.

Handyman – Protector

image:Mother's flower garden

image:Mother’s flower garden

 

Rock strength rescues fearful female,

bug halts in skitter across the floor,

spider loses its web

faucet leak, blown fuse, garden weeds

coughing carburetor, flopping slapping tire

dead battery, stopped up gutter –

no match for Daddy’s prowess.

 

Yet, not quick enough

or rescue sufficient

for Mother.

She fussed

worried

nagged.

 

Resolution required but patience,

Understanding carved from busy schedule;

Payment a smile, a hot meal,

cool lemonade.

 

Their dance of need and service

swung round and round across the decades.

 

Until he was gone.  Until I stepped into his

too big shoes.  Until I flopped around

unbalanced, sagging

under her “honey-do list.”

 

Her slightest whine, her merest look

should telegraph her need, right?

It did for Daddy.  I demand she ask.

I demand of myself that I wait for her to ask.

 

“Oh, for a man!” she laments when

anything goes wrong.

 

She lost her handyman, her dance partner. I lost

my pillar of strength, bedrock

who had freed me to wander far away,

secure the foundation would never waver.

 

She wobbles without him.

I carry on.

We miss him.

Survivor

Winter in Sparks , Nevada 1960's

Crile R. Dean – Winter, Sparks , Nevada 1960’s

Daddy is from a generation that worked hard.  That never feared sweat and toil.  He grew up on the land, took care of animals and studied late in the night to be the best he could be.

All my life his big hands tackled plumbing and electrical and automotive tasks.  He climbed, fearless, to the roof to patch leaks.  He ascended to the top of the thirty foot apricot tree to cut off a dead branch.  No qualms.

I’m sick and can’t sit up in my seat in class any longer.  My third grade teacher says, go to the nurse.  The nurse feels my head and says, lie down awhile.  I remember thinking, lying down feels good. 

I stretch.  Open my eyes.  No lights.  Dead silence.  No kid noise in the halls.  No teachers talking.  No one laughing or running or hitting the tether-ball on the playground.  No nurse.

Where is everyone?  My heartbeat is so loud my ears hurt.  My chest hurts.  I’m hot all over.  My queasy stomach forgotten.

“What are you doing here?”  The principal says as I stand in his doorway.

“I was sick.  I went to the nurse.  She didn’t wake me.  She left me.”

“Let’s get you home.”

I hope I’m so small in the front seat of the Principal’s car that no one will see me.  We pass kids on the street.  Playing ball.  Walking. Talking. Laughing.  Every head turns our way.  Kids know the Principal’s car.  Now they know I’m in his car.

My face is hot. I want to disappear.  Everyone will think I’ve done something wrong.

“Thank you,” Daddy smiles broadly at the Principal, “for getting her home safe,” he shakes the Principal’s hand, “no harm done.”

No harm done?  I’ll never go to the nurse’s office again.

Daddy cared for us.  He mended the arm of my sister’s glasses.  He maneuvered tiny tweezers to repair Mother’s necklace chain.  He laid brick and cinder block walls.  He mowed the lawn and used the edger with gusto, all with pride in a job well done.  He planted grapes and fruit trees and worked hard in their harvest.  He shared the bounty with friends and strangers.  He loved life.  He laughed and smiled and believed all could be conquered.

I feel sick all over but I’d rather be sick in class than go to the nurse’s office.  That’s a place to avoid like the plague.  If I can hold on another fifteen minutes, school will be out. 

“Did you go to the nurse?” Mother takes my temperature, “Measles.  Sixteen is old for measles.  Go to bed.  Why didn’t you come home early?”

I just want to lie down and block out everything.

I wake to distant sounds of family around the supper table.  It’s dark in my room.  I’m hot.  Parched.  Safe at home. 

Then I’m eight years old again and waking in that deserted nurse’s office. 

I haven’t thought of that since it happened.  No wonder I avoided the nurse today.  I smile in the dark.  I’m not that little girl any more. I’ll be strong, like Daddy is strong.

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980's, with Uncle Bruce observing

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980’s, with Uncle Bruce observing

I remember Daddy working under the car in the garage.  Oil change, transmission repair, tires patched, some busted blown broken component replaced – whatever it took – so the car would once again go.

I remember we sat stopped off the side of Route 66, the Arizona desert undulating pinks and browns and beiges in the sweltering 100 plus degrees of an August day, while Daddy changed a blown tired.  We kids squabbled about the sticky back seat in the constant furnace blast of air that is summer, while in the front seat, Mother looked faint, anxious and exhausted.

It really ticks me off that I have Mother’s stamina.  Or lack of stamina.  She fatigued.  I fatigue.  I swore I’d be like Daddy.  Strong, independent, capable, positive. Healthy.

Not like Mother.  Tired.  Weepy.  Stressed out.  She spent three months in bed after a hysterectomy, then had pneumonia, then a lupus type flare-up that cleared up as mysteriously as it had come.  Always something wrong. 

I won’t be like her.  Yet here I am.  Had to change my entire diet to stop constant sinus infections that morph into bronchitis.  Funky hormones that don’t work right.  Thyroid disease.  I’ll be on meds the rest of my life.  Really ticks me off. 

Daddy did whatever it took to take care of us.  Even when it meant auto repair work that was dirty and greasy and often held up our well-laid plans.  I remember I thought when I grew up I’d have enough money to pay for such jobs.  No getting dirty for the man in my life.  No waiting by the side of the road for a maybe-maybe not rescue.

Except no man ever measured up.  No man ever rode to my rescue.  Instead it was me who had to pay for repairs.  It was me who had to find solutions.  I remember long distance calls as I sat alongside the highway waiting for the tow truck.

“Here’s what it sounded like, Daddy,” I’d say, “what do I tell the mechanic?”

Breathe deeply, girl.  How would Daddy handle it?  He’d be grateful for another day of life, another opportunity to be positive with those around him.  He was cheerful. He knew God made him and he could trust God for who he was.

I have to choose.  Believe.  Deal with who I am and what my body needs.  What’s the alternative?  Get mad?  Get depressed?  Avoid doctors and nurses offices?  Binge on problematic foods and suffer the consequences?  Give in to needing to be pampered, like Mother?

There’s no contest. I won’t be like her.  I can’t change the way I was made.  I can control how I respond.  Like Daddy or like Mother.

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990's

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990’s

I sit in the house that was Daddy and Mother’s and marvel that he was my retirement age when they moved in here.  My age when he poured concrete and installed the heating/cooling unit, built the back porch overhang, ran electrical wiring for lamps where the old Craftsman style house needed more electrical outlets, replaced the shower stall, added cabinets to a bare kitchen wall, hung a microwave, toaster and electric can opener under those same cabinets, hung shelf brackets on the walls for shelves that now hold books, two and three rows deep.  And he did all this while working a full-time job that included hours on the highway.  He may be gone now, his earthly productiveness finished, but I see him everywhere I look.

My retirement is an unexpected journey: freedom to not be in the mad paced work world; freedom to have energy for exercise; freedom to learn new things; to take classes; to write; to cook, which is a toss-up – successful meal or hardly edible – freedom to be the best I can be, and most surprising, freedom to be at peace with Mother.

By the time Daddy had slowed in age and had stopped trying to repair automobiles with their computer components and modern molded plastic parts, I’d learned to do some rehab and repair items with my own hands.  Though never as detailed as the skills Daddy had and never with the power that flowed from his large hands.

He walked three miles a day up until six months before he died.  Cancer.  Something takes each of us at the end, right?  He was six weeks away from eighty-nine.  He loved life and lived it fully.  He believed he was headed to a place without pain or limitations or suffering. I believe, too.  I’ll see him there, one day.

Meanwhile, life in this old house continues for Mother and me.  I’m here so her days will end in her own home.

She has surprised me by learning to let go of the expectation I could do what Daddy did.  While I didn’t inherit his big hands or his strength, I did inherit his work principle and his belief in joy and love.  The bedrock he gave my life lives.  I decide to laugh and believe that all can be conquered. And some days I see a glimmer of Mother deciding to give up her worry.

Mother keeps on going.  Through the pain of a twisted spine, crooked and hurting hips, heart disease, swollen legs, heavy medications with weird side effects, she keeps moving.  She’s nearly eighty-eight.  She might have it easier in these late days if she’d kept moving and walking years ago.  If she’d changed her diet and dealt with her swollen legs in the decades before heart disease took over.

Still, I’ve come to the late realization that she’s much more of a fighter than I ever knew.  She’s stubborn and no one will stop her until she’s ready to stop.

“Quit nagging me to eat,” she pushes her plate away.  She looks small and frail after two months bedfast with bruising and sores on her leg.  She lost her appetite and went down another ten pounds.

“Are you ready to quit,” I stand next to her in her permanent spot at the dining room table, hands on my hips, and try to keep the frustration out of my voice, “ready to go home to God?  Ready to finish this life?”

She doesn’t look at me.

“Because if you don’t eat, that’s what will happen.”  I watch her as she thinks it over.

She pulls her plate back and takes another bite, “No.  I’m not ready to go.”

Mother - all dressed up for church

Mother – all dressed up for church

That was last month.  Now she’s back making her own breakfast.  Gets herself dressed.  Pulls on compression hose.  Takes her vitamins and medications.  Moves around the house again.  Her weight is up two pounds.

Maybe it’s ok for me to be like Mother.  She’s a survivor.  Daddy was a survivor.  I can take the best from both of them.  I’m a survivor.

Cornbread

cornbread in iron skillet

google images:simplyrecipes.com

How hard can it be to make a pan of cornbread?

We grew up eating cornbread with a big pot of pinto beans.  Two or three times a month.  Maybe more.

I must have seen Mother make cornbread back then.   Plus, I’ve watched her make it many times since moving back into the house when Daddy got sick.

She does it from memory in no time at all.  In fact, the day she collapsed with heart failure, she’d made a pan of cornbread just a few hours earlier.  That’s kind of amazing.

I find a recipe and start pulling the ingredients together.

“This summer,” Mother lifts a hot pot of brewed tea leaves and pours it into the gallon pitcher, “I’ll teach you two how to cook,” her cheeks are red from the heat of the boiled water. They match the red polka dots on her sleeveless white blouse.

I’m sixteen and intent on making a new dress.  I lean over the kitchen table fitting a McCall’s pattern onto three yards of soft gray cotton.

“Uh,” my fingers dig out a straight pin from the pin box and I pin the sleeve pattern to the fabric, “I need to make my dress, Mother.”  The dress will have a double row of buttons down the front and decorative white plackets.  I saw a photo of Audrey Hepburn in a dress similar.  I have visions of how classy this dress will look.

Mother turns back to the counter, opens the sugar canister, scoops sugar and dumps it into the hot tea.  She’s looks slim and healthy with tanned arms and legs from days spent digging in her flower and vegetable garden in the back yard.  I wish I were that slim.

“I can’t, Momma,” Winzona, thirteen, blond hair flying, breezes through the kitchen on her way to the back door, “I’m playing ball with the kids on the street.”

Mother hasn’t made cornbread in months.  She hasn’t cooked anything in months.  “Mother, how much oil do I heat up in the iron skillet before putting in the batter?”

Getting food on the table is up to me these days.  She may be losing weight because I’ve been cooking high protein/low carb stuff.  Which is how I eat and how I feel best.  Might not be how she’d feel best.

So, how hard can it be to give her some bread that she can slather up with butter?  Low fat butter that is.  Mustn’t aggravate her acid reflux.

“What?”

Talking to her has woken her up in her chair in front of the TV.  She mutes the TV and I repeat my question.

“Just enough to cover the bottom,” she answers and turns the TV sound up again.

I get the eggs, milk and salt mixed in with the corn meal and flour and slide the skillet into the hot oven.

Whew.  That wasn’t hard.  I’m rather proud of myself as I clean off the butcher board island and put stuff back.  Corn meal goes on the counter by the sink; Lite Salt goes on the counter by the stove; recipe goes in the pantry in the recipe box.  As I reach for the recipe box, my eyes catch the ingredients list.

Uh oh.  Forgot the cup of oil.  Quick, get the pan out of the oven and stir in the oil.  The hot air hits me in the face and flutters my hair back.  I squint to keep my contact lenses from drying out.

Oops, the skillet was hot going in so the batter is all ready getting crusty.  Oh well, can’t be helped.  And anyway, at least it now has more liquid.  It should be ok.  Maybe.

“How will you survive and take care of your own family,” she pours hot tea from the pitcher into a tall glass filled with ice, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“Mother, look at this pattern piece,” I hold up the collar pattern.  Maybe she’ll get off the cooking kick if I distract her, “do I put this on the bias of the fabric?”

The cornbread smells great.  Looks golden brown when the timer goes off.  The hamburger-tomato-squash stew is hot, the fresh vegetables are sliced; the table is set.  We’re just about ready.

“Sweetened Iced tea, Mother?”

“Lots of ice, please.”

I pull the cornbread out of the oven using two hot pads and two hands.  The skillet is heavy.  Which is part of the reason Mother isn’t cooking these days.  Too much pain in her twisted fingers.  Not enough energy or strength.

I look critically at the cornbread.  Ok, Mother’s cornbread normally has a nice rounded top that rises above the skillet.  This one is pretty flat and doesn’t look much thicker than when I put it in the skillet.

Was I supposed to add baking soda?  Pull out the recipe and check.  Yep.  There it is.  How did I miss that?

“Hope it’s edible,” I set it on the table and cut Mother a slice.

She butters her slice and takes a bite.

“I forgot the oil and had to add it after it was in the oven.”

“Did you put in baking soda?”

“I confess.  I did not.”

Mother takes another bite, “it tastes ok.”

“Just pretty dense and flat,” I salt my stew.

We eat and watch TV.

The last couple of months have been rough for Mother but she’s feeling better and again gets dressed every day; she takes care of her hair, walks to the front drapes to close them as it gets dark in the evenings, moves around the house again.  My cooking just might be the incentive she needs to decide she can find the stamina to get back to the kitchen.  I’ve seen her push herself to do other things she wants to do.  Like get out again on Sundays to go to church.

“How will you take care of yourself,” Mother washes the strawberries we bought at a roadside stand, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“The same way I took care of myself and ate just fine since I left home forty years ago, Mother.”

She mutes the TV at the commercial and says carefully, so as not to offend, “I find it works best to get all my ingredients together before I start so that I don’t forget anything.”

“You say that like I intend to do this again,” I ladle another serving of stew into my bowl.  “Cornbread is up to you, Mother.”

Softball

flowers in a sunny meadow

google images

We were twelve.  The sun shone.  Our hunger had been satisfied with grilled hamburgers and watermelon.  We sat Indian style on the grass.  He was cute.  Short blond hair, light brown eyes and nice smile made me happy to be with him.  He slowly leaned sideways, until his head almost touched his knees.  I watched his head lower, his face turned toward me, his eyes on mine.  I was fascinated.

KA-WHACK!  A softball smacked my forehead.  Pain exploded and my world spun.  I was knocked backwards like a bowling pin, my legs still tucked under me.  The world went upside down, voices whirled around and echoed from someplace far away; my ears rang like falling stalactites cracking on hard cavern ground.  Everything went black.

The softball game stalled.  Light came back and hurt my eyes.

“Didn’t you see it,” he asked?

It hurt to shake my head.

Someone yelled, “Is she ok?”

The men and older boys resumed their game.  My head still spun.

“Honey,” my mother called, “come over here.”

I got up on wobbly legs, climbed back through the fence and went to the picnic tables where my mother sat with the women and small children.  I needed sweetened iced tea and something cold for my throbbing head.

I didn’t need my mother fussing over me; telling me I should have known better than to get close to the ball field.

Meadow.  An impromptu baseball diamond in a grassy meadow at a Saturday church picnic.  But, it was pointless to correct her.  She would worry if I were wrapped in cotton.  As for me, I felt embarrassed and abandoned that no one had protected me from that ball.  Who was the outfielder, anyway?

In the summers since that sunny day, I never did do much baseball watching.  Didn’t get into the sport.  After all, I wasn’t there for the game, all those years ago.  I was there with the cute guy.  Apparently it’s a guy thing to watch the game and talk to a girl…and assume she’s aware of the game and will see the ball flying right toward her.