Story of a Mother’s Love and Sacrifice
It sat in the living room, occupying the center of the wall left of the kitchen doorway. Above it copies of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper and Heinrich Hofmann’s 1890 painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane graced the wall. Between these were two gold raised relief wall hangings. I don’t recall the subject matter, but I’m sure there was a biblical context. Flanking the blue mohair sofa was my grandfather’s secretary-desk, one-half of which was filled with books, including a set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedias I found invaluable into my teens.
This sofa was a mainstay in my grandparent’s home. We kids rarely sat on it except when company or relatives came, and on holidays. It was a kind of shrine for my grandmother; I never understood why. The blue mohair sofa dominated one end of the living room. At the other end was my grandfather’s armchair and footstool set in front of one window. Two rocking chairs comprised the remainder of the furniture at that end. My grandfather read in the late afternoon and then again after supper until 9:00 o’clock. My grandmother sat silently in her rocking chair to his right gently rocking while off somewhere in her own thoughts. She never spoke much.
My mother, brother, and I joined my grandparent’s household on August 1, 1951, when my parents’ marriage dissolved, and mother sought a divorce. By taking that step my mother faced a bleak future, but she was determined to do what she had to do to survive and take care of two young sons, ages six and nine. She needed transportation, a job, childcare, a place to live, but, most of all, she needed good advice. Luckily, she found most of what she needed. The divorce settlement afforded her enough money to buy a car, my grandparents invited her to stay with them solving the need to find a place to live and provide childcare, she didn’t apply for the job she worked at for 25 years, they called and offered her one, but the one most important element she needed most, good advice, was sparse and fleeting.
Mother went into a deep depression that summer and fall that lasted for several months. What I remember is that she went to work before I got up, came home late in the afternoon after I came home from school, and soon disappeared into her bedroom. As a six-year-old, I didn’t understand what was happening, but I could sense things were not right, and I added to her woe by telling her every day, “I want to go home”. My cry was a painful reminder of her new reality.
The period from August first through the end of September 1951 was one of the most eventful periods in my life. On my sixth birthday in June we lived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where my father owned and operated a weekly newspaper. We had moved there from Fortville, Indiana the week after the previous Christmas. The summer before, my parent’s marriage had come unglued when the husband of the woman with whom my dad was having an affair showed up at our front door with a pistol intending to shoot him. My mother diffused that situation but threw my dad out and filed for divorce. My parents reconciled for their own reasons. Mom didn’t want to be left alone to raise two sons. My father was buying time. The scandal ruined his business prospects and the four weekly newspapers he published in Fortville were sold. My father then purchased the paper in Missouri. Years later he admitted his attorney had advised him to move out-of-state and if worse came to worse to always keep at least one state between him and his ex-wife.
The Band-Aid failed, and the marriage disintegrated. My father was caught in another affair and this time my mother chose to end the marriage and change her life. I have vague memories of there being something happening but didn’t really comprehend the meaning or significance.
On the first of August 1951, my father drove us from Cape Girardeau to Wabash, Indiana. It was a long drive and a difficult ride for two young boys. We arrived at my grandparent’s house late. It was after midnight. My father basically dumped us out, emptied the car, and drove off. Suddenly I was with old people I hardly knew and in a strange environment. I wanted to go home.
Within the next month, I found myself at the doctor because I suffered leg aches that woke me up in the night. The doctor decided I had rheumatic fever and that my tonsils were somehow affected, and they needed to be removed immediately. The diagnosis was totally wrong, and many years later I discovered the reason for the leg aches; I have flat feet. I remember to this day being strapped to the operating table and having a metal cone put over my mouth and nose and told to count backward. I remember the dream I had as I was waking up. I was falling into a spiral of light split into the spectrum with a rainbow of colors going around and round as I fell deeper and deeper into a bottomless abyss. I remember awakening alone in the hospital bed and ward with its worn 1920s or 1930s fixtures.
Two weeks later my mother took me to enroll in the first grade, but they discovered I was lacking all the required shots and refused my entry until they were duly recorded on my record. I remember mother bringing me to school some days later. I cried when she left. I was seated next to my first friend, an African-American girl, who was kind, friendly, and said she wanted to marry me. It was my first encounter with a person of another race. I didn’t notice. It didn’t matter. It never has. It took me most of that year to adjust to my new life and environment and I was promoted to second grade only because my progress during the last six weeks of school was so spectacular.
Placed strategically across from the blue mohair sofa was a matching blue mohair armchair. Not long after we joined my grandparent’s household my mother added a console RCA television. The TV took up a station at the end of the room opposite from grandfather’s desk with my mother’s bedroom door in between. In the early 1950s, it became the central focus of family entertainment. But my interest in TV was limited to watching movies, especially Westerns, and a few other programs. I was far more interested in being outside, exploring the woods and field at my door known, playing ball, sledding, or just goofing off as kids do.
The early 1950s had some nostalgic moments. Milk was delivered daily by truck. Most groceries were obtained from one of the three mom and pop grocery stores within three blocks, and today, when I close my eyes, I can still smell the distinct aroma of each of those stores. The mailman knew everyone by their first name, and we knew and talked to all our neighbors regularly. The front porch was the summer living room.
Throughout the 1950s the blue mohair sofa and armchair continued to hold sway over the decor in the living room. My mother replaced it for a time with our late 1940s modern furniture, but grandma and grandpa didn’t like them, and after a short trial period out went the new and back came the old.
The one regret of my youth concerns the piano. My father bought a spinet piano and it ended up in mom’s possession. For a while, it sat at the end of the living room next to grandma’s rocking chair. I wanted to learn how to play, but that would have meant lessons and my mother had no money and no one else saw any value in it. My grandparents wanted it removed. A couple years later when I came home and announced I wanted to be a writer my grandfather looked away in disgust and my mother politely informed me that to want to be a writer was good, but I needed to focus on doing something useful. Appreciation for the arts and for artists was viewed with disdain, disgust and having no value. The piano was sold. The mohair blue sofa continued in its place of honor and reverence.
At the time of my parent’s separation and divorce, my mother was 37-years-old. After marrying at 19 she spent her 18 years of marriage giving birth and caring for three sons and had two miscarriages. Her first son died at age five after contracting spinal meningitis followed by polio. It was a devastating loss and she never really recovered. She was devoted to her children and home. The marriage was always rocky. When the divorce came she found herself with no marketable skills, no work experience, and thrust into the America of 1951. My father’s loss was an inconvenience and financial. It was measured in dollars. My mother’s loss was measured in every aspect of life.
Divorce in that time made you a social outcast. The laws were twisted in the male’s favor. Divorced women were seen as easy prey and assumed to be easily available to males, single or not. They were perceived as a threat by married women. At work, she was paid half as much doing the same job better than the men she worked with while having to endure their snide and suggestive remarks and outright sexual harassment. At church, they were often ridiculed and the subject of Sunday sermons. She found her adult Sunday school class continually focused on “divorce” making her feel like she was an agent of the devil for having ended her marriage to a philandering husband who spent money on everything and everyone but his own family.
My mother’s divorce settlement became a kind of treasure chest to be plundered by jealous and greedy relatives who saw an opportunity for themselves, and there was no one to advise her other than a father whose advice on these matters was best ignored.
Somehow, she overcame her depression, bad advice, greedy relatives, finger-pointing congregants, workplace harassment, lack of job experience, poor pay, and having to care for and raise two young sons and told herself she would succeed in raising two responsible, educated, and caring sons and went to work to make it so. I remember many times seeing she was obviously sick and needed to stay home from work, but she would look in the mirror and say to herself, “I don’t have time to be sick” and go out the door to work.
The support money my father had agreed to pay, not surprisingly, never materialized. Over several years mother tried to elicit legal help, but the system was stacked against her and on at least two occasions my father had the help of local and state officials where he resided to keep him one step ahead.
The mohair blue sofa survived until my grandfather died on the eve of my 14th birthday in June 1959. The sofa, matching armchair, my grandfather’s armchair, and ottoman all disappeared in the months following. A page had been turned; a new regime had been installed. The world had turned too. The 1950s were gone. We had changed. America had changed. My world began to look different. I began to understand. The blue mohair sofa I always associated with everything old was gone.
My mother outlasted and outlived all her siblings and most of all the people she ever knew. She shared our home the last six and one-half of her 103 years and seven months of life. In that time, she saw it as her duty to clean her own room, wash her own clothes, and take all the dishes from the dishwasher and wash them by hand when we were not looking. Every day she took delight in grilling me on the contents of the morning newspaper. She held strong opinions and shared them freely. She voted in all elections; a responsibility of citizenship she cherished and took seriously.
When the time came there was never any doubt I would be there when she left. Watching her slow parting with life was difficult at times. She would not give up and allow herself to go peacefully. She felt she had to stay and watch over her family. So, when I leaned over her while she slept and whispered we would all be fine, and it was okay for her to let go and leave this life she looked straight at me later in a lucid moment and said, “I can’t”. That was my mom fighting until the end. She was my first hero. She gave me more than any amount of money could begin to repay. Understanding the depth of her love and sacrifice was and is the key to everything — with or without the blue mohair sofa.