I saw a social media post in which someone mentioned — almost in passing — that they didn’t know what it was like to have a mother who did things for them. It was heart-rending, and it reminded me of one time in particular when my mother did something important for me.
It sounds like a relatively simple thing: I was having surgery on my thyroid (it all turned out fine) and my mother came up to help me with that. Not an unusual thing for a mother to do.
But it was a complicated year in my family. During the summer, while I was visiting my sister in New York City, we picked up the Times to see, above the fold, pictures of our hometown underwater. We rushed to call home.
“I can’t talk now,” our mother said. “The boat is here.”
As we learned later, a tropical storm had stalled over the Houston area, dumping 43 inches of rain in 24 hours. By the time my parents realized how bad it was, there was five feet of water on their property. The cars were underwater. My father rode our horse out to get help. Friends sent a boat to collect my mother and grandmother (my father’s mother, who also lived on the property).
At the time, they were also running a small newspaper in Friendswood and several other small towns just outside of Houston. It wasn’t making much money and they were just barely holding things together financially.
After the flood they camped in the ruined house until they finally got a trailer to live in. And they still had to put in 60-hour weeks trying to keep the paper going.
A couple of months later, my cousin with muscular dystrophy landed in the hospital in Washington, D.C., very close to death. My mother’s mother, his grandmother, flew up to help my uncle. And then had a very bad stroke while at the hospital.
My mother went up and spent time, and so did my sister and I, spreading things out to try to help my uncle. My grandmother was harmed enough by the stroke that she soon ended up in a nursing home, which was not the end of life she had wanted.
I was living in Wichita Falls, Texas, running a legal services program. Before I went up to help with my grandmother, I had seen a doctor about intestinal issues and, while they couldn’t find anything wrong with that part of my body, they did find a part of my thyroid working too hard. It seemed reasonable to cut it out and biopsy it (and, as I said, it turned out to be nothing important, but it was scary at the time).
I knew my mother was dealing with so much, with the business, the flood aftermath, and her mother. I didn’t want to add to that. But, of course, I needed to tell my parents about the surgery.
So I called on the Sunday before, when she wasn’t working, and told her surgery was scheduled (for Friday, if I remember right). I figured that by telling her that late, she couldn’t make arrangements to come.
She put the newspaper to bed on Wednesday night, then got up at the crack of dawn on Thursday morning and drove the four hundred miles to Wichita Falls.
She’d have been in her mid-fifties then. From my perspective at the time she was getting older, but from hers (and from mine at the present) she had the energy for things like cross-state drives.
I was so glad to see her. The truth is, the person you want most to see when you’re in a scary situation is your mother. She’s the person who will make it all work out. Even when you are a grown up and know that’s not really true, emotionally, it still feels that way.
She took me to the hospital, stayed with me as long as they let her, and was there when I came out from under the anesthesia.
Pretty much the first words I spoke were, “I’m going to throw up.”
The nurse said, “There, there, dear. You’ll be fine.”
My mother said, “Get a bedpan.” She had experience in these matters and knew very well that if I said I was going to throw up, I was.
She spent the weekend, until I was safely back home and able to look after myself. And then she drove those four hundred miles home and dove back into running the newspaper. And dealing with the flood aftermath. And dealing with her mother.
But here’s one other thing about my mother: I think she might have been happy if she’d never gotten married and had kids. She loved us, but she didn’t love the role of wife and mother. What she loved was putting out newspapers and growing things and swimming.
Like many women who got their first taste of work life during World War II — she went to work on her first newspaper in 1943 — she was angry as hell when the 1950s rolled around and women were supposed to retreat into their suburban homes.
She spent seven years not working, after we’d moved to the place two miles outside the then-tiny town of Friendswood. There was no such thing as day care back then. It was only after I got old enough to drive that she went back to work. And, of course, she practically had to start over professionally.
My mother was often angry, but I think most of that anger was at the misogyny around her, not at her family. You can see a lot of that same anger in the stories of Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr. (My mother was a little younger than Tiptree, a little older than Russ.)
I don’t share that anger, because I came along with second wave feminism, went to law school, and got into martial arts. I get mad, but I feel that I have the power to do more about the misogyny I run into than my mother ever had.
So I doubly appreciate the fact that she took time when her own life was in chaos to take care of me at a point when she no longer had the real duty to do so. I was an adult. I knew how to arrange for the help I might need.
But it was oh, so soothing to have my mother there for those few days to let me know everything was going to be OK.
By the way, a story I wrote about my mother some years back called “Spinster” is now up on Curious Fictions.