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Martha George: A Mother’s Day tribute

Posted by Ron George on May 12, 2018

Mom and me, about 1950: She made small houses seem large.

Mom doesn’t seem like herself, anymore. She’s bedridden and virtually speechless as her brain continues to deteriorate slowly into some form of dementia. She seldom smiles, but just the other day she took my hand and held it to her cheek as she fell asleep.

Mom is still in there, somewhere.

She lives at home with a group of loving caregivers. Her medical care is overseen by a hospice organization, but it’s the caregivers who bring quality-of-life to Mom’s otherwise demoralizing existence. If angels there be, they be at Mom’s house.

It’s disconcerting to see her this way. It’s not what children hope for as their parents grow old. Mom’s 95, and from the neck down she’s healthy as can be. Losing one’s mind – or, at least, the part of it that stays in touch with the world – seems like death in all but name. It doesn’t seem to be the work of a merciful God, if God there be. I do presume, however, that, even in her present state, Mom believes there is a God and that God loves her and all the rest of us, too.

Mom grew up in rural poverty in Central Texas, the eldest of three daughters of a determined piano teacher and a World War I veteran who lived to fish, drink a little and who made a living by the seat of his pants. The man she married was the youngest of five sons of a trucker and sometime bootlegger in the Rio Grande Valley and his tall, quiet wife, a homemaker and onetime foster child.

Mom was born on July 14, 1923, in Salado, Texas, a wide spot in a principal north-south highway between Georgetown and Temple. She and her sisters grew up in rural poverty but didn’t lack for food, clothing or shelter. They may have been farm poor, but they were never destitute. Their kin were hard-scrabble types eking their livings from the land and any other way they could.

Salado folks often gathered on their front porches with fiddles and guitars. The women and children went to Baptist and Methodist churches on Sunday while the men sought refuge fishing the creeks with a nip tucked into their gear. Everyone rendered hogs in the winter and used the lard for soap. Outhouses were the norm, as were deerskins on the broadsides of barns.

Mom’s life seems to have happened to her. She was subject to circumstances and went with the flow. Maybe that’s a truism, but there are other ways of interpreting life – life to be lived, decisions to be made; lived to the full, going places, doing things; life as a fight for survival. Mom enjoyed life and felt safe in her family, but she had no grand plan for the future.

Mom, Dad and me, about 1949: Mom’s marriage to a military officer fueled a desire for stability that seemed thwarted by every move to a new duty station.

She met and married Dad then went here and there all over the country caring for children and keeping the household. She didn’t go to college, and I doubt she ever considered having a career. “Success” was not a marker for her. Her only ambition was rearing healthy children in a safe, secure household and being with her husband in sickness and health until they were parted by death. Love, honor and obey? Yes, but only until “obedience” impinged on her sense of what was best for her family. Then she became resolute in speaking truth to power – to Dad – though seldom in front of the kids and probably without raising her voice.

Dad gets credit in our family for being the disciplinarian, but that’s mostly because he was the punisher. Mom was the disciplinarian, in the proper sense of that word. She taught us our manners and obligations, and by her example, we appropriated values we wouldn’t know we had until we were adults. We learned it was wrong to be abusive, cruel or mean. We learned it was wrong to lie, cheat and steal. We learned right from wrong.

Dad embodied these qualities, too, but Mom was the exemplar at home, where we lived while he went somewhere else to work. We learned to be good, honest people. We didn’t always hit the mark. Who does? In any case, our ethical compass was set at home, mostly by Mom.

I don’t know where Mom got her patience, but it’s legendary among our tribe, an attribute of her love, her gracious disposition; and it extends not only to her sometimes errant children but to everyone she knows. I grew up knowing she expected me to behave, but her discipline was never harsh or driven by ego. She suffered the worst moment of her life giving birth to a daughter she had known for weeks lay dead in her womb. She named the baby Cecilia after her father, and I doubt that she loved her any less than she loved me and my two younger sisters.

Mom’s nurturing came of an intense desire for household harmony. She had learned in childhood that disharmony made for painful separation, dislocation and discord. Yet her mother, beset by poverty and family strife, imbued her daughters with bonds of love and affection that endured throughout their lives.

Mom’s marriage to a military officer fueled a desire for stability that seemed thwarted by every move to a new duty station, but she responded by establishing solid ground in every home we occupied as though we would never move again. Her final home in Corpus Christi became the center of our universe, the principal reason for our being content with the mediocrities of a midsized Texas coastal city often at war with itself.

Mom has always seemed focused less on achieving long-term success than on living one day at a time. She was a homemaker in the best sense of that term, and the homes she made from coast to coast were safe harbors for her family. They weren’t fancy showplaces, but they were places of nourishment and nurture – neat, clean and welcoming. She made small houses seem large.

Mom, Sister Reba and me, 2016: In the long run, Mom has had the greatest impact on all our lives.

Her hospitality was simple and direct, neither overwhelming nor egotistical. She didn’t try to make ostentatious impressions but sought only to meet the needs of all within her walls – husband, children and guests. Her humane values were those of mainline Protestant Christianity, but she didn’t emboss herself or her environment with religious emblems. She lived her faith without touting it, and she bemoaned that she so often fell short of its demands. She was at once frugal and generous and always inclined to accept others at face value. She was intensely loyal to her husband and children, some would say to a fault but others would see it as patience driven by love.

Mom was the reassuring presence on our first day in a new school, the comforter after a painful visit to the dentist or the Navy dispensary in Washington, D.C., where my infected ears were lanced to drain fluid that had collected behind both of my eardrums. She was the Cub Scout den mother and provider of cookies for classroom holiday parties. She may yet remember my first role in a school play as the clown who tickled Santa’s feet so he’d awaken in time to deliver toys on Christmas Eve. She never missed a concert band performance or football game, even though she hated the sport and wished I wouldn’t play. She once chaperoned a 7th-grade dance and embarrassed me by being vigilant about kids’ slow-dancing too close – including her son.

Mom was strict but not a punisher. I don’t recall her ever spanking me; and if she did, well, it probably didn’t hurt anything but my pride. She was quick to forgive but expected decency and honesty from her children. I didn’t always rise to that standard, and I have no doubt she knew it, but it was never a stumbling block to her affection and steadfast love.

Mom’s life, as I recall it, seems to have been lived in orbit around Dad’s. She went where he went, lived where he lived and supported him every step of the way regardless of whether she agreed with his decisions or condoned his conduct. Their principal shared value was providing a decent home for themselves and their children and providing for us the many things that their parents could not provide, especially opportunity in the form of higher education.

Mom’s life has not been as eventful as Dad’s, and my memories of her are not as storied. Dad’s ego simply shone larger than Mom’s. He bragged, told parables and had a professional career. She didn’t. She reminisced from time to time, but generally kept much of herself to herself, even though she gave of herself in all the ways that mattered most to creating a loving home.

In the long run, Mom has had the greatest impact on all our lives.

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