This is a reflection on my mother’s life and a story of my family. I have wanted to write this history for some time, and, hopefully, now that I am doing it, I’ll get the facts right as we go along. Unfortunately, some facts are hard to come by as there are few relatives to ask and my brothers and sisters have their own opinions as to what occurred and why. My oldest sister, Holly, for instance, who is about six-and-a-half years older than me, will correct me on everything when she reads this – especially when it comes to our mother, but also, for that matter, in discussing our family. I love my sister, but it is clear in her mind she is the resident expert on everyone living and dead. Certainly, being next to the youngest doesn’t help my cause in convincing Holly, or even my older sister Allison, or, for that matter, my older brother, Charley, I actually may know what I’m talking about. To be clear, my story is as good as any of my siblings and probably better, but, unfortunately, when it comes to our mother, differing opinions continue to exist between us. Even my younger brother, Jerry, who is a little more than six years younger than me, feels that he knows her better than I do – he says he lived with her longer than me. That’s true, of course. Back in 1970, our mother moved out of our house a month before I turned seventeen and took Jerry with her. I stayed though and was the last to leave a year or so later. In fact, by mutual agreement, I never lived with our mother again. Perhaps, then, this is a story of discovery – a journey into a family, our mother, the lives of those who preceded her, and our lives together.
Of course, there is a reason for writing this now. Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. My wife Karen and I have been married twenty-four years, and together we have a daughter, Helen, who is a sophomore in college. My daughter is named after my mother and my mother’s mother, though neither she nor my wife ever met either of them. My grandmother died as a young woman back in 1935, and my mother was killed in 1977 a year or two before I started dating Karen and that was long before Helen was born. A story for them, too, makes sense, then, when so few stories have been told; especially for Helen, our only child, who carries with her their namesakes. Helen, in particular, is entering a new phase of her life, and I suspect it will be one of great satisfaction, but one of upheaval and turmoil too. If my mother is any indication, it will be a period requiring tremendous decisions on my daughter’s part, decisions that will impact the rest of her life and, perhaps, the lives of many others. A story, then, of choices made by Helen’s namesakes and their ramifications on our family makes sense as Helen works her way through college.
On top of this, there’s some urgency as well. I am flying to Portland, Oregon tomorrow on a business trip that starts with an overnight stay with my brother Jerry and his wife and two children. They have lived in Portland for more than twenty years where Jerry has owned a “take-out” pizzeria. As I live in North Carolina, it has been several years since I have seen them. Jerry’s wife, Susan, called me a few days earlier to tell me that his “take-out” failed about nine months ago and that Jerry has been out of work ever since. She wanted me to know before I got there as things aren’t going well. Okay then! Nothing like spending the night with my little brother who isn’t exactly the most communicative person in our family, and, before taking off for Seattle the next morning, talking to him about his mid-life crisis.
It occurred to me in mowing the lawn earlier today that I should remind Jerry of our mother’s own mid-life crisis. Back in 1964, in a similar scenario, our mother left our father and moved with us kids to a small town in Pennsylvania where she had no connections what so ever but a strong sense that this is where she needed to be. We had lived previously on a farm on the top of the Allegheny Mountains in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, when my father lost his job and he and my mother subsequently separated, my mother, who had been a country club housewife and knew more about art classes, playing golf or bridge, and making a martini than working a nine-to-five job, moved east off of the Alleghenies to Gettysburg two-and-a-half hours away and started over, working first as a fraternity cook and later as a maid. My father, who was a gregarious man and a great entertainer, whether in hosting the annual company picnic or endless dinner parties, who loved us kids and taught us sports and reading and dreaming, who took us to the Presbyterian church every Sunday, to Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games, and to the theatre – my father went back to Pittsburgh, where he and my mother had lived previously and where I was born. My father never recovered from their separation and died of cancer five years later. Holly says that he could have fought his cancer more aggressively but simply chose not to take care of himself. Allison, my sibling closest to me in age, maintains our mother, in leaving him, essentially killed him – in not trying to work out their problems and returning with him to Pittsburgh, she took everything he lived for right out of his life. In spite of this accusation, I think our mother came to realize there was nothing for them in Pittsburgh and their future together was moving in a new direction. When he couldn’t leave his beloved city, she left him.
It is important, I realized, in preparing to talk to Jerry and writing this story, to remember the incredible moments of determination in the face of adversity that occurs throughout our family history; that determination is something in which we all needed to dig deep and find within ourselves – perhaps even, our inheritance; that this is something our children would remember and tell their children – a story about their own parent’s strength and perseverance – just like we talk about with our mother, only without the subsequent deaths, accusations, and ongoing arguments that came as a result.
Categories: My Family Story
It’s our Scottish legacy, that tenacity and perseverance.
By the way, have you read The Scotch-Irish: A Social History & Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart and George Ellison? The latter should be read while visiting the Allison mountain camp.