The night my Mom passed away, I was staying with my Dad at their house in East Haven, CT. After weeks in the hospital fighting for her life against the side effects of diabetes, her kidneys had failed, so we moved her to a Hospice. The call came in the middle of the night and I rode with my Dad for the 20 minute drive to the facility. On the way, he told me that he needed to see her, to say goodbye. I told her that I wasn’t going to that I wasn’t ready to see her deceased and he understood. He suggested I wait in the chapel while he went to her room. When I entered the chapel, she was there on a gurney. There are moments that sear themselves into your braincells and I can still close my eyes and see her lying there. She was seventy years old and I was forty-six. I am almost seventy now.
In the circles I travel, I know of many men who wondered if their parents really loved them. I never had any doubt. That is to say, I knew my parents did an amazing job of raising us on what, by my standards today, were very limited means. They taught us values and valued education, strict and loving in equal measure. I was a smart (some would say smart-assed) kid who grew up into a smart and successful man. With that success came arrogance, a sense that I was better than my roots. This was particularly true in my forties. While I appreciated my Mom, I didn’t really appreciate her fully as the woman she was. By the time my Dad passed away in 2010, life … and almost twenty years working the 12 Steps … had worn away my certainty that Bud knew best and shown me exactly how lucky I was to have the parents I had. With the help of my brother, Glenn, and my sister, Pat, I was able to read my Dad’s eulogy at his funeral. A true eulogy for my Mom would be far too long, even for a Sunday post, but on this Mother’s Day, I want to say some of what I was too blind to see back in 1990.
My Mom was born Florence Gertrude Pfeiffer in 1920 in Connecticut. She had three siblings, Jim, Marge and Richard. She and my Dad were married during the same week that he was home on leave from the Army Air Corps for appendicitis surgery. Shortly thereafter, she traveled to Casper, Wyoming, where my father was going through basic bomber training. It was during her time in Casper that she wrote to tell her parents she was pregnant and that she was hoping to come back and live with them when Dad was shipped out to Italy as part of a B-24 bomber crew. I was born … and spend the first years of my life … in my grandparents apartment. When Dad returned after the war, we moved to a converted army barracks in New Haven, CT, where, six years later, my brother, Glenn, was born. Three years later, my sister Patti showed up, the first girl on the Reed side of the family in 78 years. We moved to a small ranch house in East Haven in 1953 where Mom would spend the rest of her life.
Mom was the spiritual center of our family, which is to say she was a devout Catholic, no ifs, ands or buts about it. She had novenas said for family and friends when they were in crisis and we wore Miraculous Medals, emblematic of her favorite religious group, the Association of the Miraculous Medal. We were well cared for and well prayed for and yet she knew … and talked about … other religions with respect. I remember one time I wanted to got to the movies on Good Friday. You’d never catch a Jewish person going to the movies on Yom Kippur, she told me. When her friend, Kay, divorced her husband after a nasty marriage, she told me she couldn’t believe that God would want her excommunicated. She read books by Jean Dixon, the psychic, even though the church condemned it, and she was willing to discuss religious issues with me, even when they went counter to her beliefs. I learned the importance of spirituality from Mom but I also learned an open-mindedness that allowed me to find my own answers. Mom was also the glue that held our extended family together. She planned picnics and get-togethers, inviting everyone, even those that didn’t especially get along. When the holidays came and no one wanted to invite her admittedly nasty sister, Mom did so even over my Dad’s half-hearted objections. When Mom passed away, the family drifted apart like feathers in the wind.
Mom was a Renaissance woman for her time. Although she had only a basic education and was home without a car most days, she took it upon herself to learn. While my my father’s thirst for self-education tended toward the scientific and mathematical, Mom’s leaned toward the natural and creative. She gardened and fed the birds, keeping careful track of the varieties that came to our yard. One year, she rescued a baby robin and nursed to to adulthood … once it was released into the wild, she could whistle it down from the trees. It was she who told us when there was a meteor shower or eclipse and she’d be out there with us to see it. When the Connecticut Turnpike was cut through nearby bedrock revealing pockets of crystals, it was Mom who found an article in the New Haven Register and talked Dad into taking us to hunt for some. She bought art books to learn about the Masters and subscribed to a record club to appreciate classical music. When Dad was at work, classical music … or Broadway show or big band music … was likely to be playing on the stereo. Once Dad came home, the stereo was off …. Dad liked it quiet. She took oil painting and charcoal classes at the local high school and what she learned, she taught me.
I don’t think anyone would say that Mom’s life was easy. Dad worked long hours and often she was parenting on her own, and although an occasional wait ’til your father gets home was not beneath her, she was perfectly capable of disciplining us on her own with a quick hand or the yardstick the hung by the stairs. Dad was a wonderful man but he had attitudes toward women that 40 years later would be called chauvinistic … I’m sure he wasn’t always easy to negotiate with, yet it is a credit to them both that I never heard them argue. Patti, Glenn and I were as different as siblings could be … and child rearing is never easy … but she seemed to know how to make each of us feel special. She took care of her mother during her descent into dementia while dealing with her own diabetes, the stress perhaps contributing to the high blood pressure that led to blindness. In her later years, the diabetes got the best of her, costing her a toe, then a foot then part of a leg. And yet through it, she showed amazing grace. I don’t think I ever remember her being bitter, even during her last several weeks in the hospital.
It’s interesting. It seems as if my first 50 years were mostly a reflection of my Dad … math and engineering and working to provide for a family. But gradually, as I’ve aged, I’ve felt my Mom with me more often as I watch the birds in the yard or listen to music. Sometimes, at a classical concert, I think about how much she’d have enjoyed being there. She shows up as I draw and I paint and I write. And I’ve found a spirituality that, while light-years from my mother’s Catholicism, is a clear reflection of her belief in a life of values and of purpose. I just hope that someday, I will have her grace.
I love you, Mom.