My mother was one of the most forgiving people I've known, and if she were alive to read this column, I'm sure she'd say nothing about its being almost a week late for Mother's Day. A mother's forgiveness includes broken deadlines, unless of course, that mother is an editor, too.
She was an only child, a farm girl who spent many of her formative hours alone in an Ohio barnyard with a dog named Pudgy and a goat named Archie. She read a lot, talked to herself, dressed the animals in human clothes, dreamed of the day she'd leave the confines of Kenton, Ohio, for a larger world. By way of bragging, I will note that she was tall, conspicuously pretty, and class valedictorian.
Upon graduation from high school, she spread a map of the United States before her, closed her eyes and dropped a fingertip to the republic: Denver got the nod. A short time later she was there, living in the Y, working as a secretary.
Two things stand out when I think about her: her independence, and her lifelong love of goofy animals.
My mother was definitely not one of those infirm souls to whom a pet becomes a religious object. On the farm, the usual fate of kittens was a pillowcase, a few heavy rocks and a trip to the river. Pudgy, in fact, ended up chasing a hedgehog down its hole, and never came out. Life was hard on the farm, for animals as well as people.
No, Mom's love of animals was not borne of some anthropomorphic sentiment, but rather of their entertainment value--the quirkier the critter, the more she liked it. We always had kittens around the house when I was a kid, and Mom taught us to put little squares of tape on their feet so we could watch them do berserk dances. I remember too, that when the kittens were old enough to leave, my mother would make us shampoo them, dry them, put ribbons around their necks, load them into the wagon and try to palm them off on neighbors until we'd given away all we could.
The flip side of her amusement was always tenderness.
Mom was like Noah--she encouraged us to take in animals of all kinds, and we obliged her. We had a rat--a monstrously fat yellow rat named Baby--who lived in the bookshelf, stole household items and hid them behind the record player. We had two alligators purchased at a Tustin five-and-dime for $7.99 each, back in 1964. (Name me a store now where you can get two live alligators and two candy bars for under 17 bucks!) We had a boa constrictor that liked to bite; a tarantula that got out of its cage regularly; a baby chameleon--a true Old World chameleon, not the mislabeled Florida imitation--named Clamp, who got a fly caught in his throat, whereupon Mom actually performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with success.
Later, when I was in my 30s, I would regularly receive in the mail strange animals that Mom had collected in her new home in Northern California: a ringneck snake, a pine sawyer larvae, a blue-tailed skink.
By then, she had landed a great job with the agriculture department of the county, where people would constantly show up with all manner of bugs, reptiles, birds, mammals, wanting to know what they were.
Mom knew that stuff like the back of her hand. "This is a sharp-tailed snake, which is completely harmless, feeds on slugs and is active on warm spring days. Let it go where you found it."
If there was a connection between her love of animals and her fierce independence as a person, I've yet to make it. But in a great many of my memories, she is steeped in a kind of radiant solitude that she carried with her, even in a roomful of people (she loved to entertain).
I have a collection of pictures of her, many as a young woman. To say that she was more beautiful than a movie star is beside the point, and is something probably only a son or daughter (or my father) would see. The real core of the beauty I see in those snapshots is her terrible yearning for freedom, her willingness to stand unsubjugated, unjoined, alone. Staring up at the Lincoln Memorial. Riding a burro down the Grand Canyon. Clutching a surf-mat, bouncing into shore at Huntington Beach.
She was a private person. She did not believe in burdening others, especially her children, with her problems. I saw her cry only once, after the divorce.
Actually, I didn't see her do it at all. I heard her behind the bedroom door, late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep. I wasn't sure what the sound was, at first. I knocked and went in, but I forget now what we said, if anything. I was 17 then, trying to be a man, unsure of what a man does when his mother cries for the first time.
Her favorite saying was "Give me liberty or give me death." She liked the Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me."
As a child, I got low marks in "citizenship." My report card would typically state that "Jeff has leadership abilities but refuses to become a part of the group."
"Well, good for you, T," said Mom.
Divorce and death aside, I think that aloneness is an underrated condition. It builds self-reliance, dignity and a kind of off-center clarity about the world that can't be developed by consensus, political correctness or subscription to the mundane equanimities of the group. It allows imagination to flourish. To speak directly to one's pet goat is a better thing than an A+ in "citizenship."
All of which is just to say, to all mothers here or watching over us from the wide beyond, "Thank you." It's a bit late, but you're the best mother I ever had.
I told her that a few times while she was alive and am very thankful to have had that opportunity and the nominal good sense to take it.
I probably got that from her, too.