My Mother’s Birthday Celebration

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I returned from meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio with my brother, my sister and her husband to celebrate my mother’s 95th birthday. My mother has clearly begun to fail. Her memory is no longer good, as we saw a number of times during the visit, and her physical balance isn’t good either. Her energy level is low too. We tried going to a local historical museum to see an exhibition related to Pompeii, but decided not to. She came back to my sister’s place and had a long nap. Then we had a very nice supper, provided by my sister, and sat around talking. It was very pleasant. My mother provided memories of relatives and other people we’d known, but kind of dropped out of the conversation after awhile, until about 9:30 pm, when she said she needed to get home to bed. She lives in the independent living part of an assisted living facility just a few blocks from my sister and her husband.

So I think this is a good opportunity to write something about her and her life. She didn’t have a high public profile, but I think she made a difference in a number of people’s lives, including those of her children. All of us have been at least moderately successful, and I think she had a lot to do with shaping us. For one thing, she read to us regularly, so all of us became interested in reading, which I think is a useful interest. She also interested all of us in music because music was frequently being played on our record player, and she encouraged us to sing. She and my father also decided, I think consciously, not to have a TV in the house, which I think was also a good decision. Television has a lot of good information, but also a lot of useless information, and can also waste a lot of time.

She was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh), before her parents moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio, probably about 1920. Her sister has written an autobiography, and one of the things that impressed me in it was how they had to be constantly cleaning. There were many steel mills in both the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas then, so there was a lot of soot in the air. I also remember, when we used to visit there in the 1950’s, that there was a chemical plant nearby that had an odd smell. Most, if not all those factories are gone now.

She grew up in the Evangelical and Reformed Church (now part of the United Church of Christ—I’ve heard there’s at least one other of those organizations). Interestingly, she had a black friend whom she met, I think, during either Junior High or High School, which was relatively unusual then. When I asked her about it, in recent years, she said that their church had no objection, which I think was probably also unusual then. She and her sisters had relatively liberal sentiments, though by no means radical. They and their brother went to local colleges: their brother to Case University, which was primarily a technical school, and the sisters to Western Reserve, which was a liberal arts school. My mother became a teacher, and worked (I think ) for several years at that after graduating from college.

But one of the things she found enriching in her life happened around the time World War II began. She went to Berea College in Kentucky to learn how to weave, and during that time found out about Pine Mountain Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky, which was started by a wealthy Kentucky woman to serve children of the mountain people in the area. She visited, and decided to work there, which she did for several years. The school was, I think, primarily a boarding school, as a lot of the students didn’t come from the immediate area. All had chores to do, in addition to classes, and one of the emphases of the school was preserving the heritage of the mountain people in terms of stories, music, dances and crafts. After my parents married we lived there for a couple of years, and my first clear memories begin there. My father worked as maintenance man there, but my parents decided to move to Ohio, as the sister who came immediately after me was retarded, and they thought they could find better care for her in Ohio.

So we moved to Salem, where my father grew up, and where his parents and brothers still lived. We rented a place until my father was able to build us a house across the street from one of his brothers, from whom he bought the land. My mother lived there for 44 years, before moving to a nearby assisted living facility with her older sister.

As my mother was busy raising children, she couldn’t do much about the Civil Rights movement going on in the 1950’s and 60’s, but she was interested in it. I remember a comic book my parents bought, probably in the late 50’s, about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, so I was aware of the movement, though I didn’t follow it closely. Later, after my father had died, and we children had left home, my mother’s older sister moved in with her, and they worked together with a museum in town to put together a database of all the black families that had lived in the town. Salem had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, but evidently wasn’t too welcoming to black families who settled there, as most of them moved on.

She worked as an elementary school teacher in Salem for probably about 20 years, before retiring. She (and her younger sister) had a lot of interest in children’s literature, and she exposed us to a fair variety of it. I suspect she also influenced a number of her students during that time too.

She had corresponded with my father during World War II, when he was serving as a Conscientious Objector in a Civilian Public Service camp. Actually, three different camps. He first served in Richmond, Indiana, where he worked for Earlham College (and later got a job there after the war). One of his brothers was a doctor, and served the armed forces in that capacity, while his other brother drove ambulances (in France, I think). My father was the only one of the three to refuse any service with the armed forces, and I think standing up for his principles in that way opened up his life. Besides the friends he made in that service, he corresponded with my mother, met her after the war, and decided to get married. I came along a couple of years later.

I’ve never met anyone who had a bad thing to say about either of my parents. Both were devout—my father had grown up a Quaker, and my mother converted, and I’ve heard that at least one person said she was exactly what a Quaker woman should be. Slightly ironic, since she wasn’t born in that faith. She was concerned about the Civil Rights movement, while my father had a concern that Christians ought to stand together, and drew no distinction between black and white Christians. He attended an ecumenical group from most or all the other churches in town for many years, which was how we met a retired black pastor and his wife, and eventually their son (I don’t recall if we met any other of their children) and his children, so that we knew them before we attended the private Quaker high school where my father and his brothers had been students. My brother, sister, and I were students there too.

I think both my father and mother were pretty exemplary parents, though that wasn’t as unusual then as now, particularly within the Quaker community in which we grew up. I’m afraid a lot of children are less fortunate today, so I have to be grateful to them both. My mother’s long and productive life is now coming to an end, and I think it deserves to be celebrated. She and my father were ordinary people in a lot of ways, but I think not so ordinary beneath the surface. I think people like them were less unusual then, but they seem to be fewer now. It’s easy for people to lose their way, and more seem to now than did then. Maybe there were more lost people then than I was aware of, but I think it’s incontestable that things have gotten worse in this country, and I think if there were more people like my parents now that might not be true. We were always well taken care of, and my parents always provided a good example for us. My mother was always interested in the wider world (my father to a somewhat lesser extent), so I think that’s something all of us got from them.

I’m hoping my mother doesn’t have to be bedridden, or at least not for long, and when her time comes, I hope she can go quickly and easily. She’s led a long and good life, perhaps with some failings, but I think not many. I think a lot of people will miss her when she’s gone, as I think she’s touched a lot of people’s lives. My brother, sister and I agreed we should try to meet for her birthday every year for as long as possible. We’ll have to say goodbye fairly soon, so it makes sense to spend as much time with her as we can before then. I’m afraid the world will be a poorer place without her.

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