As the rain started to spit and splash, I thought about the many women who have most impacted me. This came on the heels of an hour and a half long gab with someone I value: Beth, my mother-in-law. She lives in Florida; we live in the Northwest so long phone calls are the best we can do most often. The conversation engaged me while finishing laundry, then as I took my usual long walk. I am not a stationary phone user, no matter where I am but she admires that I can power walk and talk at once.
I imagine her in that worn, comfy chair in her living room, feet up, beloved books about her. I would rather be there to share tea and family updates, run errands for her, hear her current viewpoints on her passions of theology mixed with odds and ends of philosophy and psychology, as well as theories on education and youth. She has smart ideas about a wide spectrum of topics. We talk about nearly everything as I did with my own mother. Perhaps more.
She cleared her throat and said, “I find it regrettable that I have to search for words at times, and then have to make do with an inferior word, something not truly accurate. My faculties are slowing down.”
She stated this dilemma with acceptance, but I detected a dash of annoyance.
I suppressed a small laugh, as she was serious. “I have always admired your exacting use of language and still don’t find it lacking. I enjoy talking with you partly for that reason.”
“Well, with my education, all the reading I do, it’s a disappointment at times to face it. My memory is the culprit, I think. It hesitates, doesn’t immediately connect each word together, anymore.”
“Your birthday is coming up. I know you don’t expect to feel fifty or even sixty.”
“No, each decade is a little more slowing down. We aren’t meant to last indefinitely in frail flesh. I’ll be eighty-nine.”
I had forgotten what age she’d be in January– mid-eighties, I thought. I don’t think of her age as we converse. On her birthday I’ll send a specially picked card and gift card to Portland’s fine Powell’s independent bookstore.
I did not say with a chuckle: You’re entitled to have a little loss of memory or razor-sharp language skills! It would seem irrelevant and inane to her. She is used to having her faculties working very well. Now her eyes are worsening, too. Beth made her point and the truth of it presented itself shortly after: a pause and fishing for the perfectly placed word. But we moved on from there without any difficulty. She is remarkable. Not only because she is one year from ninety and mostly intact.
I was on my way to admiring her from the first time we met although my husband, her son, was not close to her then. It seemed she was okay with me. Still, I was half-hippie even in my late twenties, didn’t have a decent job as I was back in college, had two children already from a failed first marriage and a new baby on its way… before even quite marrying her son, father of unborn child. It was terribly embarrassing to me, hard to be in her home. In my parents’ presence, even worse. So I wasn’t sure what to expect at all. But she, as well as the attending and formidable Grandma Suzy, were sociable enough. Perhaps they were too polite to indicate they had doubts. My parents certainly had some and said so. But we did get married and Beth was around here and there, more clearly for than against me. Us.
Who Beth is has begun to slowly unfold over time. I knew she’d received her B.A. degree from Michigan State University in the late nineteen forties and taught elementary and middle school students. After additional education, she taught those with “special needs” as it was designated. She had long ago met and married a Black man in college; it was a nearly forbidden interracial marriage. This was well before most would even consider marrying outside one’s own race. It was hard though they had two capable sons; the marriage ended after some years. She had studied classical piano and still exalts in fine music. A lover of literature, she now reads only nonfiction, a voluminous number of books, even as her eyesight fades and falters. She told me today that she has ordered ahead, to make sure she has what she wants to yet read–before her sight utterly dims. In time, she also became an amateur scholar of Biblical text/translations and is drawn to arcane theological tomes. Religious and metaphysical discussions go deep, are esoteric. My husband and she can go on for a long while on the subjects. I simply share my faith without such critical dissection–which she also appreciates–as truly, I could not compete with her knowledge, her powerful recall of text.
But she has also been a mother-in-law who secretly bought me the perfume called “Anais Anais” after I announced it a potpourri of delights. She didn’t blink an eye but supported me as I tackled complex duties and needs as a stepmother. She has cheered me on as I’ve pursued writing and my career as a social services/mental health provider–and other adjunct passions–rather than chastise me for not being more domestic in orientation. (Neither of us is a happy cook.) I can talk to her about writing better than with most of my peers; she knows the worth of a word instinctively, is a stickler for syntax and grammar. She said the other day that she really enjoys learning about my process; it made my afternoon.
Beth calls to chat if she doesn’t hear from us for awhile and always answers my phone calls with pleasure. But she is as much defined to me by what she does not do: offer advice unless sought; interfere with our decisions; criticize. She is a person who listens, who hears. Her lightning quick mind can impart extraordinary insights, along with a dose of practicality. I have been blessed to have such a mother-in-law. I know she has had painful twists and random downturns in her life, yet she remains open to possibilities. And her frankness can at times startle me off as well as prompt laughter–they both are welcomed in conversation.
As I have also aged, she has frequented my life with considerate gestures, like a beautiful china tea set I use a few times weekly, crystal bells for the Christmas tree. I send her pretty postcards from everywhere we travel and real letters. She remains a champion of a deliberate, thoughtful life and now encourages others to do the same. Her examples of what everyday courage and hope can look like makes me thankful for knowing her. I know she has her faults as we all do–she is not expecting sainthood–but I live a distance away so behold her loveliness easily. The son I married is reflective of some of her attributes as well as interesting quirks. It is fun to hear them chat in full steam after years of warmer, more frequent connection.
It is a wonder that I have rarely felt entirely alone as I’ve trod the proverbial highways and byways. Many of my best teachers were ones I may not have recognized as such at the time, as surely can happen, as we can’t anticipate when a messenger or guide may show up.
But some we do. One was my own mother. I have written much about her here so will not dwell long on her life and ways. Her industriousness, curiosity, creative spirit and zest for life were examples not lost on me. I can still hear her laugh at an absurd incident as well as just for plain old joy, but I also recall how quickly she wept for those who suffered or from her own hurt and frustration. I never saw this as less than a rich humanness and it moved me. Her intuition; love of beauty; grace in grappling with disasters. Her tireless capacity for helping; the take charge attitude and organizational talents–all these strengthened me, prepared me better for my own dreaming and doing. Her deficits only served to make her more uniquely complex, as is true of all people I have known and loved.
Some people speak little or less ably, yet manage to instruct well. When I was in elementary school and my mother taught other children, I from time to time walked after school to her best friend’s house to wait for her. Mom had to drive home from a distance and do errands. Winetta Titus’ house was half a block from Eastlawn Elementary. As soon as I entered her foyer I was, well, at home. My second home, with my second mother. The air was aromatic with food–dinner, snacks, bread or other baked goods–and furniture polish, plus a hint of nail polish or perfume from the hallway where Jo, her daughter’s room was. (Jo was eight years older so I spoke little with her. But stacks of movie celebrity magazines were shared with me. They were considered useless, even tawdry by my parents so I felt a guilty pleasure gawking at the stars.)
Mrs. Titus’ spacious, orderly living room had a back wall comprised of huge windows. I could immediately view the big yard and extravagant garden. Not just a few rows of veggies, but overflowing rows of flowers, many of which seemed achingly beautiful, almost mysterious. Gardening was Mrs. Titus’ happy hobby; she had to have had magic hands, secret knowledge. She also fed birds from various bird feeders attached to windows or on long poles. She tirelessly battled bandit squirrels and sometimes lost; since then I’ve not much fondness for the fluffy-tailed rodents. But just having time to watch all that in play, to wander beyond the elegant French doors that led to patio and yard with nary another pressing thing on my mind–that was heavenly. The birds were like friends of hers, then mine, and she could name them all. I learned to recognize a few of them as well as their songs. And I helped her pick and arrange flowers for colorful bouquets–sometimes got to take a bunch home, a gift I never found less than fabulous. Our own yard had flowers (irises, tulips, gladiolas) lined up at attention alongside the house and garage but not such exotic profusion.
Like my mother, she sewed well and often. I might sit in her sewing room and watch her turn fabric into something useful–memorable quilts, for example. She might ask me to help in the kitchen or at least keep her company. To dry dishes or help make dinner for her daughter and husband, even if it was handing her a measuring cup or peeling a small potato. In my own house there were so many people and such tight schedules of activities for all that I rarely had the luxury of hanging about a kitchen or watching out windows. Mrs. Titus would ask about my day, what I was learning, how my skating or cello lessons were going. It felt a bonus to be asked to stay for dinner. Yes, it was different from home–it was emptier, quieter–but often seemed calmer. When my mother arrived it was a surprise that so much time had passed. I loved how they greeted each other, with hugs and chatter.
If you had met Winetta Titus at a community meeting or in a store you might have said she had a prickly personality, even a bit of severe quality which seemed written on her face with sharp nose and pursed lips. She could be sarcastic, I realized, was quick to fuss at her daughter. She and her husband could have loud fusses–strange to me, as my parents disagreed privately, almost unknown to us. Her sadness floated about at times but there was contentment with her skills and tasks, real joy in her birds and garden. She did volunteer work for many in our city.
Whatever was brewing under the surface of her life, there was a wellspring of kindness. I felt I got the best of her; not once did I doubt her true heart. Some years later when I was furious and aching, adrift and seeking relief in substances, she never judged me, never scolded. I’ll not forget when we crossed paths in church. She silently embraced me and I held on; she whispered she loved me and that life would be good again. That alone carried me forward a long while. I accepted her love and believed that she knew the truth of pressing onward, of surviving.
Mrs. Titus was one who showed me how to be more inclusive, helpful, and appreciative–all by being that way with me. I felt safe with her those early years when her home was a friendly sanctuary.
I, of course, had teachers who mentored me and neighbors were fine examples of accomplished adulthood. Friends of my parents at times seemed more like older aunts (and uncles) and I also enjoyed caring blood aunts. I had more good examples than many.
Often it was female (male, too) writers, artists, dancers and musicians who held powerful places in my life. They might local artists or visiting from afar–we welcomed them in our home, at times–but also those I admired from afar: cellist Jacqueline DuPre; dancer Martha Graham; painter Georgia O’Keefe; folk singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint Marie; writers Madeline L’Engle, Flannery O’Connor and poet Muriel Rukeyser–to name a very few. I once heard the opera singer Leontyne Price perform. Afterwards, via my father’s contacts, I went backstage and got her autograph. Her patient smile lifted me as much as her soaring voice.
Denise Levertov was among the extraordinary poets whose writings I savored, memorized, aspired to learn from as I studied her work. She sadly died in 1997 at age 74 after an illustrious career. It was in 1964 when I bought Levertov’s poetry book O Taste and See, also the title of one of my favorite poems. I still have the book with its yellowed pages, the corners dog-eared for poems I especially liked, phrases check-marked. I would share one here if copyright allowed.
Her deep sensitivity to the natural world soothed me. Her few words revealed a sense of separateness reassured me. Her spiritual quandaries and finally peace helped guide me. Her politics were very personal. As I grew up her work for feminism echoed my own inclinations. I had an ally even though she was just words on paper–they were another real person’s experience, this woman who had done with her life some of what I longed to try. She knew what I wondered over–knew very much more. As she moved through the world she found there sacredness–this resonated with me. I knew someone else saw what I saw, transcribed it exquisitely as I struggled with my own voice as a young writer. She also was honest about many things unjust and ugly; it was painful yet liberating: I was a person who craved to understand the whole picture, all truths of it. Reading her was a small mercy and provided another seed of hope. I regret I never attended a reading. I hadn’t even know until too late that she lived in Seattle, where I might have driven within 3 hours to hear her speak each careful word.
There are so many to whom I feel indebted; they were there at the right moments to aid me on my path. There are those who will never know fame but truly are noteworthy. Those better known can always use one more thank you. I need to praise others often, recount blessings received from their labors, time, creativity and patience. The few mentioned today remain among a large group who gave without fully realizing what they did for the searching, idealistic, wounded and hopeful youth I was. I took with me their probing questions and wide-ranging answers. Their rebellious streaks, prayerful spirits and a compassionate desire to enhance life, not underestimate or denigrate it. I can only hope my living has begun to reflect well on what they taught me. Happily, the learning and my evolution aren’t yet finished.
But I must tell you: I am booking us a flight to Florida. It is time to see my mother-in-law, Beth, face-to-face again, to take her hands in mine and tell her how much I care.