Thursday, May 16, 2019

Find your peace, Mom.

My mom died today.

That is so surreal to type. I've lived 52 years knowing that someday I would say those words, but it is still so strange to finally say.

I've had a strained relationship with my mom for a very long time, but that is a whole other blog post. I've wanted to tell Mom's story for a long time now, mainly because I think she has been short-changed in a lot of ways in life. Now is finally the time.

I can only tell it as it has been told to me. I'm sure there might be some who read this who say it is not correct, but I am telling it from Mom's perspective which is likely different from those who knew her. So be it.

Mom was born in South Dakota in 1942. My grandfather was in the Army. I don't know if he was in the Army when she was born, or if he joined later on. I only know that he was in the Army after she was born because she always said she learned to talk in Louisiana (hence her pronunciation of "towel" as "tal" and "wash" as "warsh" according to her).

Eventually, she ended up in Illinois. I don't know how old she was when she moved there; only that she attended high school in Raymond, Illinois.

When Mom was 14, her mother gave birth to a boy. As Mom told the story, everyone in town knew the child was not my grandfather's. In fact, Mom would freely say that she was the child of the town drunk and town whore (her words, not mine). As soon as the child, Rusty, was born, my grandmother moved his crib into Mom's room and told her he was hers to raise.

That's a lot for a 14-year-old girl. At one point as a baby, Rusty got sick and ran a high fever. Mom spoke of sitting up with him all night long, trying to soothe the miserable baby. Rusty ended up with "brain damage" because of the illness that caused him to always have problems developmentally. He never read well. He could sign his name; that was about it.

Sometime during her high school years, she dated a guy named Cliff. Because she had to take Rusty everywhere with her, they had a toddler chaperone on most dates. Cliff was older and in the Navy. He was Mom's first love. Unfortunately, at some point, he ended up cheating on her and having a child with another woman.

I think that experience put the seed of an idea in Mom's mind though. After graduating high school, she decided to join the Navy herself. Keep in mind, it was 1960. Not very many women joined the military at that time. My great grandmother's last words to my mother before she left for boot camp were, "Only bad girls join the military."

I have always wondered if Mom joined the Navy to escape Cliff and his new wife, to escape having to mother her younger sibling, or just to escape all of it. At 18, she had already been a "grown-up" for quite a while.

Mom went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland and later was stationed in Long Beach, California. She had great stories of her Navy time! She worked as a medic (I honestly don't know what her technical title was), and she talked about giving sailors vaccinations in the clinic. Once, a sailor in for shots asked her if it would hurt. She told him that it would not. After she gave him his shot, he immediately said it hurt and bit her on the back of her hand. He bit hard enough to break the skin. She said that she developed an infection from it. The sailor was not punished, but eventually, he had to come through for shots again. When he did, instead of giving him the vaccination he was in for, she gave him a shot of isopropyl alcohol. Apparently, that "stings like a bitch."

Mom was a bit of a badass.

Another story that I heard many times was of a guy who asked Mom out while she was in the Navy. He bragged to his buddies that he would "get in her pants." Fortunately for my mother, one of the buddies told her his plans. Mom played along, going to a hotel with him. She told him to get comfortable and went to the bathroom to "get ready" only to come back out with a bucket of cold water. She dumped it on him as he laid in wait on the bed and then left.

Again, badass.

By the time Mom got out of the Navy, her parents, older brother and his wife and younger brother had moved to California from Illinois. Also, Cliff had been discharged from the Navy and was divorced from his first wife. Mom and Cliff were married on January 1, 1964. She'd finally found her happily ever after, marrying her first love!

On January 31st, just 30 days after getting married, Mom was driving in Byron, California, where she and Cliff lived, and she came upon a car accident. Because she had medical training from her military time, she got out of her car and walked up to the accident to see if she could help in any way. That was how she found out that her husband had died. She only found out that she was pregnant later when she miscarried.

Honestly, I cannot imagine going through all of that at just 21-years-old.

I don't know if she was already working as a waitress at that time or if she began that job later, but three months after Cliff died, while working as a waitress in a local restaurant, she met a new guy. His name was Al and he was recently divorced. He was a few years older than her and had two boys from his first marriage. The owners of the restaurant she worked at were Al's ex-wife's parents.

I don't know if you can say they dated or not, but three weeks after they started seeing each other, they went to Reno and got married. My mother, a 21-year-old widow, became not only a wife again, but also a stepmother to a 7- and 4-year-old.

I did not become a mother until I was nearly 28-years-old and I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I cannot imagine instantly becoming a mother to two children at 21!

Add to all of that a new pregnancy. My brother, Brad, was born nine months and two days after my parents were married (and he was one day late!).

Dad had custody of his older boys, but they still spent time with their mother occasionally. Because of the reasons they divorced, it was a strained relationship. His first wife had cheated on him, becoming pregnant by another man. My dad, fool that he is (in my opinion), helped find a family to adopt that child and then took her back. It was only after the second time she cheated and became pregnant (by yet another man) that Dad divorced her.

Needless to say, when the older boys were with their mother, she did not have kind words about my mom. Mom told me stories of the boys coming back from being with their mother and telling her that she couldn't tell them what to do because she wasn't their mother. At one point, the younger boy went through a phase of biting his older brother. At a loss as to what to do, Mom finally held him down and let the older boy bite him back! Was that the best solution? Of course not. Did it work? According to Mom, yes, it did.

Dad told me once that he would sometimes come home at the end of a workday and find Mom sitting on the front porch, crying, while the boys were in the house destroying things.  Again, I cannot imagine what I would do in the same situation.

On top of all of this, Mom never felt that she was accepted into Dad's family. He was the youngest, with four older brothers and an older sister. My mom was not only the second wife, but she was also much younger than Dad's brothers and sisters-in-law. I don't know exactly what the reasons were for her not being accepted into the family and I never will as most of those family members are long gone. His father, my grandfather, was always welcoming of Mom, but he died only a few months after they were married.

The one person she did become close to was my grandmother, maybe because Grandma Kelley was also a second wife. Grandma once told my mom that her "greatest sin was marrying a Kelley." When Grandma was alive, we were always included in family gatherings. Grandma died when I was 12-years-old and I don't remember attending more than a couple family gatherings after that.

Eventually, Dad sent his two older boys back to live with their mother fulltime. Maybe there was some judgment against Mom about that, but those people didn't know the difficulties my mom was dealing with. The judgment was not disguised in any way though. I remember going to one uncle's house because he had a pool. He was always very loving and welcoming when we went to visit. I was so young that I never thought it odd that we never saw my aunt in those visits. We never went in the house and she never came out. Mom would sit by the edge of the pool watching us swim the whole time.

It's a strange thing to be the children of the second wife. You're never really a part of the family and that is so unfair - to us and to Mom.

But Mom survived all of that. We continued on as our own little family unit, separate from everyone else and she made sure we never felt like we were missing anything. She always had our backs and we always felt loved. She was never perfect, and for sure I have had my issues with her over the years, but considering all that she dealt with as a young woman, her strength is beyond question.

Her later years are another story. There are many, many stories that I will tell over the coming months, both good and bad. For now, though, I want to remember the badass that she was.