Back in the late 1930’s, a dark time, when the Depression was in full force and the clouds of war were gathering around the world, my father was a graduate student at Princeton, studying mathematics, on his way to earning a Ph.D. in three years, writing a thesis on linear p-adic groups and their Lie algebras.
How cool is that?
He was then, as he was the entirety of his life, a brilliant but quiet man. Thoughtful, insightful, but terribly shy. Today we’d call him an introvert. He lived his life and he allowed others to live theirs. But on this particular day, he was back home visiting his parents in Greensboro, North Carolina, taking a break from his studies. And he was with a friend of his. It was Saturday morning. They were bowling.
Duckpins. [This was your authentic southern bowling, back in the day when “pinsetter” wasn’t an AMF or Brunswick machine; it was a summer job for high school kids. The pins were small and so was the ball. Strikes? Spares? Good luck. You should try it.]
Nothing out of the ordinary.
But then, my father saw, in the lane next to him, a younger guy he knew only slightly…and a young woman, college age, of such beauty and overall, compelling, total appeal, that he did something he had never done before, and never would do again in his 85 years.
He forced an introduction.
That woman would come to be my mother.
At the time, she was a college student, majoring in mathematics at what was then the Womens’ College of the University of North Carolina (today it’s UNCG). [As she’d later discover, she’d taken a French course from my father’s father, a professor there.] She was bright and she was popular, gifted in every respect. In 1938 she’d been voted “The Best All-Around” of her senior class in high school. Her college life was a mix of academics and social whirl. She and her circle of friends, as was the custom those days, didn’t go steady with any one person so much as they went dancing and partying with a different person from their group…but in that large group…most nights of the week.
My mother, having a high social IQ and great situational awareness, realized quickly that my father would never get the hang of this social setting and find his way in. Her dance card was always full for a week or so in advance, and he would never get up the courage to ask her out until way too late. So she began to make small excuses, and set aside periods of free time to be available for him.
They married as he was finishing up at Princeton. He took a teaching job at North Carolina State in the fall of 1941, on the eve of U.S. entry into the War. I’d be born two years later, and my brother two years after that.
For the rest of her life, my mother devoted herself to her husband and her two sons. In many ways, from my brother’s and my perspective, she served as Dad’s deputy in the household. She held him up as the example both of us should aspire to. Use your brains. Be honest. Do the right thing. Treat other people well. Put their interests first. Be as good as your Dad. She filled in the gaps in his parenting. He played a little baseball with us until we were in grade school. Then knee problems (that probably could have been readily treated today) kept him off the field; we kids had to play with each other. He taught us a lot of mathematics…and particularly, a love and respect for it.
Mom was pretty much responsible for the rest. How to stand up for ourselves on the playground. How to stick up for each other. Learning to swim. Dancing lessons (she could have worked a little harder on that one!) She taught my brother how to play the piano. She taught us how to draw and paint. No soccer Moms back then…no soccer! Instead, she took us to the library once a week. For much of our childhood, I was reading a book a day. I’m probably giving this more emphasis than it deserved, but one of the words she kept pushing on us was gumption. We should show gumption. She also told us every day that while we lived at home she’d been in our lives, but that once we moved away, she’d leave us be, let us make our own decisions. And she kept her word.
[Okay, okay. Sort of.]
Because Mom was “the deputy,” we always knew what Dad was thinking. As she got better at this, we could see less and less of her personality. She subsumed it to this cause. You want an illustration? She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002-2003. Because Dad was failing then, and because letting anyone else take care of him was anathema to her, she opted for a lumpectomy instead of the mastectomy the doctors had recommended…because the former could be done on an out-patient basis, and she wouldn’t skip a beat in her care for Dad. And after trying the chemo for a while, she told the doctors to forget it. It interfered with her ability to function.
My father died in 2003. The effort to take care of him at the end completely exhausted her. It took her a long time to recover, and she’d been lonely every day since. But the best thing about the past nine years with her is that her own personality returned. She was now independent, letting us know what she thought and how she saw the world. Though physically frail these last nine years, she’d maintained a sharp thought and a consuming interest in world affairs. When we’d talk, she’d pepper me with climate-change questions or disaster questions stemming from this or that she’d just watched on C-Span.
She liked the blog. She always said more people should read it. I told her it was enough that she did.
Things were stable…in slow decline…over this nine years, until just a few weeks ago when congestive heart failure and its complications started to catch up with her. At the end, she was suffering terribly. She wanted to die. A week ago, when I was visiting her, the nurse came in to have her take her seven medications…the heart medications, the diuretic, the medicine for her pain, etc., etc. My mother said, “I told you I would take one pill a day. One pill! You get to choose, but I’m only taking one.”
You gotta love a woman like that. [My brother and I were voting for the mood enhancer.]
When death came yesterday afternoon, I’m sure she was ready.
We disagreed about some things. I told her that I would see her in heaven…that for me, it wouldn’t be heaven without her (and that holds for the rest of you as well…I’m going to see you there!). She was more skeptical.
Just this once I hope I’m the one who’s right. Today is Mom and Dad’s anniversary. If I’m right,she got to heaven just in time. They’re together. Maybe they’re bowling celestial duckpins. And getting spares and strikes. Ageless. Joyful.
Thanks for everything, Mom. I miss you already.