As I prepare for a memorial to my Aunt Gretchen making room in a garden she started for us, to add a Paperbark Maple tree in her memory, I am pondering the ways of being a mother. She was a mother to me later in my life. My mother did her job early in my life, doing the things mothers do even when it was difficult for her. Thinking about Gretchen has me recalling the tribute I paid to my mother when she died. Even though she failed me significantly, she also succeeded in important ways I appreciate. Below are the words I said at her memorial service shortly after she died five and a half years ago.
“My mother died in her sleep and I can’t help but think she had gone to bed happy the night before. Dad had complimented her on a lovely dinner which they’d shared with my brother and his family. They had all the creature comforts they needed. And just a few weeks prior an usual joy came to my mother. The congregation of this church and the community at large showed her in very clear terms how much they respected and cared for her and my father, when they responded very generously to my request for donations to help my sister Jackie, who is suffering from breast cancer. Mom never expected people to go out of their way for her, so she was floored and delighted when the impossible happened and enough money was raised to send Jackie’s family of five to Hawaii for two weeks. She called me the day before she died to ask if Jackie and her family had gotten there, which they had.
These may seem like small joys, but they mattered a lot to my mother. Not too many people know that she was an orphan and struggled early in her life. To make a family and keep it together, feed, clothe and house the five of us all was an accomplishment for her, and my father, that was no small feat. It’s easy to take it for granted because she did it day in and day out for so long, and continued to keep a house we were all always welcome in right up until the day she died. My family had just been there the week before, and we’d seen my parents at their house in Delaware frequently in the past few months.
Until I asked Mom to explain it to me, I never felt I understood what her life was like growing up. I knew it had been hard but she was reluctant to talk about it much, so I was delighted when she agreed to let me interview her and record the facts a few years ago. We spent hours talking on the phone and in person, pouring over her scrapbooks and photo albums while she explained what happened.
My mother was born to a fifteen year old girl who although married, didn’t stay that way for long. Mom was sent to live with her father’s parents in Tennessee at the age of four. So she lived with her grandparents, who she says were very kind. It was Depression times so they didn’t have a lot, and they were even recipients of food baskets during the holidays. She stayed with them for eight years but then her grandmother had a stroke. From the ages of twelve to fifteen my mother, along with an aunt, took care of the people who were supposed to be taking care of her, her guardians, but then her grandmother died and Jerry was sent to Maryland to live with her father’s other sister, twenty-nine year old Aunt Lucille. She loved it there, and succeeded in high school even becoming valedictorian of her class. Aunt Lucille married at the age of 33, and Jerry, then 19, went off to the University of Tennessee. She soon she moved back in with her aunt and her aunt’s new husband on a farm in Maryland.
It wasn’t too long after that that tragedy struck and Aunt Lucille died in a terrible accident. My mother learned on the day of the funeral that she was not welcome to continue living in her aunt’s house and was sent packing. She was working at the local elementary school at the time and her boss, the principal there took her in. He let her stay on a cot in his attic for the next three months.
At this point in my mother’s story I said to her, “Mom, you’re making this stuff up. You slept on a cot in your boss’s attic because you had no where else to go?”
“That’s what happened,” she said.
After a while the principal got her a room with an elderly couple who lived close by to the elementary school. She took her board down the street with what my mother called a ‘grits-loving woman.’ During that time, and still secretary at the school, my mother was invited by the first grade teacher there, Rachel Paffenbarger, to come to her home for dinner to meet her son, George Paffenbarger, a student of General Agriculture at the University of Maryland. They definitely hit it off and just six months later George and Jerry got married. The actual report I got (from both of them independently), is that he was so taken with her that she told him in no uncertain terms that he would need to keep his ‘cotton pickin’ hands off of her unless they got married.
Five kids later, and a move to New York in 1961, they found themselves in a community that surrounds them still. It’s been fifty-five years since they stood in a modest church in Darnestown, Maryland to be married, my mother’s side of the church empty and Dad’s side a little fuller. And that’s where they said, ‘until death do us part.’ My Mom was a humble and unassuming woman who was grateful for the little things in life: food, clothing, shelter, her family. She taught me to cook, to sew, to play piano, to read books, to be faithful to my husband.
She didn’t like to go too far from home either. Even though she barely knew her own mother, if I wanted to talk to my mom, all I had to do was call because she was almost always at the other end of the telephone.
So I want people to know all this about my mother. She was given up by her parents at the age of four, then unintentionally abandoned by her grandparents and aunt as a teenager. She was in a boarding house when she met my father, and then they made a life together for the next fifty-five years. She made sure she gave what she never had. She made a stable home where she had never had one. She offered plentiful food which she’d not always enjoyed. She had roofs to put over heads and beds to lie down in.
And all that mattered to her. I think as she went to bed that night before she died, she had taken stock of her blessings and seen that her family was intact, that there was food in the fridge, clothes on our backs, and I know she felt the love of community. She never compromised herself. She was true to herself and she did with her life what she felt was most important: seeing that her family had what we needed. God rewarded her by letting her be one of few in this world who get to draw the card that says, “Die Peacefully in Your Sleep.”
Yes, I feel sure my mother was happy when she went to bed that night.”