My mother, Verse, is 93. She came to Oregon to visit for the last time when she was 88. I remember pushing her to the counter of the airlines ticket desk in a wheel-chair, while she dug in her oversized purse to find her passport. She was always smiling and eager to visit. She loved telling the adventure stories that lived behind each passport stamp gathered from around the world.
My mother is an amazing woman, so bright she skipped two grades in high school, graduating at age fifteen. She was academically gifted, but suffered from a painful childhood. As a girl, her mother explained that there was no such thing as love, and demonstrated by abandoning her in every way possible. She learned love from her father, but he left both the marriage and his daughter at an early age.
She sang in a big band before she met my dad, then left to manage a successful restaurant and motel. No, she did not manage it; she owned, lived and breathed it every moment of our growing up years, putting her dreams of studying law or medicine aside. My mother gave birth to three girls and two boys. All, without exception, worked in the restaurant below. It was a thriving business full of constant coming and going. It was the place to watch the World Series on the small screen television angled above the bar. It was a businessman’s lunch table, and the destination for every club and civic organization in town. The restaurant had the elegance to house wedding receptions and the warmth to invite family diners to return on a weekly basis. The travel-weary were given a warm welcome and the factory crowd brought their brotherhood to the bar. The romantic played the jukebox and danced, while teens drank cherry cokes and competed on the bowling machine.
I was her middle child, with a sister and brother older, and a sister and brother younger. I worked in the restaurant for years before going off to a Vermont Boarding School. During that time, I watched my mother make sure the meats being delivered were of the highest quality, the breads taken to the table were freshly baked, and the portions were plentiful and appealing. After a long day of work, she and I would sit at a small out-of-the-way table, her tiny shoes trailing built-up oven grease from the kitchen floor, her hands clutching volumes of receipts to be counted, her face drained of vitality and charm.
I don’t want this life for you, she would tell me. Go away from this place. Be more than this.
When she was finally freed of obligation to family, business, marriage and striving, she found her wings and began to explore. At eighty years of age, her gypsy blood bubbled to the surface. With nothing to lose she decided to give herself as many adventures as possible. She tore across raging water on a jet ski in California, rode camels in Egypt, visited the Great Wall of China, flew across Antarctica, soared in a hot air balloon, took a safari in Africa, floated the Amazon river, and was the oldest woman ever to go hand gliding in New Zealand. When we crossed the British channel, she was in the ballroom dancing in her new prom dress, while I stayed below, blue in the face from motion sickness. I think your mother is stronger than you are, the maid volunteered.
She waits in the airport wheelchair, beautifully dressed, her attitude full of determination and intention, but the clerk will not look at her. She addresses me instead. My mother does not exist for her. She is just an old woman to be patronized and called, Honey and Sweetie. Her passport is handed back quickly without a glance in her direction, its wealth of stories left untold. I watch my mother’s face fall as her existence is publically diminished.