Sunday, May 8, 2011
My mother passed on in 2003, days after her 84th birthday. This week, I stumbled on a history of sorts I'd written about her life. Mother's Day seemed like the right time to share her story.
It is winter in Central Florida. The Chinese ting is almost naked. Only a handful of stubborn brown leaves cling to its bare gray branches. Outside, Old Sol warms the clean, crisp bite of early mornings; by mid-day, a light sweater feels just right. Inside, the house is toasty warm, but Mom is cold. These days, she is always cold.
Doctors describe her health as fragile. She laughs. Fragile. The word evokes the image of fine china or the porcelain dolls arrayed in Victorian splendor. Neither image fits my mom. About the only thing she has in common with the decked-out dolls she collects is her size. At an even five feet, Mom has bulled her way through life.
They don’t make dolls that look like sturdy Irish peasant stock. Or ones that bear the rippled scars of the decades-old scalding that put ten-year-old Marion in the hospital – under heat lamps no less – for three months. (Today, we know better than to put heat on a burn, but in 1929 it was the standard of care.) It took amazing strength to survive that ordeal. And to endure it alone. Fresh off the boat, Mama’s Mama worked as a maid and came to the hospital once a week. On Sunday. After mass. Alone and in pain, my mom survived that hospital stay. She says the experience made her stronger.
Her father, a veteran of World War I, suffered shell shock. There were no drugs, no therapies for post-traumatic stress back then. Nor did the Church condone divorce. Mama’s mama did the only thing she could – she fled, taking her six children to safety. And when mom’s father found them and again punched holes in the walls and imagined himself a sniper taking aim at the enemy – his children – they moved again. And again.
College was never an option for my mother. Neither was a job. As a teen, she worked the lunch counter for the Union News. The day she made manager at Southie (South Boston) was cause for celebration. With her brothers away at the second war to end all wars, she treated her mother and sister to a rare meal in a real restaurant. She looked up to see her sister’s current beau enter with a tall, rangy sailor in tow.
“That’s the man I’m going to marry,” my mother whispered to her mother. And despite their differences, he was.
Rhuday was a farm boy, Alabama born and bred. He sent his city wife ‘home’ during the war to stay with his Mama. On a farm sixty miles from the closest Catholic church. On a farm with an outhouse and no running water. She says laughter got her through those days as she trekked outside to do her business. She bathed in a tin tub on Saturdays. She attended the Baptist church on Sundays – and got kicked out of the Catholic one for her efforts. She spent two years trying to lift the spirits of her sisters-in-law and toiling beside her mother-in-law. She wrote daily letters to her brand-new husband. And she prayed. When the war ended and he returned unscathed, she waited a week before she moved him back to the city.
They bought a house with money she had hoarded during his years away at sea. Dad got a job with Boston Gas and, to make ends meet, they rented out the upstairs. After seven barren years, Mom gave birth to a daughter – me – and nearly died in the process. Two years after that my sister arrived, albeit this time by a planned C-section. Things were looking up until, just before Christmas in 1955, the boys upstairs played with lighter fluid. They burned the house down. My parents lost everything. Everything but that which was most important—their lives, their daughters. Soon after, they moved to Florida where, Rhuday promised, opportunities were greater.
And for him, a machinist who valued education but had none, they were. Expansion at Patrick AFB and the Cape created a vacuum that sucked people into Florida. For the men, steady jobs meant security, the chance for a better life, but little change in their daily lives. They still left home before sunrise carrying lunch in a steel box and coffee in a Stanley thermos. They still came home around sundown. There were still lawns to mow, cars to maintain, houses to paint. For them, life was pretty much the same as in the city.
For the women, it was different. In the mid-50’s, Brevard County had little but fear to offer a young wife and mother. With slight warning, blue skies became hurricanes that struck while the men pulled down overtime. The only things thicker than the clouds of dust that rose from the dirt roads were the swarms of mosquitoes. Palmetto bugs, spiders and alligators ignored the brand new housing developments and refused to go elsewhere. A boy fishing at Clearlake died when he mistook baby water moccasins for worms and used them as bait.
But at least there were no outhouses. My mom could still laugh. And she was not alone.
Squared off, cement block houses surrounded hers. Each held a family as new and raw to Florida as her own. She sought solace in the company of other wives, and they in hers. Our house became a gathering spot where laughter flowed more often than tears. Along with other big city transplants, events were planned. Lonely, stultifying drives through sixty miles of scrub pine and palmetto to the closest grocery store became grand shopping excursions that mandated lunch at Ronnie’s. Where corned beef didn’t come from a can, and vinegar – not mayonnaise – moistened the slaw. Backyard cookouts and progressive dinners took the place of Cocoa’s non-existent restaurants. The nearest movie theater was in Orlando, and it was expensive. The beach was closer, and it was free. Like air-conditioning, nightclubs and dinner theaters were years in the future. Girls-night-out became Bingo Club (a group that has since out-lived its founders).
Laugher and her friends saw Mom through long hospital stays and Rhuday’s violent migraines. Thyroid cancer bent her knees in prayer as she asked God to let her live long enough to raise her girls.
He did, but life was never easy. Mom’s prayers became her mantra the week Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon and a heart attack took forty-eight year old Rhuday. Dreams of college for their girls wavered. Mom would not let them die. She found strength and a job that let her do what she did best – raise children. She taught herself to drive. She refused to let us feel sorry for ourselves. She pushed everyone, including herself, to do better. She managed a nursery until her first charges began pulling up to the gate with their own children. After that, her focus shifted to grandchildren, and she brought her own brand of stability to my family as we moved from California to Virginia to Florida.
Today, Mom’s health is fragile. She is anything but. She’ll hopes to turn eighty-four next month. Some days, we think she might. Some days, the prospect dims. In the meantime, we find humor where we can.
Her nails are a source of pride though she hates having them done. Even more so now when little things sap her strength. Today is nail day. I remove the old polish. She takes a nap. I file her nails. She takes another nap. By evening, the final coat of polish is still wet when she begins to squirm.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“I have to go to the bathroom, but I don’t to mess up my nails,” comes the answer.
“If there’s a choice, I’d rather re-paint your nails,” I say dryly.
She makes a beeline for the bathroom.
My eyes glisten, but we still laugh because that--and prayer--get us past the rough spots.