My mother has been gone nearly nine years, and a day seldom passes that I don’t think of her in one context or another.
Her colorful expressions:
“She made me feel like 2 cents waiting for change.”
“I read it in The Daily Blab (her moniker for newspapers).”
“You need to have sticktoitiveness, Tim.”
Her sense of humor. Little things that tickled her, made her laugh and even now make me laugh remembering them.
Her meticulous housekeeping and her penchant for getting rid of anything that wasn’t being used — including my baseball card collection. (I’m over it now.)
Some things, however, she saved for life. One was a box of old photos, a gift from one of my nephews after my sister died. They gathered dust on a closet shelf for a long time before I got around to looking at them, and was treated to unexpected glimpses of my mother’s life.
The photos spanned more than a century. Many were of the sort you’d expect — snapshots taken on family outings, vacation pictures, group photos. … Others were intriguing, funny, mysterious:
A photo of my mother, her brother and his wife, for example. It could have been taken on another planet. They were surrounded by eerie, steaming rock formations. Yellowstone Park came to mind, but I’ve been to Yellowstone in virtually every season and not seen anything remotely like the scene in the photo.
A photo of the same uncle at Yosemite Falls, on a road now gridlocked throughout the tourist season. His was one of two cars.
A winsomely smiling woman and a boy in a scout uniform. A dour-looking woman and two girls on a porch. An elegantly dressed woman seated on the deck of an ocean liner. All of their identities lost in time. People in the pre-digital era should have written names and dates on the backs of photos, for those of us who would come after them and wonder.
A postcard to my mother, postmarked a month before Pearl Harbor, featured an idyllic winter scene at “Sun Valley Village.” In those days, and for a long time afterward, a village was exactly what it was. No condos, no mansions, no traffic. It was isolated, self-contained, magical.
On the back of the card, my father had written, “Wesson you could be here with me.”
No, he wasn’t a terrible speller. But he was, for a time, a traveling salesman for the Wesson Oil Co.
My parents married for life after brief first marriages. One of the funnier pictures, to me at least, was of Mom’s first husband holding hands with a mystery woman. Mysterious because someone (my mother?) had cut all but her arm and hand out of the picture. I could picture my Irish-American mother — her maiden name was O’Leary — doing something like that.
Some of my favorite photos were of long-gone relatives. My Aunt Helen and Uncle Wayne, who seemed exotic to me because they had lived in Peru and he’d been the foreman of a mine there. I could listen forever to his tales of working deep in the Andes.
My Great Aunt Amy, who chased chickens around her barnyard as the first step in making what is still the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.
My Great Grandmother Susie, cherished by all who knew her. She came across the plains in a covered wagon, outlived three husbands and three of her children, survived three house fires and somehow remained the jolliest of all the relatives. Mom counted the days till her grandmother’s visits. She’d come and stay with us for a week or two at Christmastime, filling the house with the aroma of baking and the joy of the season.
There were, of course, pictures our mother had saved of my sister and me when we were growing up. Mom used to complain that I ruined every picture she took by making goofy faces. Now I know what she meant.
In addition to the loose photos in the box was a scrapbook, meticulously assembled by my mother when she was in her early 20s. Her beautifully penned captions raised more questions than they answered.
Several of the photos are of couples posing on the road to Idaho City — on Easter Sunday 1929. They looked so young, so happy — blissfully unaware of the economic catastrophe that waited just a few months down the road.
I’ll say this for my mother and her crowd: they got around. The scrapbook documented trips to Coeur d’Alene; San Francisco; Catalina Island, Calif.; Dillon, Mont.; Hollywood … She spoke wistfully of the California trip for the rest of her life, often saying that she didn’t want to come home.
This was the first time I’d seen pictures of her and her friends from that odyssey, and they were stunning — the men robust and handsome, the women svelte and beautiful. Some of the names and faces were familiar, but many were complete mysteries: Archie, Ed, Jack, Bud, Charles, Jida, Gertie, Skeet, Roberta. Their images appear again and again — never with last names.
Who were those people? My mother never mentioned any of them, and by now everyone who knew them is long dead. If you’re truly gone when the last person dies who knew who you were, my sister in this case, then those once-striking people are truly gone.
I should have asked Mom about them.
I should have done a lot of things. I should have spent more time with her in her last years. I should have thanked her for all the times she made me laugh, for the long talks that helped get me through troubled times, for being the one person who was always there for me — from the first moment of my life till the last of her own — no matter what.
Most of all, I should have told her how much she meant to me. How much she still means. I couldn’t have asked for a better Mom.
Even if she did throw away my baseball cards.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.