Today, February 13th, would have been my mom’s 99th birthday.
I think my siblings and I were all a bit stunned by her death, almost 15 years ago, at the age of 84. While that may sound like a pretty average life expectancy, our mom was never what anyone would call average, and I think if you had asked any one of us, we’d all have said that we expected her to live well into her nineties. Or maybe forever.
My mom, who was married for just 16 years before she became a widow for nearly 46, was the quintessential strong, independent, capable woman. Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, and a young housewife in the 1940s and early ’50s, she may not have thought she was preparing herself to work full-time while singlehandedly running a household and raising five children, but when she was thrust into that situation, she took to it with both vigor and grace.
Barely a week after my father’s sudden death in June of 1958, she loaded my four siblings into the family station wagon and drove to Maine to spend the summer, because that was what they had planned, what she had promised them, and anyway, as she once told me, “I couldn’t think of what else to do.”
On North Pond in Woodstock, she took on the role of general contractor, supervising the completion of the family camp they had been in the process of building over the previous three summers. (My brothers, ages 14, 12, and 11, and my sister, age eight, were the laborers.)
But wait, there’s more: as I wrote in an essay several years ago, “By mid-summer, my mother began to suspect something, and by summer’s end she knew: she was pregnant.”
It is to my mom’s great credit that I never felt, even once, that she believed that her life would have been better/easier/less stressful if I hadn’t been born. Not when I brought home stray cats, and, sometimes, turtles, mice, frogs, and snakes. Not when I accidentally let 18 chestnuts go down the drain of the bathroom sink. Not when I slouched around sullenly, wearing overalls and letting my hair hang in my face, for about six years of my adolescence. Not even when I ruined her perfect record by becoming the only one of her five kids to drop out of college—twice.
Even before the circumstances of her life turned her into a superhero, my mom was unusual for a woman of her generation. She had graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class, and had completed a four-year degree from the University of Maine before she met my father in 1941. She had moved to Hartford, Connecticut on her own after college and worked for a year or so at the Aetna Life Insurance Company.
My arrival early in 1959 delayed her ability to go back to work, but once I was old enough to be in school, she landed a job as a school librarian and began taking graduate level courses in the evening. She worked her way up to a position as head of the library department for the 17 elementary schools in the small city of Milford, Connecticut, where she had moved the family after my father’s death.
Around home, my mom did all the things most of my friends’ mothers did: she knit, sewed, quilted, gardened, canned, baked, and kept house. She also did most of the things my friends’ fathers did: she mowed the lawn, hung the storm windows, sealed the driveway, raked leaves, shoveled snow, and occasionally dabbled in plumbing, carpentry, and automotive repair.
She felt a strong commitment to the concept of community service. She was active in her church, volunteered for Welcome Wagon, March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association, and served on the boards of several nonprofits.
She continued to do all of these things throughout my life, and I grew so accustomed to having a mother who could do anything and everything that I’m afraid I never fully grasped what a wonder she really was, at least until after she was gone.
Up until just a couple of years before she died, she was volunteering at the library, traveling (she turned 81 while on a tour of Australia and New Zealand), babysitting (over her more than 20 years of retirement in Bethel, she was known as Gramma Wight to dozens of local children, in addition to her own “real” grandchildren), and taking on projects nearly as ambitiously as she always had.
Now that I’m nearing 60, I have a far greater appreciation for the energy she had, especially when I choose to stay home instead of attending a meeting or community event, when I gripe about having to go to work, or when I sit down in the evening and tell myself I’m too tired to pick up my knitting.
It’s taken me a while to realize it, but my mom really was a superhero.