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Happy 99th Birthday to My Mother, Rest in Peace

Posted Oct 09 2010 12:00am

October 8 would have been my mother’s 99th birthday.  Healthy as she was in body, no doubt she still would be alive today had stroke dementia not taken her down a slow and painful downspiral over six  years to her death, in 2000, at age 89.  Please forgive this departure from regular ADHD Roller Coaster programming as I honor my beloved mother, whom I still miss every day. In a sense,  though, this post absolutely is germane to my 10 years of advocacy around ADHD.  It is my mother’s  spirit and legacy that, in large part, enabled me to wade these sometimes treacherous waters in the pursuit of fairness, compassion, and honesty  for everyone affected by ADHD.  (Though, truth be told, she’d have preferred that I’d worn more lipstick and “fixed up my hair” during the effort.)

Three pieces follow: the eulogy I gave for her at her funeral August 18, 2000; my Editor’s Column that appeared in The San Diego Business Journal, in 1990 (if more people thought as she did back then, we might not have  met our current economic calamities); and my sister Elva’s eulogy and prayer of thanks for our mother, for whom she was named.

When people use the word “independent” to describe our mother (and they always have), they cannot possibly mean carefree or selfish. For decades, mother spent every almost waking hour expertly running both a household of nine and a full-scale business. Mother had less time to pursue her “independence” than anyone I have ever known.

Yet independent she was. Independent in spirit. Independent in her opinions. Independent of the limiting expectations society had for a woman of her makeup and ambition, though still sometimes personally hurt by it. Independent from the “popular” thing if it went against her deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong, truth and fair play.

In the 1960s, Mother gave Daddy quite a turn when she spoke out against the Viet Nam war at a Crump company function. Suffice it to say her opinion did not meet with overwhelming approval. Momma did not mean to cause a scene. She was quite surprised and hurt by the unfavorable reaction. In her mind, she was just stating the obvious: It was an ill-considered war that was taking the lives of young sons just like her own.

Mother was always ahead of her time. As a freshman at Memphis State University in 1929, she was the first woman to enroll in Shop class. How did she have the courage to do that? “My daddy thought I could do anything,” she told me. Momma could do anything––and was often called upon to prove it. Time and again.

Her feats of resourcefulness and ingenuity started at a young age, when she was put in charge of her rambunctious younger brother Albert. When the toddler climbed out the window from their apartment over the Fourth and Georgia Street grocery store, little Elva caught him. She held him by his chubby little arm until the neighbors finally came to tell her parents “Elva’s hanging onto Albert and she’s hollerin’ for dear life.” As adolescents, we used to tease momma, “Oh sure. We know. You were running a grocery store when you were three years old.” What little twerps we were. Now we know better. When I think now of little Elva standing on a wooden crate to operate the cash register and falling asleep at night on the flour sacks, I am that much more overcome with love and respect for her. Her work began early and continued late, for 80 years. Always, she worked for family.

When her adored father died suddenly, mother left school to help her mother and brother. The wealthy judge who had loaned her parents the money to buy the store (immigrants could not go to the bank in those days) called the loan. With Mr. Motroni dead, the judge apparently concluded, his widow (my grandmother) would not be able to make the payments. He moved to seize the property.

That is when 19-year-old M other got to work. The tenants subletting the small apartments in the building said they would pay if they could. But the depression was setting in, and times were hard. Rather than evict her neighbors, Mother said, “Okay, let’s work together. You pay me what you can, week-by-week. And help us in the grocery.” That judge never did get the store and those people, including my mother’s family, did not lose their homes and end up on the streets. We sold it only a few years ago, more than 50 years later.

Despite all she had on her mind––an endless supply of dental appointments and school functions for us seven kids, mountains of Catholic school uniforms and shirts to be    starched and ironed, endless bushels of ripe tomatoes waiting to be transformed by her kitchen alchemy into the best gravy you will ever hope to eat, an endless succession of annoying phone calls from her tenants who looked to her to solve every problem from broken water heaters to marital disputes. Despite all that, Mother always came through.

Make no mistake. You would never have confused our mother with June Cleaver. Though a meticulous housekeeper, she did not carry all the winter clothing out to the clotheslines for “airing” while wearing shirtwaists and pumps. She didn’t haul water heaters from the salvage yard to her car without mussing her hairdo. Typically, after a hard day’s work, her eyeglasses would be speckled with paint. But no one looked more beautiful or chic than she did when it was time for cleaning up.  And why her beautiful painted nails never got chipped despite her hands-on work, I’ll never know.

As a young mother at home while my father served in WWII

Momma did not float through life smiling sweetly and acting as if she had not a care to her name––though part of her questioned why she could not pull that one off. In fact, she had many cares. And she met them with fortitude, courage, intelligence, and often a great ability to laugh at herself and her situation. Mother “showed up.” Every day.

In fact, after her tragic fall a few weeks ago left her bedridden, I knew we should count the days. For more than 80 years, I daresay momma never spent more than one day at home sick in bed. Like the Energizer bunny, she kept going.

Just last year, she made one of her “great escapes” from the Ave Maria home. She cut through the trees to a residential neighborhood, where she found two ladies in the driveway emerging from a car. “Here, honey,” they said to her, knowing exactly from whence she came. “Get in the car. We’ll take you home.” Our ever-determined mother hopped in the car all right––in the driver’s seat. “Where are my keys?” she asked. “I got work to do.” Just at that moment, she looked up and saw the Ave Maria Home attendant in pursuit. “Oh hell,” Momma said, with resignation. “You again?”

Who could not admire her bravery and perseverance? Only those who could not see and appreciate her for the complex woman she was, and all the life events that had shaped her spirit. At the Fox Acres Alzheimer’s facility, the manager saw her sprinting down the road. This relatively young man told me that he had to chase this octogenarian at a fast clip to catch up. He later confided, with tut-tut ting disapproval, “I knew that she was a woman who was accustomed to getting her way.” I wanted to reach across the desk and slap him for such snide presumption and utter lack of empathy for a woman who simply wanted to go home.

What this man could never hope to understand about Momma was that she hardly ever got “her way”––except when it came to getting the best possible future for her children. From clothes to cars, education to ethics, Momma made sure we had the very best she and Daddy could give us, even as they pinched pennies and did without many “extras” for themselves.

I remember one treacherous and icy Christmas Eve. The store called to say it could not deliver the pool table she had ordered for my teen brother Michael (pictured left, center, at a younger age).  Determined that he would awaken to that table on Christmas morning, Mother made the trip herself, slipping and sliding all the way to and from downtown Memphis to our home off Walnut Grove, that huge pool table tied atop our 1960 black Ford Fairlane. And somehow she still kept it a secret from him until Christmas morning.

As a young girl, maybe in third grade, I caved into pressure from my fellow Girl Scouts to host the Halloween party. “Your house is so scary, it’s like the Addams Family house!” they’d squealed. That would have really irked mother, as the Hedgemoor Tudor-style house was her pride and joy. Regretful of my generous offer and the extra work it would create for momma, I summoned my courage to tell her only on the morning of the party. Instead of coming home to no decorations at all (my fear, given the late notice, and it would have served me right), I came home to the most amazing set-design wizardry. Mother had collected her father’s giant restaurant kettle and filled it with dry ice. Next to it, stirring the “steaming brew,” she had concocted a life-size witch out of a stepladder, my big old doll, and a costume that my sister Elva had worn in a school performance of Hansel and Gretel. I was in awe. So were my classmates.

She never ceased to amaze her children, though in hindsight it pains me to see how much we took her for granted. We didn’t know that not every family of nine ate homemade tortellini in chicken soup on a weekly basis, among other amazing feats she performed regularly.

At heart, mother was an optimistic, philosophical person. By her example and advice, she gave me faith in my ability to solve problems and make decisions – “Just wait a bit. Maybe you just need more information.” Sparked by a movie we had watched together, she told me just a few years ago, “You know. I’m not afraid of death. I think it’s probably pretty nice.” I was always more worried about my fear of her death than her fear of her death.

When my niece Madeleine told her little boy Jake that Nonna had died, he asked her: “Is Nonna with O’Daddy in heaven, riding around in his convertible?” O’Daddy is John, Momma’s oldest child and our brother, who passed away two years ago from brain cancer. More than anyone, he and my brother Douglas could always make Momma laugh. More than anything, mother was a potent, fiercely loving force of nature. I cannot begin to comprehend her absence, even though over these last few years we have lost her bit-by-bit. Jake, I thank you for that image: Momma laughing and cruising through that open air, finally free in spirit.

Editor’s Notebook, San Diego Business Journal, October 1990

Seeing Charles Keating, Jr. being led away in shackles on TV a few weeks ago made me think of my mother. She turned 79 this month, and for years she has been predicting a debacle. Not just the S&L crisis, but all of it–the 1990s fall-out from the 1980s deficit of honest work and surplus of sleaze.

“They’re acting like a bunch of jackasses,” she repeated throughout the Reagan era, long before the pundits put it in less-direct terms. In general, “they” were the big shots, the guys who spent more time flaunting their spoils than earning them–the Wedtech executives, Michael Milkens, et cetera ad nauseam

“They’re ruining this country,” she would say, all 5 feet of her getting worked up in a style and accent unique to Northern Italian women raised in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. “And they’re going to leave an awful mess for you children. You watch.”

I met her predictions with mixed feelings. I partly agreed: Common sense told me too many people were making too much money too fast with too little effort.

Another part of me said, hey, don’t be a chump; quit working so hard and hop on that gravy train. Lease that BMW. Speculate in real estate. Sell annuities, or get into some bogus line of consulting. Say yes to debt.

Despite the pressure I felt all around me, I just didn’t have the stomach for it. And it’s a good thing, too, because it appears my mother was right. Again. The gravy train’s been derailed, and the boxcars just keep stacking up.

Observers say the 1990s will be a more austere decade. Less glitz. More ethics. A return to solid values.

I used to slightly resent my parents [shown left, at their wedding, in 1933] being first-generation immigrants who had been adults in the Great Depression. While my friends were getting 25-cent and dollar allowances, I was hearing, “Here’s your dime, and don’t spend it all in one place.” Now I find myself grateful. Compared to Donald and Ivana’s kids, or any little Boeskys, I might not find the transition to tighter times as tough.

If I had to summarize my parents’ message to their seven children, it would be simply this: Be careful how you spend you money, work hard, and do right. The first part hit home through fairly direct means. Fear and guilt stand out. Despite our apparent affluence, I believed the “poorhouse” was just one thoughtless purchase away. When I would whine to my mother that I didn’t have trendy clothes and the latest toys, she would tell me that we lived in the beautiful house we did because we didn’t throw our money away on junk. That was an important lesson, one that later enabled me to buy a house in San Diego as a single person on a journalist’s salary.

The other parts, “work hard” and “do right,” were more intangible and seeped in less directly, mainly by my parents’ example at work and at home.

My father, for example, would have made a lousy junk-bond salesman. Having worked his way up from E.H. Crump’s secretary in the 1920s to an executive VP at E.H. Crump and company, he retired after 53 years with the company. Years after he moved on to larger commercial accounts, he was known for his loyalty to longtime, smaller clients, however paltry their premiums. And he let them know he appreciated their business.

My mother proved a more colorful role model, mainly because I went with her to work.

Forget high-yield anythings. In her opinion, a good education and land were the only real investments. (Only Italians outdo Southerners in their estimate of real estate as immutable wealth.)  And by the time I was born, when she was 44, she had strung together a mini-empire of small apartments and duplexes, including the grocery store with apartments overhead where her parents started their new life in America in the late 1800s.

From the time I was 4 years old, we would make the rounds of her rental units, her old station wagon loaded with ladders, tools, and two-by-fours. And if I ever have a small business, what I learned might come in handy.

First lesson: Turn your business over to somebody else, and prepare to suffer the consequences. No absentee landlord, she could tell you the exact state of any given property on any given week.

Second lesson: To heck with “outsourcing” to high-priced specialists. When facing a repair unfamiliar to her, she would ask questions at the hardware store or lumberyard and talk out the task with her workers. With her help every step of the way (“You’ve got to stay with your workers and work as hard as they do,” she’d admonish me), they’d usually get the job done right at far less cost.

More folks in the 1980s should have had my mother’s attitude about buckling under to corruption and backroom deals. When she learned that payola was the reason the dilapidated property next to one of hers passed city inspection when her well-maintained property did not, she called the city inspector and demanded the situation be rectified, and she prevailed.

Why evict tenants who owed back rent, she figured, when you could try to work out payment schedule. Part good business sense. Part compassion, which always had a place on her balance sheet.  She first learned this strategy during the Great Depression, when this young woman’s quick-thinking intervention saved her family’s property and kept their tenants in their homes instead of homeless.

My father died a few years ago, but when I go home to Memphis, people I run into remind me how highly they thought of him as a person and a businessman.

My mother is still going strong. She’s worked hard all her life and has no intention of stopping.  I ask her, can’t you come visit me, take a little vacation? Even President Bush made time for Kennebunkport in the midst of a world crisis. “Well, he didn’t have vacant apartments, she quips.

Unlike her, I’m partial to the occasional vacation. But I hope I’ve picked up some of my folks’ more admirable traits. I love my work, and try to do it well. Driving a 9-year-old car doesn’t strike me as deprivation. Debt makes me nervous. And I try to “do right.”  Maybe I’m on the right track, even if it’s not the gravy train.

I wear an orange dress today for my mother. I refuse to wear black for black is the color of mourning, and I have mourned for my mother for these recently past painful years. I refuse to mourn another day.

Today I wear orange in celebration of my mother’s life and her passing from this world to the safety of the next. It is very difficult for me to think back on the past 7 years of mother’s life.

Though I remember momma before that time, it is the most recent life that leaves the most jarring memories. Her disease is a horrid one, for her and for the family. She is the one who entered the portal and left us waiting on the other side. She handled this last part of her life as courageously as she handled the others, with grit, determination, and even charm.

Some religious tenants promise that good can come from evil. I have pondered this concept at all hours have the day and the night concerning my mother’s illness, and have decided that yes, of course, this can be true; and I will tell you why.

First, momma was our teacher, a teacher who taught us how to live our lives. Through her illness, momma was again teaching us how to live our lives. However, more importantly, she was teaching us who we are. Through our coming together in our care for her, there was much interaction among siblings. If we are willing to look and to examine that interaction, we can find clues to our personality traits, both good and not so good. We can learn our strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn what pushes our button and how not to respond.

Momma also gave us a reason to determine our bottom-line values and evaluate how far along our spiritual path we have come. She taught us that life is fleeting and the things we think we may really, really want in life are but a chasing after wind, as so often mentioned in Ecclesiastes.

If we took heed, we also learned that the body fades and passes away, and that we must enjoy what life offers and know that it must end; and that when this life does end, we begin the journey that surpasses all understanding–that of eternal life. Therefore, we must see to it, especially at this point in our lives, that we are prepared.

We must learn to let go bit by bit of this earth and its earthly possessions and prepare the soul for what lies ahead. Mother entered another plane as she progressed into the dementia of Alzheimer’s, and she has entered yet another plane through her death. We cannot follow her in either yet; we can be prepared for one, but not the other.

We now enter a time of healing; we have already mourned for so long. This stage of our lives together is the one we face without our hub, without our reason to come home. We stayed in touch through our common care of mother. What now holds us together? What will keep us a part of each others’ lives? If you listened to and watched mother on the higher level, you learned that she gave us the strength to stay together and wants us to do so. She wants us to love, respect, honor, and listen to each other. She always said that family is the tie that binds, the commonality that will always be there. Momma was teaching us from our births to her death. Did we learn our lessons? There is only the individual response. Yes, there is always much good that can flow from bad things, we just have to change our perspective.

My sweet big sister, Elva Pera Kelly, as a young girl

My heart is full of sorrow, but it is also full of thanks. I give thanks for a mother who is leaving me and going home to you, and who you allowed me to share for 53 years.

Thank you for a mother who was willing to give birth to seven children, and stay with them through the good times and the bad. Thank you for the tenacity of her spirit and for the beauty of her face.

Thank you for the time she gave to me when she was tired and for the things she gave to me when money was tight.

Thank you for all the new Easter dresses and new pairs of spring shoes that my mother took me to buy when I was a little girl.

Thank you for the Christmases of my childhood that she made sure were special, and for the money that she spent on my presents even when money was in short supply.

Thank you for the lessons I learned from her and for the generosity of her laugh.

Thank you for the strength that she developed through the hills and valleys of her life and that she passed on to each of her children.

Thank you for the privilege of being born to a mother who wanted more for her children than she had.

Thank you for a mother with the spirit of feistiness and zest, who was not afraid to speak her mind, even when I did not want to hear it.

Thank you for the lessons that I learned in the family that she raised.

Thank you for her spirit of never giving up when those of lesser spirit would have lain down and quit.

Thank you for my mother’s face with a big grin, standing at the doorway of our home as I drove in to see her from Arkansas.

Thank you for giving me the privilege to help to care for my mother when she could no longer care for herself,

Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to be a mother myself so that I could better understand my mother and feel her pain and joy.

Thank you for the likenesses of my mother that I see in my own children.

Thank you for a mother who would not have a birthday party for me unless I invited every child in the class.

Thank you for a mother who taught me the value of a dollar.

Thank you for a mother who showed love and care to her own mother, thus setting an example for me.

Thank you for her imperfections, which taught me that I could still be a good mother without being perfect.

However, most of all, thank you for allowing me to be with my mother just one last time before she died. Thank you for letting me touch her, feel her warmth, and see her brown eyes one last time.

Thank you for letting me comfort her.

Thank you for the last spin through the garden that I was able to take with my mother and for the Coca Cola that we shared while enjoying that beautiful  day.

Thank you for all the memories that my mother gave to me.

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