Friday, September 15, 2006

A life worth living

Seventy-four years ago in Los Angeles, a baby girl was born. The year was 1932, the Great Depression gripped the country, and while L.A. was no longer a sleepy town, it wasn't anything near the sprawling metropolis that it's become. This girl was taken home from the hospital to grow up in the low hills above Crenshaw that overlook the L.A. Coliseum, home to the1932 Summer Olympics. This girl later recalled that, from their home, her family would watch the 4th of July fireworks that were shot above the Coliseum, and that it wasn't until much later, when she was older and got to attend one of those ceremonies that she realized that the whole field inside, the whole inside of the Coliseum itself, was also ablaze with fireworks.

As she got older, her intellect, curiosity, and adventurous spirit took her off to many great adventures, starting at Stanford University in the town that she would later return to settle in with her husband and children, Palo Alto. After graduating from Stanford in 1952, she spent several months traveling through Europe with a college friend. Along the way, they saw a good friend of her brother, a professional photographer who had bought her one of her first cameras, a Leica, which was exceedingly difficult to find and purchase, but which he could get for her through the PX, being one of the many GI's stationed in Europe following the war. This allowed her to continue with her lifelong love of photography, through which she documented all of her adventures and those of her family. She and her friend also decided that they wanted to see some sights that their small bus--it seated 12 or so--wouldn't take them to, so they hitchhiked through Switzerland, meeting up with the bus
on the other side.

As a Dutch woman who loved blue, she brought home Delft pottery from their time in Holland. And when she came home, she had some decisions to make. While she grew up, the Depression had long ago given way to the fear and sacrifices of the war, then to the postwar boom. The company that her father had started was booming along with so many others, providing, among other products, parts for airplane manufacturers, whose expansion seemed to have no end in sight. But Northern California called to her. She had loved her time among the golden sandstone buildings of rough-hewn blocks and elegant carvings,where she would skip down the steps of the library, singing the symphonies she would study on the record players in the basement there. She loved the weather, the oaks on the hillsides, and the expanse of the San Francisco Bay.

But this was the early 1950s, when not so many women got college degrees--in political science, no less--and moved hundreds of miles from home to live on their own as do today. What was she to do? She was torn, but she knew that she needed to do something. So she set about knitting a sweater, declaring that when she was done making the sweater, her decision would be made as well.

When she put down her knitting needles, she decided to move in with a girlfriend in San Francisco, above a beauty salon on Filbert. She had a wonderful few years there, often walking through Chinatown to North Beach with friends to get drink after work. It was likely here that she had her first good, dry martini, a drink that she loved, although she had them rarely.

During the winters, she would go skiing with friends at Sugar Bowl, near Norden, in the Sierras. Usually they would all stay at Kiski Lodge, which had a small-town, family-run feeling to it. It was a small lodge by today's standards, and even if everyone who arrived for the weekend didn't know each other on Friday night, they often would by Sunday afternoon.

Until then, it was an amazing life, but it was about to get better. On one of those many weekend ski trips, this girl from L.A. met the best friend she didn't know she had, the best friend she would ever had. She met my father.

Before long--and by that, I mean it was a matter of months--he proposed marriage to her, and shortly after that, they were married. Within a year, they had their first of six children, of which I'm the last. They loved us with a devotion and focus rarely seen, creating what seems now an impossibly happy household. Sure, there were arguments and tempestuous times, but there was always love and laughter, especially around the dinner table, where all eight of us sat down to eat every night as soon as possible after Dad arrived home on his bike from the train station.

And her adventures continued with all of us as we grew up. There was the hike to the top of Half Dome with me; the family reunion that she organized--and hiked down to and up from--at the bottom of the Grand Canyon; there was a trip back to the Grand Canyon soon after to raft the length of the canyon with her brother, Brother #2, and other close relatives; and there was the whirlwind trip to Friesland to finally track down--thanks to Brother #2's sleuthing--where our ancestors (long thought to be Dutch) had grown up and left from to come to the New World in the 1600's. All of these were completed long after she had turned 50.

The fun of the great adventure that was Mom's life has come to an end, however. Brother #2 called me Wednesday to tell me that she had unexpectedly and apparently peacefully passed away. Mama, 3B, and I were going out to California on Friday, both for my high school reunion and so Mom could meet her newest grandchild, who she had only seen in pictures and a few short movies. So we moved our flights, and we're flying out today (Thursday--as I write this we're between Chicago and San Francisco, and I'm not sure when I'll be able to post it) instead and staying longer than we had originally planned.

While I've had my breakdowns here and there since getting the news, but I'm a literal person, so until we land and see my siblings, and home, and I get involved in making the arrangement for Mom's final trip and the final visits of her friends, it won't really hit me. That's not to say that I slept more than a few hours last night, my mind ticking through all the moments of my life, which until now, always included Mom, and the times of her life, so many of which will forever remain a mystery to me now. And that's not to say it's a hard time now, and it's a hard rain that's a'gonna fall soon, but I take no small amount of solace from my memories of Mom's life--the life that she shared with all of us--it was a full, happy life that was exciting and challenging and that will continue on as long as her spirit lives on, as it does in her children, grandchildren, and all those who follow her.

She would not want me to wallow, to become lost for even a moment in my grief. She wouldn't want me to forget for a moment that I'm still alive, and that I have much more living to do if I'm to have a hope of living a life as full as hers. She would want me to share my grief with my siblings, my wife, and my child, but also remind me to share my love and joy with them as well. And, as a mama's boy, I'll always do what Mom says--except that part years ago about "I forbid you to pierce your ears." Yeah, a late apology about that, Mom, but otherwise, whatever you say goes. Well, except maybe your wish that someday I'll shave my beard--sorry, I'm just too lazy to shave. OK, but other than that. . .oh hell, what did you expect from the son who you taught to jaywalk, and showed where to cut through fences, and laughed with over Johnny Cash's awful, wonderful version of Delia's Gone?

You would never want me to live someone else's idea of a life, or to shrink from an adventure; you would always have faith in me, and I promise that I'll always try to live up to that faith. And I'll always love and miss you, Mom. You're the best Mom a boy could hope for.


A postscript, if I may, that illustrates Mom in brief. Mama and I had been dating for some time before she finally came home to California to meet Mom and the rest of the family. As soon as we arrived home, we all settled into the living room to talk, as we're wont to do until the wee hours. Mama was a champ, and she settled right in and joined the conversation wherever she could. After some time we got to talking about language, a favorite topic, and talk turned to new or unusual phrases.

In a pause, I heard Mama saying, "I heard a phrase recently that I'd never heard before, I heard someone saying that someone 'Got a wild hair.' All I could picture was someone with a wild hare, you know, a rabbit."

And there it lay, out among us, like a turd in the punchbowl: A wild hair. Who was going to explain that one in front of Mom?

Nobody would have to. Without missing a beat, Mom said, "I believe the complete phrase is 'Got a wild hair up my ass.'"

Welcome to Mom's family, Mama.


  1. Anonymous3:42 PM

    All I can say is I'm so very sorry.

    Peace to you and your family.

  2. Anonymous4:42 PM

    I'm sorry to hear your news, and saddened that she will never hold 3B. But your stories will live on, and it sounds like you have plenty of them.

  3. So sorry for your loss, but I think your mom would be proud of this commeortive post.

  4. Nice. Nice. Thanks for that.

  5. Sorry to hear about your mom's passing. You have an amazing way of paying tribute to someone so special.

    I think you both were very lucky.

  6. Anonymous8:58 PM

    My heart is breaking for you and your family. What an amazing woman--and an overwhelming loss. You've created such a touching tribute...thank you for sharing it.

  7. I'm so sorry. Your post was beautiful. I wish I could have known your mom more and I'm very sad that 3B and she didn't get to meet.

  8. I don't think I will be able to write something so wonderful when my parents pass on.

    Sending much love from our family to yours.

  9. What a beautiful tribute to your mother, Papa. I'm sorry that she never got to meet 3B in person. It sounds like she has created a warm, happy, loving family for 3B to grow up and be a part of. My thoughts are with your family...

  10. Oh, Papa B, I'm so sorry. I hope you and your family are able to get through this. It sounds like your mother has laid on hell of a foundation- build something strong on it. Take care

  11. Anonymous10:56 AM

    This moving tribute to your mother brought tears to my eyes, FB. I'm so sorry for your loss. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman who brought much joy to those around her and will sorely be missed. Deepest condolences to you and your family.