It was snowing when my mother died. It had snowed all day Friday, Jan. 22, and into Saturday. Roads in Raleigh, where she was, and Greensboro, where I was, were impassable. I stayed at home, talking with my two sisters and my brother, making arrangements, calling her friends and her sisters, and doing the things that you do when your mother dies. What else was I going to do?
It’s funny what you remember about your mother when she dies. I don’t remember much about her as her when I was growing up. She was Mom, doing what I figured mothers did. I was focused on ME.
I also didn’t think much about her last month alive. She came down with bronchitis before Christmas and was unable to come to our house for our extended family’s holiday celebration. It occurs to me only now that that was the first Christmas in MY LIFE that I didn’t spend with her. She went into the hospital with bronchitis and, while she was released after a week, well, she may as well not have been.
She had told us for years that she was ready to join my father, who died the day that President Obama was elected in 2008. (We like to say that he lived long enough to live in an America that would have the decency to elect an African American to the highest office in the land.) A few years later, she began to tell us she was ready to die. She wasn’t, of course; she had grandchildren to dote over. But in her way, she was preparing us for the time in which death would come. She was providing us comfort in advance.
What I think about now — remember, really — is what we talked about in her final years. She told me about her time growing up in Norristown, Pa., with four sisters, all daughters of an upper-middle-class small business owner. About her feeling the moral obligation to join the WAVES because her father was the chairman of the Selective Service Board in Norristown. He was sending men to serve in World War II, and he had no sons. She decided she needed to step up. (That’s the kind of woman she was her entire life.) She was proud of her service in Washington, D.C., helping to keep records. She talked about being called before a Congressional committee asking about communications involving the attack on Pearl Harbor.
She loved to tell the story of her father who wanted to expand into pesticides. About how he took a suitcase packed full of cockroaches on a train to a demonstration, opened the suitcase…and it was empty. No more pesticide business.
As we grew up, Dad usually traveled Monday through Thursday. Mom was our rock. They both gave us freedom to be kids, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to find our own way. We were normal kids, I suppose, coming of age in the 60s and 70s. Except that mom was a psychologist who worked for Wake County’s Division of Social Services, and she routinely brought home harrowing stories of abused and neglected children. I remember learning that life was unfair, that we had an abundance of blessings, and that we needed to give back in multiples of kindness. I think that was her point.
My sister Louise sent me a copy of a newsletter that announced a volunteer award she won in 1989. I shake my head now at all she did so much for the poor and needy that I wasn’t aware of. It reminded me of a constant at our house as I grew up. Every Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, as we gathered in celebration around our dinner table, we were always joined by one or two or four extra people, people my mother had invited because they needed to be part of a family.
In that announcement was a photo of my mother with Ferrel Guillory, with whom I worked at the News & Observer in the 1980’s and now work with at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. Ferrel wrote:
“I can’t overstate how much I admired her, and welcomed the opportunity to work with her during the years I spent on the board of Pan Lutheran Ministries. Just as she became a Protestant on the Catholic Social Ministries board, I became the Catholic on the Lutheran board, which is how I got to know your Mom and Dad. Remind me to tell you how we ‘conspired’’ to put the issue of homelessness on the Raleigh city agenda during the mid- to late-80s.
“The Pan Lutheran board ended its meetings by singing the Doxology: ‘Praise God from whom as blessings flow…’ I sing it to myself to reflect from time to time. I’m singing it to myself now in memory of Margy, a real blessing to our community. ”
That note, noting on Mom’s service, her religious commitment and her importance to what is important, touched me deeply. Mom was disappointed that none of her children shared her devotion to the church. But I think she knew that what we learned from her was what the church taught: kindness and virtue and goodness.
Every time I spoke to Mom, she told me she was proud of me. I realize now that I’ve spent all of my life trying to live up to that.