written for the memorial service after my mother's death on April 25th, 2013
Words For My Mother
Everyone said she was very pretty, and she talked in that charming South Georgia way. I knew it, too, although from a small boy’s perspective, she was just “Mom” and what she commanded was the Law. The tall guy I called “Dad” would enforce The Law if necessary, and don’t you forget it.
And Mom commanded that there would swim lessons every week, and music lessons, too. And trips to the Oregon Museum and then to National Parks in the summers. There would be few plastic weapons or other “useless toys” in our house, but there would be Little League and Boy Scouts and trips to the ocean and the mountains. Also, no book requests would be refused, except for comics. An exhibit of Van Gogh at the Portland Museum was a must, as was a journey each Sunday morning to Calvary Presbyterian Church. My brother and I wore clean, starched clothes, and she lectured us to keep our hands away from the closing car doors, until she neatly removed the tip of her index finger as she closed the door after the warning lecture – the peril of the overzealous teacher. She was willing to make real sacrifices for her children’s education, and she followed her sons’ progress closely.
The girl from Metter, Georgia, began life with so much promise. She was a straight A student, with obvious talents in writing and drama. In her senior year of high school, she was voted Best High School Actress for the state. So after she completed her teaching certificate at Georgia Southern Teachers College, she taught English and directed school plays with some success. But the Depression was in full force, and her cousins were making real money Up North, so she took diction lessons to minimize her southern accent and headed up to Washington D.C.
There she found work clerking in the offices of the FBI, until she met a tall young man from the Midwest, who fell very much in love with her. They were married one month after Pearl Harbor, coming down to Georgia to be married in Athens and then honeymooning on Peachtree Street.
The war years changed everything in this country for a while, and Doris Wallace Wenn found herself working in the library of John Hopkins University while her husband, John, worked in uniform at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore.
When the war ended, she was asked to remain at the university for graduate study, but her husband had a good job back in Washington, and in those days, there was no consideration for a woman’s potential over a man’s – ever.
So it was back to D.C. and then motherhood and learning more about housekeeping skills, because that wasn’t part of her upbringing in the Georgia of her youth. She had never seen white women cook or clean or sew. But she adapted and soldiered on, taking care of her husband, John, and then a handsome baby they called John III, until the time came to move far, far away to the foreign world of Oregon, well outside the easy reach of the life she had known.
In Portland, she had another son, named Wallace for her side of the family, but then the dark clouds arrived. A severe post-partum depression struck, and her husband found himself in a very tough spot. One post-partum suicide had already happened in his family, so he must have been incredibly worried that this could be the second. And now he found himself all alone in a city with an infant and a two-year-old, along with a wife who needed shock therapy, the approved treatment for severe depression in those days.
Help arrived in the persons of his mother and then his in-laws, who were willing to leave almost everything behind to journey all the way across the country, from Metter to Portland, because their only surviving child needed help. Eventually, life got better for Doris, and her husband kept getting promotions. Her father, always known as “Mr. Carl”, dealt in cars, while her mother, Miss Alice (known to the neighborhood simply as “Nanny”), was there to cast a bit of Southern sunshine on a what could be, to Doris, a bleak Western landscape.
Then came moves to Cincinnati and Minneapolis, where the dark dramas in Doris’ mind made other appearances, but usually only briefly. No one ever mentioned mental illness or manic-depression, and no one ever would, until she was an almost-incapacitated elderly woman.
Doris and John retired to Atlanta, eventually living just a few blocks off of Peachtree where their marriage had begun. Unfortunately, Dad began to have a lot of health problems, and they were moving to Clarkesville when he died suddenly while returning from the closing of their Atlanta condo. After that, Mom’s health condition, both mentally and physically, began to slide. By the time she arrived at Grace Calvary, she was something of a shadow of her Best Self. She was polite and charming, of course, but she had always had problems fostering friendships and closeness, and she became increasingly angry and isolated.
Somewhat tragically, after she had almost totally collapsed physically, we managed to finally take her for psychiatric treatment, and with the help of a few relatively easy medications, a woman I had not seen for a very long time reappeared. We had some laughter after that and almost normal conversations in very un-normal surroundings.
My mother knew most of the staff at the nursing home by name and tried, as best she could, to care about their lives outside of the institution. But it was tough focusing with a brain that was impeded by a growing dementia. She lived on at the Oak Heritage Nursing Home in Baldwin from 2004 until last week. There were never any complaints from her about her care or her food or her roommates. Her final best friend was a tiny, rescued Chihuahua named Minnie, who arrived with big ears, a tongue hanging permanently out of her mouth and a craving to cuddle with an old woman who would talk to her like she would talk with no human visitor. When Mom didn’t respond to Minnie, it was a strong clue that something was really wrong, but Mom had rallied several times before. So we waited.
As it turned out, Doris died quietly, and politely, in her sleep. Her roommate, Lillian, told me that she thought my Mom was a “real lady” and that she would miss her.
Hand written inside of Doris’ high school year book of 1936 was a poem by Katheryn Stockton and my mother had written simply “Goal” at the top of the page.
The poem reads:
“Life is intense and lovely.
I want to live it so.
And when I’m gone I’d like to feel
My dust will make flowers grow.”