October 24, 2013

Decades Stun

Minutes trudge,
Hours run,
Years fly,
Decades stun

Ten years ago, my mother died following a small stroke. She went peacefully, in her sleep. Her life had been long and filled with events. The last child of a large family, she was born not that long after World War I but just at the right time to experience the Great Depression and World War II. 

The family got through it by sticking together, which perhaps explains the closeness of her family that has persisted through the decades and generations. It may also explain her role as peacemaker in my father's family, who sometimes feuded almost as fiercely as they loved each other.

Like many people from that generation, my mother was always busy doing something. An enduring memory I have is her braiding an enormous rug for the living room. Relatives would deliver paper bags filled with old clothes and neckties. She would cut them to size and weave them through the three metal braiding aids and then lace together the long strands into an oval pattern. Large pots of hot water would be placed on the finished rug to flatten it. 

All this would be accomplished in the scraps of time left over from when she wasn't cooking or refinishing an antique dresser or working in the garden or piecing together information about the latest check my father wrote. She also kept the books for Dad's business -- my mother was a very bright woman; she was good enough with numbers to keep the town school system's books for many years. Tracking down the checks my father would write often required convoluted discussions in small-town code before she could piece together enough information.
Lou, who'd you write that check too? Thing, you know his second cousin works over at the lumber yard. Who? You know ... thing ... he married so-and-so's third cousin twice removed. Oh, Dominic! Why'd you write the check? For the job we did on Main Street, you know the re-roofing because of the storm last winter, the one that knocked down the tree in so-and-so's backyard. Okay, how much was the check? Well, let me think.
For most folks, it was my mother's activities as a gardener that lingers most in the memory. You can still find pictures of it on the American Rhododendron Society of Massachusetts' web page.Her life in the garden was the perfect metaphor for a life of steady work combined with a natural sense of artistry, be it braiding rugs or weaving together displays of her beloved rhododendrons.

The effortless enterprise and hard-work of my mother's generation may be a thing of the past. I count myself lucky enough to have been exposed to it. The legacy we pass on to our children is not the lessons we teach them, but the lessons the children absorb from a life observed. My mother and my father gave us the best lesson a child could learn: the tenacity required to go out and do the needed work -- every day, rain or shine, hot or cold -- and then come home and be there for the family. Hopefully, that is a gift that has kept on giving.

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