I wrote most of my essay about Dad years ago and the words came easily to me. In contrast, I have put off writing about my mother because it has been much more difficult to give shape to my thoughts about her. In addition, she was actively on-line until three or four years ago and I was not about to risk her happening upon whatever I wrote! As I said at her funeral in November, 2016, I never stopped being a little bit afraid of my mother.
My topic is her impact on my life from my personal perspective; she told her own story about her life in the way she wanted to tell it in her memoir, “Selective Memories by Rhoda Elleen Berry, Youngest Child of Albert B. Berry and Florence E Owen.”
My mother was an active, hands-on parent to me, and I saw her fully engaged, 24/7, in raising her children. She was vocally directive or critical when there were things about me or my behavior to be directive or critical about, which there surely often were, and she consistently pushed me to achieve in everything I did, for my whole life. Achieve in everything but sports, that is, because I think she didn’t see that as important, at least for her older children. Mom was always supportive for so long as I was studying, practicing a musical instrument, reading, watching the younger kids, or was out of her sight. Points for that, it apparently demonstrated my independence. As I got older, I stayed out of sight a lot!
I came to understand as a young adult that this parenting style had only held for the older children in my family (my mother bore 9 children, two of whom died as newborns). I used to tell people, in describing our family and explaining how the oldest three children were seemingly raised so differently than the younger 4, that my mother had gotten tired and let the younger kids run wild, but as an adult I learned from talking with my sisters there had been much more to the situation than I knew.
While my mother was very engaged in parenting and homemaking, my father, though kind, was largely distant and mostly passive as a parent, which I ascribe to his being absent from the home, working, as I grew up. My older sister had a somewhat different experience since, being older by 3 years, she had a great deal more one-on-one time with my father early in life than did I. Overall, theirs were very traditional roles for people of my parents’ generation, but as my mother had enjoyed different ambitions as a young woman, hers was not a personally satisfying role over the long run.
The transition from the very small Iowa home town where mother grew up to the city where she went to attend business college and got her first accounting job was a key part of her self-identity, from what I know. Our small Northern Minnesota village stood in sharp contrast to the city of Des Moines, Iowa, where she met my father, and she was intensely unhappy with her life in my home town of Hawley, Minnesota for 60+ years. She had not wanted to move back to any small town after the war was over, let alone the one my father had grown up in, and she fulminated about this turn of events nearly to her last breath. An unplanned pregnancy after reuniting with my dad when they had returned from military service in the Pacific theater and the strong advice of her adored father to join her husband, brought her there. She was unhappy with my father for this turn of fate, judged by the seemingly nightly arguments which took place in the living room above my head (my bedroom was in the basement), when he got home at 11:30 or so from his evening job. On the other hand, they had 9 children together so obviously there were limits to her unhappiness with him.
My mother had mild opinions on very few subjects, in my recollection, and as a youngest child herself had few compunctions about sharing them with others. She was especially strong in her opinions about the equality (really, she would say superiority) of women and their need for education as the best way to avoid being repressed and dominated by men. This wasn’t a topic between the two of us, however. My sisters have told me my father believed that college was wasted on girls but I don’t recall this, probably because it didn’t involve me. I don’t doubt that my father held traditional views about this and other things, and am glad these views changed over time, if too late. In any event, books about feminism were common in our household as I was growing up and I had, “Women are equal to men” drummed into my head from an early age.
My role within the family was to solve problems and not to cause them; to help with things, and not be a burden. I ended up being an organizer and planner, usually in charge of packing the car before trips, being the “older brother in charge,” babysitter of the younger children and sometime enforcer of the household’s rules. This often didn’t play out to any personal advantage. As an example, it always seemed to be my responsibility to dish out desserts. It was a challenge to cut a half-gallon of ice cream into two parts, one for each of 2 meals, and then to divide that half into 9 equal portions. They needed to be equal because as the person who divided it up, I got the last choice! Talk about incentives to make things even!
My mother was especially encouraging that we all learn about music, and we did. I have great memories of my parents singing affectionately together and to each other, and singing with us at home, in the car during trips, and at church. They each had good voices, and my mother was a very strong soprano in the church choir for decades over decades. (She also possessed the loudest sneeze in church.) We sang in the church’s “angel choir”, the youth choir and eventually the senior choir as we grew, took piano lessons, and played band instruments. This was at a time when our high school curriculum included a full class period of band and another of choir every day. My sister, Christine, took violin lessons at Concordia College and I accompanied her on the piano at her recitals. My mother made sure that we were exposed to classical music and I remember being dragged along, with varying degrees of reluctance, to performances of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony orchestra. Two of my sisters played in the orchestra during their college years, and my youngest sister, Bryce, was an especially wonderful singer and skilled musician. I recall being taken to art exhibits as well but nothing there “took” as it were, but my mother had a period when she painted. I don’t recall it at the time but have since seen some of her work.
When I was a teenager and the oldest child in the household for the 3 years after my sister left home for college, I was increasingly my mother’s confidant, being told more about her relationship issues than probably was healthy, but I also frequently stood up to her in opposition to her rage and sarcasm. She and I argued loudly and frequently when I was a teenager, probably from 10th grade until I left home for college and didn’t need to argue with her any longer. This is not an unusual thing to happen between a teenager and a parent, but our arguments were possibly more intense than average as we both were very adept verbally. They are embarrassing for me to remember, now – I was so certain about all my opinions!
I think my high school years coincided with the years of her use and likely dependence on several prescription drugs to get through the day (diet pills, energy pills, pain pills, sleeping pills, etc., batch prescriptions not being unusual for the time), as well as her alcohol abuse away from the home, of which I was unaware for many years. There was never any alcohol in the house and I assumed she was a non-drinker. I recall she was in several serious car accidents which caused her painful back injuries that took her a long time to recover from, and this could have been a factor at some points in time. My mother’s plans to go back to college and finish her 4-year degree (I remember her gathering transcripts and class credits from her business college and from Indiana University, where she had her Navy training) did not come to fruition. While she held things together very well during my tenure in the home, she lost it for a while in her later years as a parent and according to my youngest sister the children remaining in the household experienced a diminished level of parenting that affected them. Eventually my mother found her own pathway to abstinence.
Unlike my father, who wished me well, and who I think expected hard work would bring me reasonable success at whatever I chose to do, my mother had firm and more definite expectations of me. These were to be an achiever and live up to my potential as she saw it; to grow up, move away and live in the wider world; to take care of myself and solve my own problems; and, to not bring home my dirty clothes expecting her to wash them for me.
Because of this programming and my role as a “coper,” fixer, caretaker and umpire for the younger children, some of the qualities I developed were independence, endurance, a tolerance for chaos and stress, acceptance of responsibility, the avoidance of conflict, a facility for making decisions and comfort in the role of a decision-maker, self-control, an awareness of people and their moods, and the ability to work with difficult people. These are classic traits of an adult child of an alcoholic, and I think that many of them contributed to my later success in business.
My mother’s seeming favorite quotation, that I heard from her repeatedly in my last two years at home, was from the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling which she compressed to the single line, “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…then you will be a man, my son.” (In a way, keeping my head in my family situation was doing what the poem exhorts us all to do. I wonder if she would have agreed?) Further sound advice I received on many occasions, from her and not from Rudyard Kipling, was to: “Take three deep breaths to compose yourself and then deal with the situation, whatever it is.”
In later years when I was a mature adult, father and husband, whenever business took me to the Fargo or Grand Forks area, I tried to stop by Hawley on my way to have a cup of coffee or tea at home with her, and often did. I also remained in contact with her by telephone and for most of my life after age 30 or so, we usually spoke every few weeks. These conversations are wonderful memories for me now; I especially recall her voice brightening when she heard my voice over the telephone, and over time she did a good share of coaching, at least on most topics. Some were out of bounds. When I brought up my divorce for discussion with her after my first wife and I had separated in 1989, thinking this was something I needed to explain to her, the only thing she would say about it was, “I’m not deaf, and I’m not blind!” That closed the topic for her. She was scrupulous about not inserting her opinions or taking sides on any marital issues, which I never intentionally brought forward to her, but when I brought other problems and situations to her, the insights I received, almost always in the form of a series of insightful questions, were always razor-sharp and usually on point. For many years, her input was interesting and helpful, if sometimes unpredictable, and she never did stop saying, “Goodness gracious, you aren’t looking for me to make any decisions for you, are you?” Yes, there almost always was a kind of snarky sneer in her voice when she said this, she was amused and clever. By a wide margin, my mother was the most complex person I have ever met, and she was also one of the smartest.
She remained able to surprise me now and then with how sharp and capable she was almost to the end of her life. About 3 1/2 years before she died, and she was still driving a car to her hairdresser’s and back, (functionally, I think she was nearly blind but had memorized the route) my dad and I found ourselves locked out of the house in Hawley when the doorknob wouldn’t take hold of the latch and instead turned endlessly. We tried opening the door with a credit card, with a screwdriver, and everything else we could think of, and after 20 minutes or so were about to give up and call a locksmith in Fargo, when she returned home from her outing. She listened to us complain about the doorknob, then took her key, did something magical with her hands and wrists, and the door opened! She looked at us, shook her head, and silently went inside to fix herself a cup of coffee. “Men!” (I could read her mind. on this occasion.)
My mom’s temperament became more unpredictable after age 85, or so, and as time went on her reaction to others’ opinions and her inability to handle the mildest possible criticism brought about increasingly defensive and bitter comment, and that for me closed out the era of discussing “my” things with her. I preferred not to engage in a debate of my feelings, opinions and recollections, especially because, even in old age, she proved too quick, too harsh and too acid-tongued for me to parry with her and enjoy it.
Mother’s eyesight declined in her final years due to macular degeneration, and in her last 2 years her mind and original spunky, self-defensive but positive personality were largely lost to dementia of some kind. After my mother sensed her decline and loss of faculties she discouraged my visits and, eventually, our conversations. My siblings and I elected hospice care in a nursing home for her final couple of months, following an emergency hospitalization, and while life in a nursing home was something she long had been determined to avoid, she preferred that to returning home from the hospital. My mother rather thought she was staying at a hotel those final weeks, one where people were very kind to her, and although she also suffered frightful flashbacks to traumatic events from WWII, when she served in the navy at air training stations in Hawaii, she received care and comfort at the end.
There is no way to sum up my relationship with my mother. Who is more foundational to who we are than our mother, or, our primary caretaker to give credit due to single fathers, grandparents raising grandchildren, etc.? Who has shaped us more than they? I miss her.
IF, by Rudyard Kipling