Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mothers and Daughters: R.I.P., Mother

Betty Lorene Lawson Arthur passed away last Sunday, September 7, 2014. The death certificate will say Monday because that’s the day she was found, and no autopsy was performed. Natural causes, it was ruled. And I’m sure it was, but I would have liked closure on why. For my own medical history. For some idea of what her last moments must have been like.

At 87 and a half years, exactly, she survived longer than the average American woman. Longer than her husband. Longer than her four brothers and one sister. She was the last of her generation’s immediate family group. She knew she was next, and she was okay with the inevitability.

She wasn’t a perfect mother, and I was FAR from the perfect daughter, but we had an indestructible bond. The mother-daughter relationship is far stronger than mere blood would expect. We share with our mothers the first menstrual cycle and its incumbent fears and expectations. We know the childbirth pains she experienced when birthing us. We share the never-ending fear that something awful will happen to our children. Those are bonds no son can know. It is the Sisterhood. The Red Tent.

Mother carried around the psychological wounds of her childhood. And sometimes those wounds caused her to act in ways, make decisions that I disagreed with. And we argued. Oh, my how we argued. But the absolute, complete, love underneath was the firm foundation we always settled on after some contretemps or another.

Her story is one I’ve tried to novelize in my incomplete draft, Grassy Crick Holler. I think I need to go back to that story for closure and as a tribute. It is the very least I can do.

She was a coal miner’s daughter. Really. In West Virginia. Her stories of those mining towns and the fear when the bell rang signaling tragegy in the mine, was part of the fabric of my childhood.

When she was 5, her mother died at age 28 of pneumonia after giving birth to her latest son. Jack was seventeen days old when Grandma died. Grandpa was left with five children, no child care, no money for child care. He allowed Uncle Jackie to be adopted by a wonderful woman. The rest of the family were briefly scattered to live among various relatives, and then reunited when Grandpa married “the first Lilly”.

She purportedly took good care of the kids, but I guess, as Mother told the story, these were very hard depression times in a state that never was rich. Grandpa worked nights in the mine, and so did Lilly to supplement the family income. Mother tells of accompanying Lilly to her rendezvouses down by the rail tracks. She was told to stay by the tracks while Lilly went off to conduct business. At least she didn’t leave Mother home alone, right?

Grandpa divorced “the first Lilly” when he found out. Kids scattered again among family. But those families were struggling, too, and my mother ended up in the orphanage and then was farmed out to different families over the years or returned to the orphanage when families didn’t want her or she couldn’t live with them. Imagine the number that would do on your psyche.

She married my father at age 17, still in ninth grade because she had such erratic schooling. She didn’t go to school for the first time or learn to read until she was 8. I know she saw marriage to Daddy as her ticket to a better, more stable life. And it was. He died almost two years ago at age 92 after their marriage of 68 years.

As a kid, I remember how she wanted to be open to anything we wanted to know. Because she had no one to explain menstruation to her, when she got her first period, she thought she was dying. She hurt and she was bleeding. And she didn’t know how to tell this latest foster mother. She was beyond scared. She told me that she swore she would never have her children wondering about their bodies.

At a time when my friends’ mothers were reticent to talk about the female body and human sexuality, my mother was eager. If she didn’t know, she’d pull out this aged medical dictionary she had, and we’d read it together to see if we could find the answer. Unsurprisingly, my friends would hang out at our house so they could ask Mother questions they couldn’t ask at home.

Also, I credit my lack of sexual inhibition--I, quite simply, don’t have any hang-ups-- to living on a farm where reproduction just is what goes on and to my parents clear sexual connection to one another. I thought everybody necked in front of their kids!

Despite numerous and very serious health issues over the years, she was doing so well living on her own in her own home still. Iowa has a wonderful aging-in-place model of support for seniors. My brother looked in on her. People came to clean, walk with her, set up her pills, and so on. The latest was that she was planning her new adventure. She was moving to Denver to live in an apartment near my sister. She was so excited and so looking forward to this new phase of her life.

When she died in her chair Sunday, quite peacefully, likely from her on-going heart issues, she had just made her famous Mexican Cornbread and had the fixings on the counter for cherry pie. We think she sat to rest, and then went to sleep forever. That’s the way to go. Kisses, Mother!


  1. What a poignant glimpse at the lady with whom you shared that special mother-daughter bond. She obviously had a big effect on the curious, open, intelligent woman you are.

    1. Thanks, Sandy. We had our issues, for sure, but there is a hole in my heart now from her absence.