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Readers Write -- Mom at 81

Andy’s note:  A guest post from my friend Joel. Mother’s Day is Sunday May 13,2012

 Mom at 81 by Joel

Joel's Mom

After her fifth child (my younger brother Tom) was born, my mom decided to stop living her life vicariously through her husband and children. She started graduate school in her mid-30s, at the University of Tennessee. In junior high, I remember her returning from exams convinced she’d failed, only to wave her “A” in front of me a few days later. I wasn’t making As back then. She always hated it when one of her rats died—almost took it personally. By the time I was finishing high school, she defended a doctoral dissertation that conclusively showed that the work of one of the leading biofeedback labs in the world was wrong.

At that point, she and my dad moved, with the three youngest kids, to the East side of Manhattan so she could do a 2-year postdoc at the Rockefeller University, working in the lab she had proven wrong. I enjoyed the visits to their apartment on East 65th Street between my quarters at UT-Knoxville, and they were transformed into city folks by the time they returned to East Tennessee. I started subscribing to The New Yorker then, and still read it every week.

Everybody needs a spud gun!

After returning to Oak Ridge, she taught classes at UT-K and night school for Roane State for several years. Then, my folks bought their retirement home in upstate New York, where they moved in their early ‘60s. Even after that, she taught correspondence courses for the state of Vermont. Eventually, she moved on to be a court-appointed child advocate for Vermont, a job that has made effective use of both her parenting skills and her Ph.D. in psychology.

In 2009, at the age of 78, she joined my brother Mike and me (and Mike’s family) on Ride the Rockies, riding four of the six days at altitudes of 6000-9000 feet and camping with us every night. She never rode a bicycle as a kid.

Recently, the US Census Bureau released detailed census records for 1940. Mike found my mom’s family records and emailed me the pdf. In it, I learned that her dad was a coal miner with a 3rd grade education. My mom was 8 that year, the youngest of three. Six years later, her dad (my maternal grandfather) died of TB, leaving her mom—with a 4th grade education—to support the family by working as a domestic.

Fortunately, her oldest brother was a football star, and as a pro, he earned enough money to pay for my mom’s college. Which is where she met my dad. Together, they raised five kids who all finished college and have two Ph.D.s and an MFA between them. We were all raised with high expectations of ourselves and with a reverence for learning and learned people. I’ve never lost that life lesson.

Last fall, my mom had a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. With the unstinting help of my sisters, she has been treated at Dana Farber by a learned physician-scientist. At our family reunion just after Christmas last year, she put up a brave face under the pressures of her ongoing chemotherapy. Which is what moms (and grandmothers) do.

I don’t really know how to end this post. I won’t resort to maudlin sentimentality, because I don’t think she’d be amused. I’d say I’ll try to end this with a clever quote that captured her essential command of authority but then I’d hear her demand, as she always said: “Don’t try, Joel. Just do it.”

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1 comment to Readers Write — Mom at 81

  • Joel

    Update: Last month, she flew down from NY to attend my daughter’s wedding. Only one of the grandparents to be there.

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