Subtitle: My mom is just an amazing, ordinary woman.
I spent Friday with Mom at her house. My Mom is in her mid-seventies, and she lives in a very nice house with her very nice husband of a couple of years. She is very strong and active, and you would be surprised to know her age if you met her. They have a lovely yard, and I took lots of photos of it while I was there, and we talked a lot about her gardens and her plans for them (She has a new deck, and thus, a new opportunity for a garden.) I took the photos so I could use them as inspiration in my yard, which also has lots of trees.
In the course of the conversations, I thought about how she makes wonderful, pretty, comfortable places from what she has on hand. That is one of her gifts. Then I started thinking about how she has done that over the years, sometimes against serious odds.
My mom was born in WWII and lived a normal middle class childhood. She had a loving father and mother, and two sisters with whom she played and fought, just like in a Norman Rockwell painting. By the time she was old enough to be thinking about college, life, a family, she knew that she wanted to be a farmer. But nice girls from comfortable families in the suburbs aren’t farmers, so she went off to college as directed.
By age 19 she was married and had a tiny baby (me). She doesn’t think so, but I know that it showed a lot of courage, to take those steps. Her parents gave her two choices – get married, or give the baby up. She knew she couldn’t give up her baby, so she got married. She didn’t know that she had two other choices, so keeping me and NOT getting married, or having an abortion never came up.
By age 25 she had three more children and a suspicion that she and Dad weren’t good together.
By age 30, they were divorced, and she was the single mother of 4 in a very nice town where divorcees were not acceptable friends for nice married women. She also was suddenly quite poor instead of just struggling to make ends meet. She knew how to do a couple of things well – raise kids and play the piano. So, that is what she did – she was the school lunch lady, she gave piano lessons and she played the piano in a local bar in the evenings. Thank goodness this was in the early 70’s when it was OK to leave your kids (aged 6-12) home alone as long as the neighbor moms knew it and could keep an ear out for trouble. Thankfully, there never was any.
We knew we were poor, we knew we used food stamps fr groceries, we knew we didn’t dress like our friends. We didn’t much like it and I know that I, the lone teenager at that point REALLY didn’t like it.
We also knew that we were loved very much, and we knew we could rely on her, no matter what, to take very good care of us, physically and emotionally. And we could count on her for fun. My mom is very creative when it comes to having fun with just our brains and ourselves and no money.
Our house was always kind of messy and shabby. But our fence had red roses growing on it, and a huge forsythia hedge marked the side boundary. It was a beautiful thing to behold in the spring, and made lovely green caves for playing under on hot summer days.
Eventually, trying to live in that town was just too hard, and we moved to Maine, where Mom felt that being poor was more likely to blend in. She was right, for sure. We sold the house in the ‘burbs, bought a ramshackle old house in town on land barely large enough to hold the house, and Mom poured every cent from the sale of our house into it. All the neighbors thought a rich widow was moving in. So far from the truth! She had enough money to make sure we had lights, plumbing, and insulation. She made the new house amazing. For one thing, we each had our own room, and we could decorate it anyway we want (though it might take years for her to afford the paint)
Mom found a job in a local school as a teacher’s aide, but it didn’t start until two months after we moved. So she moved to a new state hundreds of miles from everything any of us knew, with $100 in her wallet and four kids to feed. She wasn’t sure what she would do, but it was summer, and she found a part-time job in a local shop. It barely fed us.
She wound up marrying the man next door, a bachelor of 50 years old, who never knew how his life would change!
This is when Mom’s life got better – he was so supportive of all her ideas and all of her kids. While he was strict, he was loving and strong. He wasn’t rich, either, so in that regard, life was still hard. But now she had someone to help her survive it all.
They eventually sold that house and moved to yet another old falling down place, this one on more land, and they spent years making it beautiful, and warm. As always Mom made the house and yard feel welcoming and look beautiful. A good home for those 4 kids, who by now were growing up and wandering off. And at last, the closest thing to a farm that she would have. She had gardens and sheep and a dog. She boarded a horse in exchange for a foal, and she managed to get a few chickens as well, and then some goats. It was her dream come true, but not her whole life.
When my sister went off to college, Mom was finally able to also go back to college. She struggled to find the time and money, but went to the local branch of our state university for a year, in preparation for seminary, which was her ultimate goal. In order for her to go to seminary, she and my stepdad sold the farm and moved way “Down East” to where they could afford some land and yet another old house near the water and the commute to seminary was not too awful.
That first year there was grim. The house was cold and drafty, no central heat, and my step-dad was gravely ill, so Mom, instead of staying on campus during the week drove back and forth to keep the wood stove fed, first while he was in the hospital, then when he was home recovering but unable to do much.
Stepdad survived that illness, but it was the beginning of a long series of episodes from which he got better, but never quite recovered. Each one took a bit more out of him. However, my mother with her infinite capacity for hope and creating beauty and comfort, just pulled harder at the yoke.
It wasn’t too long before the house was more comfortable, and central heating was put in. Over the years, she added on to the house, she created fabulous gardens a bit at a time, and she created a wonderful home that we used to joke was our own private luxury spa/B and B. She finished school getting her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. She got herself a job that utilized all of her warm people skills, working with a small non-profit providing spiritual and physical and emotional support to the people she served.
Fifteen years ago, my stepfather passed away, after many years of illness, and a long 4 month stay in the hospital. Somehow, Mom held it all together. She visited that hospital every day, all winter long, driving the hour plus each way in whatever weather came along. All 4 of her kids provided support in a variety of ways, as she had done for us so many times.
There followed ten years of learning to live alone again, without the strong support and companionship she had come to depend upon.
She added onto the little house, making it possible for the whole family to gether there for holidays and vacations. She kept it feeling small and homey, comfortable, like home, even thought it wasn’t the home in which any of us had grown up.
Eventually, though, it grew difficult to maintain the property, and living far from civilization became harder to deal with. She retired from her job, and made the decision to move to a new part of the state. She knew this would be an adjustment, that she would be leaving friends, a place she loved. But she also was ready for a change, to be closer to the things she wanted to do, closer to her children and their families, theater, art, even the grocery store.
So, move she did – to a smaller house on a very much smaller piece of land. It had no swimming nearby, it had very little sun, it didn’t have room for the whole family. But it had promise.
5 years later, and she has a new husband who loves her and supports all of her (crazy) ideas for the house and garden. The house has been added on to, reconfigured, and still feels like home. There is a nice pool. The gardens are growing and magical and ever-changing. Because for all she is a calm, nurturing person, my mother is never really settled. She is always experimenting, perfecting, changing things around. And if something doesn’t work out as she planned it, she can deal with that. She can move a plant to more sun or less sun. She can take a dream of farming and postpone it but never lose it. She can raise kids with a husband or without. She can go to college when her kids do. Because, as they say, life happens, but that doesn’t mean you give up, you just adjust, transplant. A path is a better thing if it has some bends, some twists and turns.
Not only are her gardens inspirational, so is she. She is pretty incredible, I think.
Here are some of the photos I took Friday. They don’t do the place justice. But you might get a little bit of a feel for the green welcoming place she has created.
This is the view of the house that you see coming in their drive. The garage and connection to it weren;t there when she bought it. They were part of the renovation to make it feel like home.
Her incredibly shady backyard.
The gardens – let’s start with these tomatoes – well over 6 feet tall, covered in fruit still to ripen. She has several big raised beds back near the edge of the woods, all for vegetables to feed her family all summer long.
Evidence of a cool summer – beautiful pansies still blooming in August.
She taught me my love of daylilies – lovely things that bloom no matter where they are planted, that grow and multiply and are worth any investment you might have made in them, but also widely available for free from friends and family.
Her honeysuckle vines fill the air with sweetness. they didn’t care for the long cold winter, but this one is recovering nicely.
This garden is at the bend of the driveway, gets good sun, so is a nice mix of flowers and sun-loving veggies like squash and cucumbers.
And the new back deck – in the shade, it is already a lovely place to sit in the afternoon. And it will provide her with another place for a garden and a path with a bend in it.