Happy Birthday, Mom

Eileen D. Campbell and Henry S. Campbell, 1941

My mother would have been 97 today. I’m sitting at the laptop in my office in front of a wall cluttered with pictures, my son’s and daughter’s art projects, and Mary Oliver’s poem that ends, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” I’m here because I need to start working on my writing assignment to “follow the image”: see something or remember something and trace its association back to wherever memory takes me.

My mother’s clothes float into my mind. (Why my mother’s clothes?) She was partial to wool and crisp cotton, blouses paired with pleated skirts and sharp jackets. Her style was tailored, classic, unfussy. Chanel style without the Chanel. Her favorite color, red, was emblematic of her personality. Red, the color of berries and lipstick and blood.

In my parents’ courtship story, her attire is a factor in my father’s first impression, “Then this vision entered the room dressed to the nines.” She was never a woman to be taken lightly, and her clothes said as much. So did her shoes. Though she never talked about clothes (other than the trouble she got in for intentionally ruining a classmate’s leather coat by slipping Limburger cheese in its pocket), her selection as an I. Magnin shoe model in college was offered as evidence of her superior calves and ankles. When my grandfather met my mother, he reportedly said, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.”

Two “nevers” as I describe her. Funny that I find it easier to describe my mother in terms of what she wasn’t rather than what she was: not the slightest bit kittenish, not shy, not retiring, not patient, not passive.

I know a lot about what drove my mother: only child of older parents, self-described Tomboy, hero worshipper of her pugnacious attorney father whom she lost in her 20s, treasured lap child of a grandmother she adored (whose one-size-fits-all medical remedy was to “make up your mind and throw it off by morning”). I know what made her mad (almost everything I did). I know what she believed (in God but not virgin birth). I know what she thought (she told me). But I know almost nothing about her longings, fears, worries, hurts, regrets. Her vulnerabilities.

Why are my mother’s clothes on my mind, today? Clothes make the woman. Though she adapted to fashion trends throughout the years (hostess dresses being among the least attractive on a short full-figured woman), she knew what suited her hourglass shape. Having been told by her father that there would be no “female barrister” in the family, she focused on the domestic front, becoming the best officer’s wife and mother that she could imagine, performing her duties with ferocious commitment. Image came with the territory. She may not have stopped conversation when she arrived for P.E.O., the Altar Guild, or a bridge luncheon but her outfits always elicited appreciative murmurings.

I remember surreptitiously inspecting her closet during the later years of her life, looking for signs of stains.

I first noticed that something was wrong with her in 1991, when my daughter was four and I was pregnant. We had gathered my husband’s family and my parents for Thanksgiving. I had planned to have Maddie sit by my mother at the makeshift long table, but Maddie refused. Maddie was adamant about sitting next to me. My mother was so hurt by the rejection that she cried. She cried. A snit, a retort, or a cold shoulder: these were reactions I would have recognized. For my mother to feel snubbed by a child was inconceivable as she approached her fiftieth year of marriage and nearly as many years of child-rearing. By that spring, when I came home from the hospital less than twenty-four hours after childbirth, I knew something was seriously amiss. Mom had arrived at my home and promised to take care of the house and me so that I could take care of my newborn. As her mother had done for her. When I entered the house around 6 p.m. and laid down on the couch, Tommy sleeping on my chest, she appeared over the couch and asked, “What did you have planned for dinner?” I was stunned.

I hurt for my mother, my proud mother, when her clothes fell short of her meticulous standard. This was the woman my father found crying, trying to sew a button back on, aware that she had forgotten how, she, the woman who knew not only how to sew but to tailor. So I took to sneaking into her room while she stood at the kitchen counter smoking and staring into space. “I’ll just throw a few of your things in with mine,” I told her.

If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. She invented stories to explain the new routines in the household. “Your father seems to have developed an interest in cooking,” she told me. Dad, like me, had slipped in.

That was awful, Mom, worse than the lung cancer I feared would kill you, did kill you. You saved the letter I wrote in third grade imploring you to quit smoking. It read, “If you die my spirit and soul will die.” Watching you slip away – proud, funny, bold, hot-tempered, outspoken, opinionated, organized, independent, competitive, dedicated, passionate you – was torture. You, the real you, the you before dementia stole your mind, did not just visit this world. You made of your life “something particular, and real.”

For the complete text of Mary Oliver’s poem, click here:


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