My mother died on Valentine’s Day, riding out of this world on the tail of an historic storm that dropped almost a foot of snow on parts of the Carolinas.  The timing seemed significant for a woman whose earliest memory was of her father lifting her from her crib while her wet diapers steamed in the frigid air of a Wisconsin morning.
MJ and her father
The hospice worker was trapped in her townhome by an unplowed driveway, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to navigate the route to Charlotte from South Carolina, even with 4-wheel drive, before my mother passed away.  Fortunately, my husband and I arrived at her bedside on Friday noon as the sun was starting to melt the drifts heaped into the middle of Park Road and to steal across her windowsill.  An instinct for tenacity must have kept her going through those snowed-in days when I was kept away, for she had stopped eating days earlier and hadn’t left her bed.  It had been many months since Mary Jane spoke two words together, over a year since she’d recognized me, and much longer than that since she’d led a life she could honestly call ‘her own.’  And yet the resiliency of her tiny frame moved me in ways I still don’t fully understand. 
            In the last scene of the last act of her life I was motivated to explain her to someone – some individual who didn’t have a complicated history with her, as everyone in our family does – someone who might find her narrative compelling for its face value, without being burdened by the formidable load of baggage that attends it.
            That person materialized as if by decree (or psychic summons) in the person of David B.*, a social worker from Minnesota, of all places, who was making his rounds for hospice that afternoon in Charlotte and who wasn’t deterred by icy streets.  David sat with me and MJ as the shadows lengthened and asked me to tell him about the two framed photos I’d placed on her dresser. 
MJ and her mother, about 1918
             The studio portrait must have been taken just prior to the start of the Great Depression and the closing of my grandfather’s pharmacy, because Mary Jane looks to be nine or ten as she poses in a sailor-suit beside her lovely mother, both of them exuding the kind of shy confidence and health that prosperity provides.  In the other photo, dressed in an evening gown, Mary Jane lounges on a couch with a cigarette dangling theatrically from her right hand.  It was taken at the Top of the Mark, the nightclub atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, and it was New Year’s Eve shortly after the war.  I have no memory of my mother ever smoking but she told us she tried it as a young woman making her way in the advertising business because she mistakenly believed that it made her look sophisticated.  I have never known any woman less concerned with what people think about her than my mother, but in that photograph her features are softened by innocence as if by a layer of baby fat; the resolute adult is still years in the making.

 As I rattled through some of my mother’s best stories with David, surprised to find myself laughing along with him at the funny parts I’d forgotten about, I squeezed her hand and listened to her breathe.  I was struck by a startling idea: that having lived for the better part of a century, she is one of the last members of a generation that was truly able to keep their private lives ‘private,’ in the sense that they lived, loved, suffered and exulted in the days before flip-cams and Facebook made so much of life explicit.  (I should note one exception here: my paternal grandfather, a filmmaker in the days that pre-dated ‘media,’ took some rare footage in his Santa Cruz garden of Mary Jane playing with her first baby, my eldest sister.  The sound of my mother’s impossibly youthful voice exhorting Elizabeth* to do somersaults haunts me for being as familiar as it is strange).   Going to the grave with your mysteries intact will be nearly impossible for people recently born in the first world, now that we are tracked, tweeted, recorded and instagrammed (or blogged within an inch of our own lives!...) as we push the borders of banality with self-exposure. 
            I can’t imagine what she would have made of the Information Age.  My mother was a solipsism, a law unto herself, like Joan of Arc or Antigone or Greta Garbo, if Garbo had laughed.  Her self-reliance was her undoing in one way, because it was so effective at masking problems as she grew older.  She was a complex synthesis of open-hearted gregariousness and fiercely guarded privacy, deflecting questions about her past, her ‘feelings,’ her marriage and her finances as deftly as she dodged good intentions: with humor, but also with persistence.  I used to wish I could knock a chink in that Midwestern steeliness, but having your parent come apart on you can be a mixed blessing, as I discovered during the years I was her caregiver.

Panning for gold in the Sierra Nevadas, late 1950s.  SR on Mary's left, with older sister DJ in hat.
            By the time Mary came to live with me, my husband, and our daughter over a decade ago, dementia had eroded her defenses, exposing long-protected compartments of the heart.  The story she’d always told us was that she left Milwaukee because she couldn’t abide winter, but I began to think she may have had other reasons for boarding that west-bound train in Chicago all those years ago.  Not long after she was moved out of her house by Protective Services and relocated to our home across the country in North Carolina, she began receiving letters, and then phone calls, from a gentleman I had always known as a family friend.  Bill Wilson’s* wife was still alive, I gathered, but he was apparently living with one of his daughters and seemed to be suffering a milder version of Mother’s illness.  I only know this because by this time M.J.’s eyesight was poor and her attention strayed when she tried deciphering the printed word; it was necessary for me to read her mail aloud to her.  Increasingly, I found myself having to censor Bill’s blushingly romantic (and specific) mash notes to my eighty-five year-old mother, and in her responses to what I did read – a gallic shrug or an amused tsk-tsk – she caught me off guard with her display of sangfroid
            Bill and his wife had several children close in ages to my sisters and me.  When we were little, our parents occasionally took us in the station wagon on the long trek over the mountains, testing the limits of the Ford’s brakes and engine on the Carson Pass, to visit the Wilsons in their rambling Victorian home in Nevada.  Even as a child, I sensed a complex connection between my mother and this confident, garrulous military man, so different from my father.  When I was grown, I saw a photograph of Mary Jane and Bill Wilson* taken decades earlier, during the war, when he must have been home on leave in Milwaukee.  He wore his Navy pilot’s uniform and my mother looked like a cover-girl in a pair of peep-toe Cuban heels and a new spring coat.  To borrow a phrase I’ve heard used in Traveler’s Joy: she was as pretty as a speckled hound in a Tennessee field.  Bill had his arms around her and had pulled her into a snowbank where they were laughing when the photographer captured the moment.
            At some point after that photograph was taken, Bill met Allison,* who was serving in the WAVES.  Not long after that he must have informed my mother that he and Allison were married.
            Mommy would never confirm that there had been a true romance between herself and Bill, or anyone from her hometown, for that matter.  Without waiting for the war to end, she boarded the train for Berkeley and claimed that she never looked back.  Once she met my father they married quickly and she began to have babies at a fast clip. It only occurred to me as an adult that she may have been in a hurry because of her age; thirty-one was considered old for a bride in that era, and she may have felt pressure to build her family more quickly than someone married at twenty-one who had time to spare.  In any case, she loved children and it’s likely she would have had more of us if my father had been a reliable provider.  However, he was not and she did not, and considering how fractured our family became over time, it probably worked out for the best.
            Near the end, her skin grows translucent.  It is like watching a flame burn lower and lower in a candle, until it no longer becomes a question of how much light is cast but of how long the wick can sustain itself.
            When she first came to live with us, we bought Mommy a typewriter and my daughter set to work helping her write a memoir.  We realized quickly that she was not able to type; however, she was happy to dictate to her granddaughter disjointed and sometimes hilarious recollections of her life.  The dictation continued for three chapters before her diminishing strength put an end to the project.  Even before Mommy passed away but after she lost her ability to communicate, I found myself pulling out the blue notebook that holds these pages and dipping into their contents randomly, just to hear her voice speaking through the words, and to know her again.  “I was a good kid,” she wrote in Chapter Two, “And I was the only kid in the family.” (Her brother R.S. wasn't born until Mother was nearly fourteen.) “I had a lot of good friends but I was lonesome in the house.  You may not believe this, but when I went to bed at night, I’d tell myself a story.  There was nobody else to tell me one.  It was a warm cozy bed, and sometimes it was snowing outside.”
            I can’t bear to think of her being lonely in death, so I tell myself she’s been reunited with her family, her lifelong friends, and her legion of feral cats in some distant realm where the beds are warm and soft.  I wish I could go back in time to that silent house where the snow is falling, to read her all the stories she wants. 

            She is the story now.  God bless, Mary Jane.

Little Mary.
Madison, Wisconsin.  Winter.