I have written here occasionally about my father and his ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s—an enemy he has fought valiantly but to whom he continues to lose weekly ground. (See here, here, and here.)
I haven’t written much about the woman who daily displays equal valor in taking care of him—without complaint or a discernible trace of self-pity. She has a story, too. What follows is a piece of it.
The little girl wearing dark, short-cropped hair and a hand-sewn dress stands beside the open grave. A plain casket is gently lowered into the earth. She is five.
Five is old enough to understand the meaning and implications of the words, “Your mother has died.” But not nearly old enough to carry more than few treasured swatches of wispy memory fabric away from that dusty cemetery in Grady County, Oklahoma. It is a cruel paradox.
There had been abdominal pain and fever. Appendicitis was the eventual diagnosis. A simple appendectomy was successful. But a post-operative infection set in. And in 1936 the mass production of penicillin lies in a future three years distant.
In the coming years the little girl will savor sweet stories about her mother and study the pitiful handful of pictures. And imagine. Those pictures reveal a beautiful woman. The stories tell of a Christian faith, a lovely singing voice and the making of a poor but happy home continuously filled with song and laughter.
She was educated, a rare thing among women in this time and place. She had graduated from the Oklahoma Normal School in far-away Edmond, Oklahoma. Decades later, a son-in-law she would never know—the husband of that little girl—graduated there after the name had been changed to Central State College; and a son of theirs would know that campus as Central State University.
At graveside, the little girl holds the hand of a fidgety toddler. She has been instructed to take care of her little sister during the service. It is a charge she takes seriously. She holds tightly. She is responsible.
Indeed, over the next decade she will continue to take care of her as best she can. It seems my mother became a mother far sooner than should ever be asked.
She has three older brothers but they will be needed in the fields. The Great Depression is at its lowest depth. And the Dust Bowl drought that is ravaging Oklahoma and much of western Kansas and Texas is at its height.
The weathered, grief-wracked face of the man beside the coffin belongs to her father. He is a strong man. Some would say a hard man. But what he is facing has shattered many good men. And he will come through unbroken.
He is a tenant farmer. He does not own the land he works. A wealthy man who lives a universe away in Kansas City owns the house and the land and receives a percentage of the proceeds of each harvest. When there is a harvest.
Her father will actually count himself fortunate in this regard. In better times he will joke about not having lost anything in the Great Depression because he didn’t have anything to lose. In fact, in those grim years, several relatives who do own land will find themselves foreclosed upon and homeless. These will come to live with my mother and her family—one whole household actually taking up residence in their chicken coop.
When she and her sister are old enough, they will join their older brothers in the fields, pick cotton, haul water, and by way of callused, bleeding hands earn a deep understanding of that old saying about “a hard row to hoe.”
Store-bought candy will be an almost unthinkable luxury, so from time to time she will slip into the empty kitchen and sneak a couple of little pebble-sized pieces of hardened brown sugar from the counter canister. One for her. One for her sister.
Her father will remarry as quickly as possible. Perhaps this marriage is born of some genuine affection, but it is also clearly born of necessity. He has a farm and five children. Farming is a partnership and he has lost his partner. As a result, five more children will come along in quick succession, the first three of them girls. This results in more responsibility for my mother (the oldest girl with six younger siblings) and even less time and attention devoted to her own needs.
Thus it is always “others.” There will be the time her little sister reveals that her heart’s desire is to take piano lessons, but is crushed when told there is no money for such extravagances. So for a year my mother will skip her school lunch several days a week and use the money to pay for those lessons herself.
It won’t be the last time she will know real hunger. When she seeks to follow in the footsteps of the mother she never really knew by pursuing a college education, there will be no money for that either. But she will find a way.
She will enroll at the Oklahoma College for Women in nearby Chickasha, rent a small room from a kind couple, and work nightly at the local movie theater. Some weeks, her primary source of calories will be the leftover popcorn she is allowed to bring home after work.
She will graduate, marry, and raise a family of her own. At the age of 40, with three small children and one more on the way, she will earn her Master’s degree. Her gifts to her children will be music and books and robust work ethics. But her principal endowment will be a real and enduring faith. The kind of faith that sustains in hard times.
And though it is clear the little girl can and will work her way out of poverty, it is also true that the scars of poverty never completely work themselves out of the girl. And still, ever and always, it will be “others.”
As so it is. Now in this, another stern season, she looks after her husband of 55 years as, in many ways, a cruel disease renders him by degrees a child.
So she holds his hand tightly. She won’t let go. She is responsible.