Friday, December 5, 2008


When my mother was a girl, she would paddle a canoe across the lake to visit her friends. She had lived on the Portage Lakes outside of Akron all her life, and the water was her highway.

Sometimes a storm would come up, the black clouds rolling across the lake, the angry water swaying her bark. Then she would lean low in the canoe and paddle more strongly because she didn't know how to swim.

Mother was in deep enough water anyway. First of all, her appearance went against her. Tall for her age, she was expected to act more mature than she was. And her long, coal-black hair and striking dark eyes frightened her grandmother: "Schwartze Augen," the old lady said, gesturing against the evil eye.

Also, my mother's father was an alcoholic, a man's man but a woman's nightmare. The family lived a nomadic life, moving all around the lakes wherever "Pop" could pick up a job for a while. Her older brother died of a burst appendix when he was fourteen. Her younger brother was an alcoholic by the time he hit high school.

My mother's eighth grade class photograph says it all. Mother, her black hair cut in a flapper bob, stands curiously apart from the rest of the students--beside them, but tilting her head away, as if she is looking at the world from a slightly different angle.

School was her sanctuary. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school and college classes. Then she taught for a few years and married my father, who did not drink. As was required at the time, she quit working when she became pregnant with me, her oldest child.

Mother was sentimental about old people and other people's children. But with my brother and me she was tough, because that was how she thought a parent should be. I remember taking her to meet my older son's second grade teacher, expecting her to say all sorts of sweet, grandmotherly things about her grandson and encouraging, teacherly things to the teacher. Instead she sneered and told Mr. Tedford that in her day male teachers never could keep discipline. Years later I realized that she had not known what to say, that she was afraid anything nice would sound weak, so she hung tough.

Mother was afraid of a lot of things, of seeming soft, of drinking, of swimming, of driving, of flying on an airplane, of leaving Ohio. She was rarely soft and she never did drink, swim, drive, or fly, but she did have to relocate when my father was transferred to Waco.

And when she died, she was buried in the tough, no-nonsense soil of Texas.

But sometimes when the night is dark and the moon is high, I think there is a shadow far out on the Portage Lakes, and if you look at it long enough, you will see a tall girl with long, dark hair, paddling a silent canoe toward the distant shore, as if against a rising wind.

The storm is gone, Mother. Your skies are clear. Rest in peace.

No comments: