Sunday, May 08, 2011

Random Momness

Was it March or May, 1974? I can't remember the month, but I had Asian flu. My temperature was above 102 from early on a Tuesday until sometime on Friday when it finally broke. The worst day of all was that Thursday afternoon and evening. How do I know it was a Thursday? It was the night of the music department performance at the high school, and my sisters and brother were all performing. My older sister was a senior and I was really sad that I was going to miss her concert (she played saxophone). My temperature had been climbing all day. By the time the afternoon rolled around and my family was home from school, it was over 105, and even edged to 106 at one point. I kind of remember that odd time, because it was so odd. Being delirious with fever leaves and impression. Aspirin - about all that was around at the time - wasn't bringing the fever down, so my mother did a couple things. She filled the tub with cold water, even adding ice. I was unable to walk, so my father carried me upstairs and lowered me in to the tub. I remember the moment so clearly, even though I was only eight. It was one of sweet relief. I lay there, my mother using a washcloth to rinse cold water over my head. I wasn't in the tub very long, and my mother quickly dried me off and put clean pajamas on me. Dad carried me back downstairs, and my mother sat next to me and spoon fed me ice cream. Instead of water, I had ice chips to suck on.

By the time everyone came home from the concert, my temperature was down to a manageable 102, and I actually felt better. I remember nothing from the next day, because I slept; my fever broke, probably early in the morning, and the wear on my body had been such that I slept until some time on Saturday. My mother tells me she got me up, changed my pajamas again, and the sheets upon which I was sleeping - breaking a fever causes you to flop-sweat, and as high as my temperature had been, there was quite a lot of it, soaking everything - but I really wasn't very conscious through it.

My mother had five children she nursed through various illnesses and wounds, heartaches and troubles, got impatient with over silly little things like how we mopped the kitchen floor, and stood by us when we really goofed up. My mother raised all five of us to be open and accepting of the differences among all kinds of people. One never heard disparaging words in our house about any individual or group (well, except for the Irish, for some reason). We are all, despite all the differences among us as adults, at the very least open and accepting people in large part because we were raised that way.

She attended the University of Dayton during the Second World War. The men who attended this Catholic University (Society of St. Mary) were a hodge-podge of 4Fs, returning vets some wounded, and young Cubans on student visas (Cuba wasn't in the war; the Society had schools in Cuba at the time, and their best students came to UD). She studied chemical engineering, an odd choice indeed for a woman in the early 1940's. She was top in her class. One year, just for the heck of it, she went out for the University archery team, made it, and wound up not just first for her school, but nationally ranked. She said the next year she could barely hit the target and gave it up.

She had a variety of jobs in and around Dayton. She worked for "National Cash", as she called it, which is now known as NCR. She worked for the Huffman Bicycle Company making the fold-up bikes used by troops in the invasion of Italy.

Her most interesting summer job those years, however, was one she couldn't talk about to anyone. I learned details of it many years later, in 1981. My family had decided to go to a Johnston/Roberts family reunion (my mother's side of the family), in part because my mother's Aunt Lydia was going to be there. Also, her oldest brother was flying out from Seattle. On one particular night, we gathered in my Uncle David's house, which was the family homestead on McLean Street in Dayton, OH. The Johnston's are a large brood, noisy, argumentative, and no one beat my Uncle David in these departments. The combination of noise and the crush of people led me to move away from the crowds around the cake to the front sitting room. The light was off in there, but my mother's two oldest brothers, Eugene (known as Junior, the only one in the family with a nickname) and Rowland, were in there talking. I started to leave when Junior insisted I come in and sit down. He and Rowland then spent about ten minutes praising my mother's various virtues. It was a treat, a moment I'll not forget.

Then Junior asked me a question. "Did you know your mother worked on the Manhattan Project?"

Well, I did know, in fact. I told him that she had run a Geiger counter over the clothing the workers discarded at the end of the day. Junior smiled. "That's what she told you, huh?"

I said yes.

"Did she tell you she received a personal citation from President Roosevelt for her work?"


He smiled again.

To this day, my mother insists that was all she did, but that conversation with Junior has always intrigued me. Considering it was classified, and everyone involved was told they could say nothing about the work they did, and were not told what it was about; considering Junior himself as well as David were involved in various military intelligence stuff and from them I've learned that one does not talk about stuff one is ordered to forget, I wonder - what did my mother do for the Manhattan Project that she did so well she got a Presidential citation for it?

Over Christmas, 1991, I was visiting my parents with my then-lady friend. Mom and Dad were sitting in the kitchen, and my lady friend and I were standing there, and Mom told me that a childhood friend of my older sister, a young woman whose name was the first word I ever uttered (says a lot about me, I think), had visited them out of the blue earlier that autumn. This woman was estranged from her parents, had been for nearly two decades by that point in time, but had spent quite a lot of time around us growing up. Mom said that this woman had told her, Mom, that she was always grateful to have the Saffords to come and visit and stay at, eat a meal with or just hang out. She told my mother that she considered her a second mother and was and would be always grateful for all she had done. She told my mother that Mom was a great Mom, always there, always available, willing to admonish any child in her orbit, as a sign of love and affection. Mom teared up while she told us this, and confessed that she had always felt like a terrible mother.

As a parent now, I can say I sympathize with Mom's sentiments. I think most parents feel inadequate, hold their failures before them, wish they had done this, that, or the other differently if at all. All the same, I will write now what I told my mother. Mom, you were more than a great mother. You were a good mother. You weren't perfect, but maybe that's what made you so good. You raised a vibrant, large, difficult brood of children to become productive, successful members of society, encouraging us to be ourselves without ever once insisting we be just like you.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. For all you've done, for all of us. Thank you for being the kind of Mom you were and continue to be. I love you.

Virtual Tin Cup

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