Ruminations

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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day, part 2

I know I said I'd post this tomorrow, but the last one was kind of sad, and I feel obligated to make up for it. I've written about my mother before, in eulogy. This is more of a straight remembrance of who she was.

What I can say about my mother is that she was simply the best person I have ever known, in the most literal sense.

First, I'll get the unpleasantness out of the way. She left my father in the dead of night, taking her three sons for a three-hour drive to Columbia, where we re-settled. This was because Everett threatened to run away from home, and she had to face losing at least one child or taking all of them and leaving her husband. She was in a "no-win" situation.

She got a job (the first real job of her life!) working at Shakespeare, putting the metal eyes on fishing poles. Sometime after that, she got a job at Bendix making electrical connectors. I think she went there after Carrie had gotten a job there. She stayed there until she retired. The work she did was incredibly detailed. She started out screen-printing the little letters next to the pins of connectors. Then she did QA work and re-work. "Re-work" involved re-painting defective letters by hand using a high-powered magnifier and a brush consisting of two hairs. The letters were nearly microscopic, so this took an incredibly steady hand. I actually used some of the connectors she made in my work while in the Air Force.

Mom could do anything she put her mind to. I mentioned in my father's note that she made fishing nets. She was a superb seamstress... she could embroider, tat, knit, sew... she did crewel embroidery, cross-stitch, and plastic canvas. She taught classes in crafts at Clemson University Extension. She made christening dresses for all of her grandchildren (and step-grandchildren, and she didn't make any distinction between them), even for those to whom "christening ceremony" was a foreign concept. She did my kids' Halloween costumes as well. Two times when she outdid herself were the Triceratops costume she made for Will (he won two competitions with that one), and the "Sora" anime costume (from Kingdom Hearts) she made for Tim.

She had a beautiful singing voice, and played piano. I also have her music books. On the piano her favorite song to play was "St. Louis Blues", but in later years her favorite song was the hymn, "That Beautiful Land". She had a gorgeous rosewood piano, which my niece Leah now has.

She loved cats. For many years we were never without a cat, but Terrell didn't want one when he was older, and she couldn't care for one toward the end. But there were images of cats EVERYWHERE. She called her grandchildren "pussycat"... to the point where my twins called HER, "Grandma-that-calls-us-pussycat." She collected thimbles and tea sets.

She was an excellent cook, but rarely used written recipes. Her recipes went something like this: "You add this much salt..." ("this much" being illustrated by her hand being held out, her palm cupped in a particular way). For instance, on the proper way to make noodle dough, she would say, "add enough salt to where you JUST think it's too salty. Then add a little more" (it would leech out as the noodles boiled). She made it clear to me that that is the way she learned it from HER mother. Most of her recipes were German, but she could handle any style of food. She seriously improved bulgogi. Hers was much better than the original, even according to Yung. Yung was my step-brother Olin's wife. As she is Korean, born and raised, I trust her word on it. I'm probably best at recreating her signature dishes. My brother Everett might disagree with me, and he does cook more often than I do; but the fact is that when I cook I cook like Mom; Everett cooks like EVERETT. Nevertheless, she taught all of her boys to cook, telling us that we would marry women who couldn't. She was right. (I'm not sure whether she just didn't teach didnt' teach my sister Carrie to cook, or Carrie just wasn't listening.)

Mom was a voracious reader. When she died I packed her books. Boxes and boxes of them. She liked murder mysteries most especially; historical books about English royalty; fantasy (like Xanth) and sword and sorcery. She loved stories about vampires, and had a lot of Anne Rice books. Lisa and I now own some of the books that she was especially fond of: the "Elsie" and "Mildred" series, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Barsoom series, and Conan. I inherited her love of books; we often swapped books. and my library is likewise huge. I can't display all of them, so have many of them boxed up in the basement.

I mentioned she loved vampire tales... she was a huge fan of Dark Shadows. When she was on its first run and she was working she often couldn't see it. I did, since it came on after school. So I'd clue her in on what was going on. Likewise she often missed the Edge of Night. (I think missing the soaps is the one thing she missed about being a "non-working" housewife). A few years ago the Sci-Fi channel showed all of Dark Shadows (except the boring first year prior to the arrival of Barnabas Collins). She taped them ALL. Carrie's got the tapes.

She did puzzles. The sort of Mensa puzzles most people just don't do. She did crosswords where there were no black squares and no numbered squares. She did logic problems. Anagrams. Cyphers. The harder the better. She was frighteningly intelligent. Her problem solving ability got her a reputation at work as the "go-to" person for solving difficulties... the engineers had a particular problem with a new piece of machinery. She determined that the problem wasn't with the machine, but with the viscosity of the ink. "It needed to be the consistency of mayonaisse," she explained.

When my friend Keith Miller accidentally dropped his car keys down the sewer drain in front of her house, we all stood around looking stupid and helpless, wondering how to get them out. She came outside, asked us what the problem was, then said, "Oh! No problem!" She went inside and got her purse, pulled out a magnet and a length of thread. Tying the thread to the magnet and dropping it down the grate, she easily retrieved the keys. Her purse was like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. It always contained whatever it was you needed at the moment.

My stepfather appreciated her problem-solving as well. She's the one who did his books for the farm and the Christmas tree farm as well. I recall a time when he decided to rebuild his carburetor. Having taken it apart and cleaned it, he couldn't get it back together properly. He worked on it for a while, then apparently had an epiphany... he got up and said to her casually, "Honey, I've got most of this done. Can you just finish it up, please?" So she rebuilt his carburetor. Nobody told her it might be hard, so it wasn't.

She was a perfectionist, but she was selective about it. Where housework was concerned, "good enough" would do. Her house was clean, but obviously lived in, and most rooms had a little clutter. Her sewing room was a disaster area at first glance, but she knew where everything was. But when it came to her handcrafts, she was ruthless. There could be no mistakes. I've seen her cut out huge sections of tatting because of a mistake made days before. And she was tireless. That bit of tatting was part of a HUGE tablecloth. All tatted lace. Little knots in thread. While in the Air Force I visited the purported "world capitol of lace" in Belgium. I saw the craftwork first-hand, and I realized with a start that the very best lace in the entire world was made by my own mother.

When it came to my grades, her method of motivation was singular. For example, I finished my Air Force tech school in the top 1%... good enough to be tapped for duty at the Presidential/VIP radio station. When I called to tell her the news, that I had scored 99%, she asked, "What happened to the other one percent? What didn't you understand?" In one breath she reminded me never to lose my humility and also that the finish line doesn't have to be the end... you can always go back and learn that one percent.

You might think from reading this that she was some sort of saint who never had a bad or selfish thought. That's not true. I've seen her mad, but never without reason. I've seen her be unreasonable, but never on things that really mattered. I've seen her be selfish, but only in petty indulgences that she really deserved anyway. She could hold a grudge... she didn't speak to her brother Ben for years, and likewise my sister Carrie. But I'm quite sure that's as much their fault as hers. But the good so far outweighed the bad that the bad might as well not have existed at all. As executor of her will, I know firsthand that she did not have it in her to be unfair, even when she felt wronged.

I haven't mentioned anything about her cancer. That's because she did all of the things I just mentioned in spite of it. But here it is: when I was a teenager, she injured her back at work (a box fell on her). She developed cancer near her spine, which was removed through a series of successively more radical surgeries. They finally did what was called a "radical re-section", in which most of the muscle in her lower back was removed. She quickly learned to walk without those muscles and returned to work. When the cancer returned, she went through more surgery. She had a number of lumps in her arms that were removed over the years... she casually called it her "harvest". But finally she developed leukemia, which was inoperable. The chemo worked for a while, and the cancer went into remission. My stepfather was in poor health at the time, and she told me that when she prayed, she asked that she could stay alive long enough to take care of him, because she promised him she would. Nevertheless, you could tell she was getting tired. Occasionally she would ask, "When is it MY turn?" But never to him. When Terrell died, she thought it was her turn. Two weeks later she learned that the leukemia was back. This was a strain which chemotherapy couldn't cure. She went through chemo ANYWAY, because the doctors might learn something that would help someone else.

She spent a little time at the nursing home (as a patient, not a resident), then moved in with Everett. Robert's girlfriend Peggy looked after her. A short while before she died (and she had a pretty good idea when that would be), she called us in and said goodbye and told us not to quarrel amongst ourselves. She also told us what we could have of her belongings... there wasn't really any need for a will, because she gave everything away before she died. Her last words were to my niece, Michelle: "Bye, bye, pussycat."

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