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July 13, 2012

Joyce Hilda Mack

April 27, 1918 – June 13, 2012

Fifteen months ago, shortly before her 93rd birthday, Nancy and I made the difficult decision to move our mother into a convalescent hospital. It wasn’t much of a decision, really: though she had been living alone for several years, the limitations of age and dementia had finally brought her to the point where she could no longer safely care for herself. The doctors were adamant, she had to move. So, on a bright spring day, my sister and I joined forces and met at mother’s apartment to explain the decision and the medical and legal realities that made it inevitable. But we also took great pains to convince her that that if she only embraced the decision, rather than fight it, she had a real opportunity to make her remaining time genuinely rich, and maybe even a little joyful. We talked, pleaded, reasoned, argued, and reasoned some more, for what felt like hours. And she talked, pleaded, reasoned, argued, scolded, then argued even more. When it was over, nothing we said had made any difference. As we were leaving she was scheming to find an alternative. And when we had left she began smashing dishes.

Predictably, the first weeks were troubling. She hated the home. During every visit she would obsessively bend the conversation back to one topic: her desire to leave. She was uncooperative and sometimes surly with the staff. Then, the attempted escapes began. Every day she would grab her purse, even though it was completely empty, and walk as quickly as she could toward the main door before she could be stopped by one of the attendants. The family started getting incident reports—and pleas for help. Finally, after she had nearly fought off several of her would-be subduers, the home had had enough. They expelled her from the rest home for bad behavior.

Nobody in the family was very much surprised. Those who knew and loved her best knew her to be an obstinate, willful, single-minded woman. When she wanted or needed something, as she often did, she could be relentless. I don’t think she ever felt that she had much power or leverage over other people—in fact, much of what she did was shaped by the fear that, in her words, she “didn’t rate much.” But whatever tools she did have, she would use them—sometimes shamelessly. At times she would whine, at others she would play the martyr, and at others still she would lather on the guilt. We all have our stories. The most memorable for me were the times when I was eighteen or nineteen and she would trick me into the car by enlisting my help on some shopping errand, or other. But when we reached our destination, she wouldn’t get out, but instead just park the car and settle in for one more lecture on that “tramp” I was dating. Since it was always too far to walk home, she knew I was a captive audience. So she would start in on me, and drone on and on trying to make me see that I had fallen into the arms of a real floosy. Eventually, though, persuasion would fail. Then, she would always fall back on a more familiar tactic: “you know,” she’d say, “you’re killing your father!” And of course, I did know that. Killing my father was something I did on a regular basis in those days—and apparently I never missed an opportunity to try.

My mother was a difficult person. Not mean or hateful, just difficult. But the thing that made her difficult, I believe, was the sheer relentless difficulty of the life she was given to lead. To begin with, she was born into poverty. Her family wasn’t simply “poor” in the sense we are inclined to use the term today, they experienced the life-threatening terror of real poverty. When she was born, in 1918, 63% of North Americans lived below the poverty line; her family was surely among them. Economic instability is one of the chief reasons for migration; so, unsurprisingly, two years later, her parents, Freda and Joe, took their young daughter and migrated to the United States. They made their way west and settled in Los Angeles, where Joe could look for work as a plumber. Within a few months the family began to grow. And by the time the market crashed in ’29, and the long great depression began, Freda and Joe had added three more mouths to feed.

The Great Depression was a horror difficult for any of us today to imagine. Work was hard to find for nearly everybody, and food nearly as scarce. A few years ago I asked my mother what she most remembered about the depression. She didn’t offer heart-warming tales of a family huddling together, kindling the bonds of interdependence into a cozy fire of comfort and security. No, what she said she remembered was “being hungry.” I don’t remember her exact words; but I do vividly recall the impression they made on me—that of a dull pain so constant that one almost, but not quite, forgets is there. There was never enough to eat. Moreover, it is not too difficult to imagine that being the oldest, she would have been the one called upon to make sacrifices when food had to be rationed at the dinner table.

In 1934 she married my father. She was only sixteen. I have no doubt that she wanted to get married. She was in love with dad, and stayed in love her entire life. But curiously, the marriage was also encouraged by my grandmother, Freda—a woman regarded in the family as something of a saint: impeccably wise, endlessly forbearing, and deeply caring. So why would such a woman encourage a sixteen year old child to marry? Perhaps it was financial pragmatism, a chance to lighten the strain on the rest of the family by placing her in the more able care of others. Or, more darkly, perhaps she saw in my father some escape from the brutish influence of her own husband, Joe. Joe was a “character.” At least that’s how those in the family who feel obligated to be charitable will put it. I probably put it that way too—as a kid, I got along with him just fine. He would always make me laugh, especially when he would wait for my grandmother to turn her back then yank on the cat’s tail because he got a kick out of hearing her cry. I was around seven—he was a grown man in his fifties. But perhaps all you need to know about my grandfather is that whenever anybody in the family, man or woman, old or young, said anything mean, or stubborn, or stupid, or cruel, or just plain thick, others would point their fingers at them and say “Ok, Joe!” That was my mother’s father. She once said that when she was twelve or so, Joe told her that he didn’t really like her—that she was not his favorite. Now, he was probably lying. Joe didn’t have favorites—he didn’t care much for anybody. But what’s important is that my mother believed it, and held on to that memory for 80 years.

By the time she married my father, the need to survive—whether from poverty or from emotional sterility—would have become the central imperative of her life. It was, no doubt, the thing that was shaping her into the person she would be. But marriage did not eliminate that need, it only redefined it. A year after they were wed—when she was still but a 17 year old girl—my father took her to Alaska, where they would take up work as missionaries. I doubt that she felt called, but he did, and so she followed. There, on the frigid Alaskan seaboard, nearly three thousand miles from family and friends, in the middle of the great depression, these two very green missionaries took over an abandoned fish hatchery and turned it into an orphanage. It seems too ridiculous to even point out that life was hard. Back home, dad’s mother would hustle church friends—themselves struggling to make ends meet—for nickels and dimes to send up, but deprivation was always a threat. Nancy, who was born sometime after they arrived, reports that there was often no food—but that mother would set the table anyway and wait. Invariably, she says, someone would stop by with something. But ironically, what would have made the job of survival even more challenging was my father himself. Dad was a notoriously loving and caring man—but he was certainly not a “man’s man.” He could not wield a hammer or use a saw. The story has it that his own father, a skilled carpenter, refused to teach him such things and instead left him to be tutored by his more bookish wife. When it came to material things, he was generally inadequate. His nerves, or maybe poor hand-eye coordination, made even driving too difficult for him. When he tried to learn, he drove the car into a lake. So mother drove—and continued to drive for the rest of their productive lives together. Dad was simply never good with his hands; if something needed doing or fixing, and there was nobody else to call on, the job would have fallen to her.

At least that’s the way it was throughout the rest of their lives: she was the one who had to figure out how to make things work. They left Alaska after about five years, and eventually, of course, life got a little easier. But they never truly prospered—they always lived close to the margin. And during it all, she was the one who had to repair what was broken, borrow what was needed, or scheme for a way to bridge all the little gaps in their material lives. While dad’s imagination was always preoccupied by the books he was reading or struggling to write, mother’s was obsessed the tactics of getting by. She was always angling for something—or something just a little bit better than what they had. Much of her life she lived in a frustrating struggle for some satisfaction she believed was just beyond the horizon, but never quite within grasp. She was always calculating ways to survive.

In all of this I doubt that she would have regarded herself as successful: She always felt the anxiety of having to play catch-up. Yet given her modest beginnings and meager preparation, I think she could justly point to some achievements. While the jobs my father took were spiritually rewarding—they never paid enough to support a family. My mother, on the other hand, exploited what innate skills she had to support us all. She was, of necessity, the principle breadwinner in the family throughout their lives. And she accorded herself well. She started in retail—one of the few forms of employment open to an unskilled woman in the late 40s—and eventually maneuvered her way into various clerical positions. She enjoyed numbers. By the end of her long tenure at Bullock’s Department stores she had climbed the ladder to manage the chain’s employee credit union. After leaving bullock’s she was able to capitalize on her experience to land a similar position managing Abby Rents’ credit union. And it would not be unfair to say that she was something of a pioneer. When she began her career, the working world was a man’s world: only 10 % of married women were in the American labor force. Unsurprisingly, she was also the one who managed the family books. And while she undoubtedly had to beg or borrow to do it, she was still able to keep the family going until the next pay day. At key times, she was also, in effect, a single, working mother: In the forties and fifties, dad was often away on an evangelistic crusade—in London, St Louis, Chicago, Houston, or wherever. When those eventually ended, he was forced to take a job in Riverside, California—sixty miles away—forcing him to live away from home 5 days a week. At such times, she bore the burden. And, as always, whether dad was home or not, it was mother who would do most of the handyman work around the house. This included work as the family carpenter. When dad needed still more bookshelves for his ever-expanding library—a library that grew to over 3,000 volumes—she was the one who would build them.

It would be false to say that mother did all this with grace, poise and good cheer. She didn’t. She strained against adversity, and fretted about failure. Survival was both habit and obsession, and when it seemed in jeopardy, she pushed, twisted, complained, and pestered until some way forward could be found. As survivors go, she was more anxious and vigilant, than cool and confident. She was always insecure—indeed, nothing in her life argued that she had reason to be any but insecure. These experiences were her finishing school, and they did not cultivate in her a talent for the social graces.

But it would also be false to reduce her to a collection of attitudes and tics. The impulse to survive, after all, is the instinct for life. And deep at the center of that instinct for life is the urgency of love. This was especially true of mother. Of course, it wasn’t always obvious to us—or perhaps we didn’t always have the wisdom to see it when it was—but I suspect that the need to love, and the need to feel loved, was the force that pushed her to grab as much of life as she could. But if this quality of my mother was, more often than not, hidden from view, it was always there for my dad. During their long separations, in the late forties and early fifties, they would write. Usually every day. In those letters she would pour her heart out to him. Every one of them would begin with “Dearest,” or “My Darling.” And though she was by then a mature women in her thirties—no longer the sixteen-year old girl he had married—many would still end with lines of Xs and Os more commonly seen in the work of a school-girl with a crush. In March of ’51, for instance, she wrote to him saying “Here you’ve only been gone 4 ½ days and already I’m looking forward to your return. It’s positively indecent for married people to be so much in love.” Typically she would write late in the evening, after the kids had gone to bed and the house’s silence freed her to speak her heart and imagine he was there. “Well,” she wrote in the end of one letter, “I guess I better hit the hay—I suppose that’s where you are right now and I hope you’re dreaming about me.” And then: “P.S. God bless you and keep you darling.”

Of course, her letters were not only expressions of longing. There would be news of the kids and the family to relay. Any little story seemed worth telling. In June of ’52, when dad was in London and she was pregnant with me, she wrote, saying:

I fell asleep right after supper last night and couldn’t supervise the kids recreation and I wish you could have seen the house. Philip popped corn and the big boys went out and bought pop and ice cream and they spread it from the back door to the front. It seems Philip had spilled his root beer float and the way the place looked this morning you’d think some drunks had had a party.

“Oh well,” she concluded, “I guess they had fun.” Then she added “and I made Nancy clean it all up this morning, even mop the floors.”

Mother often mentioned Nancy in her letters to dad. She was thirteen at the time, but even then was beginning to assume the burdens of adulthood. In another one of her letters mother wrote: “When I told Nancy this morning that you had called last night, she said ‘yes, I know, I heard you and you talked 6 ½ minutes.’” Then she concluded—and I can just see her smiling when she wrote it: “How do you like that?” I gather, though, the phone was a recurring issue. At another time, she wrote dad to say: "It was sure nice to hear your voice last night. Nancy was trying to get me to hang up because she thought we were running the bill up too high. She worries about the bills more than I do (can that be?).” This time, however, she concluded with: “She will sure make some man a wonderful wife."

Even in those days, she relied on my sister. And she was also a little awestruck by her. This comes through in one letter in particular: In late January, 1951, dad was in Huston to work an evangelistic crusade. The effort was partially supported by—and of deep interest to—many in the Los Angeles area, including dad’s mother. Unfortunately, however, bad weather ruined the event—in fact, the temperatures in Huston that month were the coldest recorded in the past sixty years. When he told her of this, she wrote in reply that:

Nancy really has a head on her shoulders. I was going to call your mother to tell her about your call and what you said about the weather and she stopped me. She said‘Why you know how Grandma worries and stews. Don’t tell her anything about it.’ After I got to thinking about [it] I realized the kid was right. She is so sensible it’s hard to realize she’s only a child.

From some parents, such admiration might have signaled a mixture of bemusement and pride. But from a woman for whom the practical arts of survival were everything, such reflections were a reaffirmation of deep affection.

Still, as much as she wrote of Nancy, or Phil, or dad’s work, or the latest church gossip, it always came back to him and the gnawing pain of their separation. “I’ve been sitting by the phone all evening hoping you’d call,” she wrote. “[B]ut of course we will have to pay the bill eventually and I’ve got to get a hold of myself. . . . I’m letting the house payment slide but taking care of the other things that are due now. . . . I’d love to know what’s cooking right now. If we weren’t so blamed poor you could call me every night. Just that thought makes my heart skip a beat.” The nights must have been the hardest. “I do hope I get a nice long letter from you tomorrow,” she wrote yet again. “I’m sure letter-hungry, and missing you terrific. . . . I’ve been going to bed quite late every night. I can’t seem to get myself interested in going. It’s so lonesome for one person in that big bed. I guess I’m just hopelessly in love.”

Love is the force that sustains and perpetuates life. Love is both a means to survive, and the most primal reason we have for enduring the struggle that survival demands. My mother was hopelessly in love all of her life. She wasn’t always artful at it. She could be awkward, or clingy, or pouty, or demanding or unreasonable—qualities we generally associate with the innocence of childhood, and forgive accordingly. For in children, we know, the deep experience of love is inseparable from the dependency essential for survival. We are less forgiving of adults. My mother was indeed hopelessly in love all of her life. And in so many irritating, exasperating—yet relentlessly innocent and powerful ways—it remained the love of that baby-girl who married at sixteen. It remained the driving power of her instinct for survival.

And survive she did:

Of all of the ancestors of whom she was a direct descendent, she survived—at 93—longer than any of them. Her father died at 81, her mother at 69. Each of her father’s parents died in their seventies. On her mother’s side, her grandmother died at 87 and her grandfather at 29. And of those maternal great grandparents for whom we have records, only one lived to be 85—all the others died in their fifties and sixties. On average, she lived twenty-five years longer than the lot of them.

When I recounted this to a friend the other day, I was reminded that modern medicine keeps many of us alive well past our time. And that is surely true. Yet it is also true that despite being the eldest child in her family, she still out lived three of her siblings: She lived longer than her sister Thelma by 14 years; longer than Carol by 16 years; and she outlived her brother Billie by 24 years.

In the final analysis, my mother’s longevity was not something to be explained by clean living or good medicine; nor was it something to found in lucky genes. It was something forged in her tenacious will to survive, her lioness, loving heart.

Posted by stevemack at 11:32 AM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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