Growing Up By Eric Bellmann: Mom, Better Late Than Never

I’m a committed homemaker, lol. I love to iron, clean, do laundry, weird as that seems. People often tell me that I’m welcome to come over and whip their homes into shape, an invitation that I ignore. I don’t understand how people can hire outside help.

I have a collection of rags I use. Over time they have acquired a muddy color and splotches of resistant stains. I realized I could soak those rags for a considerable time before I switched the washing machine on to its cycle. How did I know to do that?

My mother always soaked laundry before washing it.

My mother was not an easy person and I’m pretty sure she thought the same of me. When she finally moved to New Mexico where the climate was better for her arthritis, I sarcastically observed that I was glad America was a big country. My yearly visits were agony, although I came to love the landscape there much as she did.

Then she died. I kept returning to New Mexico, even visiting the forlorn town in the barren southwestern corner of the state where she lived, quite contentedly, the last 20 years of her life. At first I went every two years, then each year. Finally, I stopped. Too much had changed. All the mom and pop Mexican restaurants had been forced out of business by national franchises.

The absolute great discovery, for me, has been what the passage of time has accomplished. Again, I’m afraid with sarcasm, I observed how much our relationship improved after her death. But that wasn’t really a joke. No more daily battles. Just memories. It’s taken me a while to consider her gifts to me.

I know how to set a formal table, where the silverware goes and that the dinner plate should be placed a distance from the edge of the table that is the width of two fingers. Weekends my mother had a second job cooking for a well-to-do family. I’d come on Sunday after church and help her set their table, then eat in the kitchen while she did the dishes.

She always worked two jobs. A bank clerk during the week, a maid/housekeeper on weekends. I always had two jobs, teaching in college and weekend art classes. Even after I retired from full time work, I kept selling work at Art fairs. I know the value of money.

My sister, who also had a troubled relationship with our mother,  perhaps out of guilt, each holiday would send her an extravagant gift, a good purse, a silk blouse. After her death, we found all these things still in their boxes, “saved for good”. That seemed so sad. I found a perfect leather jacket in Taos one year. It hangs in a closet, never worn. I suppose I’m “saving it for good”.

My mother never had guests over. She valued her privacy. Perhaps also she was ashamed of how modestly she lived. I don’t know. She never said. I am more of a recluse than not. I have to make a considerable effort to let friends visit. And that’s odd because I’m often lonely. My mother was lonely, too.

She didn’t want anyone to know her politics, so thinking it unwise to register as either Republican or Democrat, she registered as Liberal, not understanding the significance of that choice. She disliked Jimmy Carter because his daughter had crooked teeth. Her favorite politician was Spiro Agnew because he came down hard on students during the turbulent ‘60s. Mom and I did not have a lot to talk about.

Do I miss her? Not really. Our time together was what it was and then it was over, time for me to move along. I think she was relieved not to have to deal any longer with the child who had confounded her at almost every turn.

She reinvented me. I became a man who liked to travel. She saved articles about Turkey for me. She found an old Turkish/English dictionary in a garage sale and bought it for me. We evolved into a greeting card relationship: “The sun is shining, the cat is sleeping in the window, etc.” It was a narrow channel, but it worked rather well for both of us.

My mother was a survivor. She came to America at 19 only speaking German. She worked as a housekeeper, a cook, then found  a career as a bank clerk. Abandoned by her husband, she raised two children and worried about all her relatives in her war torn homeland. She was a stoic.

I wish we could have had a few more conversations. I know so little about her early struggles but I can imagine them, not really so unlike my own. I have found compassion for her, much to my relief and joy. Truth be told, I do miss her.

Email: ericlbellmann @gmail.com

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