It is almost Mother’s Day, but I do not need a special day to think about my mom. As a retiree doing my daily walk, there are two important themes for my thoughts (they can be called prayers): 1) recognizing and being thankful for the blessings in my life and 2) acknowledgement and appreciation for those people in my life who have passed away. This has brought me to compare in a serious way for the first time, the blessings of my life to the life of my mother. The quick overview is that it seems to me that I have been incredibly blessed while my mother could almost be said to have been cursed.
My mom Bernice was born November 22, 1926 in Chicago (my father was also born November 22 in Chicago, but in 1924) to Isaac (from whom my name was derived) and Bessie March. She was an only child. As far as I know, which is very little, both of her parents had come to the US from Ukraine in the early 1920s.
She never said much to me about her childhood. But it was obvious she was a depression era kid based on her ingrained frugality. Her father tried to get in on the stock market boom at the wrong time. I saw a worthless stock certificate bought by him dated from October 1929. Later he worked as a civil engineer. One of the projects he worked on was the Golden Gate Bridge. Once when I told her that I was interested in learning a language, Spanish, she mentioned that she had only spoken Yiddish until she had gone to school. Yet, I don’t recall her ever speaking a word of Yiddish in my presence, though I am sure she must have done so with her mother. She grew up in the Jewish neighborhood on the North side of Chicago. When I told her I was working on a book she said offhand that her cousin had dated the Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow. Other friends, or perhaps only schoolmates, from those days were the comics Harvey Korman and Shecky Green.
My grandfather Isaac had died before I was born. I only have a fleeting memory of my grandmother Bessie who died in 1966. Isaac must have had a brother because of the other March relatives. But I don’t remember that brother. There was an aunt that I barely recall. My mom once told me her cousin was Jerry March. He was an organic chemist who authored the March’s Advanced Organic Chemistry text, which is considered to be a pillar of graduate-level organic chemistry texts. The book was prepared in its fifth edition at the time of his death in 1997. It is now in its eighth edition. My older brother remembers a cousin named Ricky March who is a comic in Chicago (Ricky March – YouTube). My brother thought he was annoying as a kid. Looking at his videos today I can understand why.
My mom went to university at nearby Northwestern and took a BS in chemistry. She worked at Abbott Labs for a while, I am not sure how long, until she had kids (sons in 1954, 1958 (me), and 1960). I don’t know how or when she met my dad but I think it was before World War II. He ended up in the Marines operating a radar unit on Tinian Island from where the aerial attacks on Japan including the atomic bombs departed.
My father became a doctor. With three small boys my mother and father moved from Chicago to a house in nearby Skokie where I grew up. In the early 60s to be a family doctor was not a ticket to wealth. In fact, one measure of the difference to today’s healthcare is that he made house calls. Too often he responded to calls in the middle of the night. He worked virtually every day. Sunday was our family day, usually consisting of lunch in a restaurant like the old Chicago steakhouse the Stockyard Inn. But even on those Sundays we stopped by the hospital on the way to the restaurant so he could do another round with his patients. I have not a single memory of having a catch, nor any other kind of father-son activity except to attend a single Cubs game and one of the long gone occurrences of the Annual Chicago College Football All-Star Game at Soldier Field. Yet we loved him tremendously and would run home when we saw his car turning onto our street. So it was left to my mom to give the day-to-day care and to apply any necessary discipline, but I would say, granted with prejudice, that we were generally well behaved.
Our world changed dramatically in 1967 when my father died of a heart attack at 42 years of age. My 40-year-old mother was now the single parent of 12, 8 (I turned 9 the next day), and 6 year-old boys. She was unemployed, not having had a paying job for years. It was not long afterward that she asked my father’s only sibling, our uncle, to sign over savings bonds that my father had purchased before he had been married. He refused. This instigated a total rupture with my father’s family that lasted over 40 years. My mother was alone. During this period she suffered from severe depression and anxiety that bubbled over into panic. While I never knew her to take an alcoholic drink for pleasure, she would very often drink herself to sleep on straight vodka or gin (I can’t recall which) that she kept in the refrigerator. When stressed by any problem including our behavior she would often say “I am going to commit suicide.”
My older brother returned from his 50th high school reunion last year with this photograph taken at his friend’s (also our neighbor) bar mitzvah in September,1967, five months after my father had passed. My mother is on the far left, I am on the far right, and my younger brother is in the center (I don’t know the identity of the other couple). I am surprised at the wistful expression on my face because I don’t have memories of being sad in spite of this difficult period.
My mom was always worried about money, however, I never felt deprived of anything. Eventually my mother found a job working in a lab at the Environmental Engineering Department at her old school Northwestern. The only pastime she had (enjoyed is not the right word because it didn’t make her happy) was walking along the beach of Lake Michigan to collect water polished stones. These she used to make our yard into a Japanese-styled garden. I felt embarrassed because it was different from all of the other houses in the neighborhood, but it avoided the chores and expense of maintaining grass. When I think back to that garden I think she was quite clever.
My older brother always had a passion for space and aviation. As kids we would take the bus to O’hare Airport to watch the planes. We were there for the first 747 to land in Chicago. As a university he chose Florida Institute of Technology (now Florida Tech) in Melbourne that was founded in the 50s to serve the space program. My mom made the huge decision to move us all down to Florida. This was a big deal as we had spent all our lives in Chicago and really didn’t know anything about anywhere else. But we adapted. I literally couldn’t swim at 14 when we moved. Within a year I was surfing. She still had the bottle in the refrigerator, but she found work as a chemist in an environmental lab and life went on for the four of us.
When it was my turn to go to university and I “chose” (I didn’t think much about where to go and only applied to one school) the University of Florida, my mom said she was moving to Gaineseville with me like she had moved to Florida with my older brother. I was dead set against this because I wanted to be separated from her anxiety. Before I had learned about security clearance protocols I understood the concept of “the need to know.” As a joke that was real, my roommates put a note near the phone to never call my mom if I had died. Two years later she moved to Clemson, SC where my younger brother went to university. Finally, after he went to Charleston for medical school my mom went to, of all places, North Dakota. There she enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. In fact, in Florida and South Carolina she had entered graduate programs. Between the ages of 45 and 55 she earned two master’s degrees in environmental engineering related degrees and then a PhD in chemistry.
During these years she was relatively stable. But I don’t think she ever really enjoyed herself. I think there was always a bottle in the refrigerator. As I mentioned, my mother was frugal. She would spend absolutely the minimum on herself. Her car was always an old wreck. She made her own clothes and even towels. Yet for years during every phone conversation between us she would offer to give me money.
After her PhD there was little chance of her finding a job as a professor, but there were many postdoc positions available around the country. She had stops in Iowa, Georgia, Texas, and finally back to South Carolina. It was during these years that another family tragedy occurred, the first obvious indications and diagnosis of the bipolar illness of my younger brother. It was a repeating blow to her like the loss of her husband. She would say the worst thing that could happen to a person is to lose a child, even though her son was not dead the devastation of this illness was in some ways worse.
In the mid 90s she retired. In reverse of my intentions when I was 18, I asked her to move to Texas where I was working. I also had my brother move to be near me after the many problems that devastated his career. The difficulties continued with my brother’s illness exacerbating my mother’s depression and anxiety. One day when we were at lunch together I learned of another devastating hardship. The waiter dropped a knife clearing the table falling on her foot. She was in immense pain and angry. I didn’t understand her extreme reaction. Later I looked at her foot. The toes were black stubbs, destroyed by the poor circulation associated with diabetes. She had had bypass surgery a few years earlier, but I had not seen this problem coming at all. It was not too long after this incident that her leg was amputated.
I lost my position in Texas and was left uncertain as to where I would find a new job. For this reason my mother and younger brother moved back to Florida to be near my older brother. He had stayed in the Melbourne area closer to the Kennedy Space Center where he worked for his whole career. In her handicapped state we convinced her to live in a care home. It seemed very nice to us, but too expensive in her mind, and she had some other valid criticisms. My older brother had valid concerns that if she moved into her own apartment he would in effect always be on call to care for her. Acting as a mediator, I told her, “If you can figure everything out to find a place and arrange your affairs what can I say against you doing it.” She did figure it all out and lived on her own for the rest of her life even after her remaining leg was amputated.
I have described my mother’s problems like a Bergman film, as if all was darkness all the time. However, underneath all the talk of suicide was a highly sociable, even humorous personality. In her way she was friendly with everyone. I never knew her to manipulate anyone. This fundamental friendly openness was passed on to my brothers who were two of the nicest people I have ever known. She never had “fun” in the normal sense, but she enjoyed watching old movies from the 30s and 40s on cable TV, especially her youthful idol Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls. There are other anecdotes. One day she said to me she wanted to kill Alan Greenspan because the markets had taken a wrong turn. I responded that it was great that she wanted to kill someone else other than herself. We both laughed. On the way home after her first amputation she asked to stop at a supermarket, refusing to tell me what she wanted. Pushing her in her wheelchair we went to the aisle for wine. My first thought was, “Okay, she has been through a lot. She can have a nice bottle of wine.” The shelves of wine were a wall of green but with a tiny spot of red in the middle of the bottom row like a Monet painting of the sun. My heart sank as she directed me to the red spot to take a bottle of MD 20/20. I told her I would not stay in the checkout line with her and we both laughed.
She died in her apartment, 75 years-old, living alone, taking care of herself while both her legs were amputated. She lived to see her oldest son married. She did not see her middle son married nor her granddaughter. But at least she did not live to see her youngest son die of cancer. As I look back over the hardships in her life I think her thoughts of suicide were understandable. She did not have any religion to comfort her. So I think of her with immense pride now to continue with such fortitude, inspite of feelings of suicide, to raise three children, and to achieve two masters degrees and a PhD degree. What I think was amazing about my mom is that she had tremendous courage for someone who was always afraid and imparted the most important wisdom to her children even though she was often in a state of panic.
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