I never expected my mother to live to be 80, let alone 92. As a matter of fact, my mother never expected to live much beyond 70. But here we are – mother turning 92 in a day or so, daughter 63 for a while yet – looking at one another cautiously over the dinner table, trying to understand how such a thing could have happened.
Luck played a role, of course. My maternal grandmother died when my own mother was only 16 and all but one of her sisters died young. The odds appeared to be against her from the start. But when the scourges of increasing age arrived and attempted to take their toll, they were beaten back. The surgeries healed. The heart attack responded to the stent and the congestive heart failure was remedied by the pacemaker. At 70, things were looking good. At 75, we were amazed. At 80, we sat at the dinner table with friends and laughingly agreed it was a good year for the extravagance of jewelry and gold. After all, as my mother herself pointed out with great realism and without embarassment, it might be the last year for gifts.
As she began to move into her eighties, each of my mother’s trips to an assortment of doctors resulted in high hilarity as the latest injuries and surgeries were catalogued. Double ankle fracture. Rotator cuff repair. Pulled tendon. Tibia crack. “Listen”, said the orthopedic surgeon. “You’ve got to stop playing soccer.”
As the years went by, she stopped degenerating physically and seemed to regenerate. The stresses that resulted from my father’s death, the forced sale of her home, the moves to Kansas and then on to Texas began to ease. Like every mother and daughter, we experienced a few cracks and fractures in our own relationship, but we coped. I haven’t a clue what she was thinking when the conflicts erupted or the silence set in, but I know I was repeating to myself the mantra of every befuddled, middle-aged child: “I’m the adult in this room.” And, ultimately, I was. But so was she.
When it came time to celebrate her ninetieth year, there were options galore. At first we considered a little party, perhaps dinner at home with friends and a cake. We thought of indulging in a favorite restaurant, splurging on tiny portions of marvelous food and a nice Sauvignon Blanc. We wondered aloud if it might not be a fine day for a drive into Houston, or a trip to Galveston’s Strand.
Any of those would have been lovely, but 90 years of life, 90 years of experience and struggle and endurance is worth more than dinner and a cake. We talked, discussed and fussed a little at one another until finally determining a fit course. We would go east, to Louisiana, first to Breaux Bridge and Acadiana, and then beyond to Baton Rouge, where cousins still live.
Beulah continues to live on the very property where I first came to love the moss-draped oaks of Evangeline’s world, and her sister Marlene is not far away. They’ve been there all along, descendents of my great, great-grandfather David Crowley. He traveled a bit himself, journeying to Iowa from West Virginia via Texas before traveling to Colorado to try to make a fortune panning gold. When war was declared between the States he returned to Iowa, helping to form the 34th Iowa, a regiment that fought from Vicksburg to Boca Chica, from Mobile to the Atchafalaya Basin and New Orleans. At war’s end, he made a final return to Iowa and continued building the family whose descendents later scattered across a dozen states.
How part of that family arrived back in Louisiana is a story for another time, and the mysterious fact that my mother’s generation of cousins lost touch with one another may have to remain just that: a mystery. But as they say in Texas, what goes around does come around, and it’s never too late to re-join generations torn asunder by time and circumstance.
That my 90-year-old Mother would be reunited at last with Beulah and Marlene, also in their nineties, should have been birthday gift enough. But there was something more, something wonderful even beyond the telling of it. Those Baton Rouge cousins never had seen their great-grandfather, David Crowley. Serendipitously, moved by reasons of my own, I had been digging into envelopes and boxes left to moulder in dark closets and the vaulted silence of banks. What I found we carried with us to share with the cousins, a gift to them from the past and the beginning of a family’s personal reconstruction.
There are photographs, with names inscribed on the back. There are Civil War pension documents and hand-written letters from women who endured the journey by wagon across the Texas plains. There is a twenty-five page family history written by Beulah and Marlene’s mother Fannie, and copies of transcribed information from a family Bible that was certified by the Clerk of Courts. Best of all, there is a single tintype, rescued from the drifts of paper that might have hidden it forever. It is David, and his wife Annie, and the daughters of their family. Forced by photographic necessity into silence and immobility, they gaze serenely into the eyes of history as though waiting to reach out across the years, to reestablish contact and to be seen at last by another generation, itself nearly gone.
As we linger now after dinner, mulling over family history and considering our plans for this year’s celebration, I suddenly become aware of a distinct silence at my mother’s side of the table. “What?” I ask. Giving her coffee entirely too much attention, she finally looks up. “When we went to Baton Rouge to visit Beulah and Marlene – do you remember what I told you about your camera?” I do remember. She made me promise that, no matter how fine the photographs, no matter how lovely or intriguing the images, I wouldn’t post them online.
“The same rule applies this year”, she says. “You can’t put any pictures of me on that silly machine of yours.” Startled into my own silence, I think for a moment and then ask why. She gives me her look that clearly translates “I have raised me an idiot child” and says, “Because, dear – I’m 92 years old. I have no desire to have my picture on your page. Write what you like, but keep my picture out of it.” After a bit of gentle protest I agree, but as I sit and sip my coffee, I’m still thinking my way around the issue. Eventually I glance up to find my mother gazing at me with the serenity of David, Annie and the girls. “No,” she says. “No pictures at all. None. Not even when I’m dead and gone.”
After 63 years, I’m still no match for my mother. It’s a wonder I ever got away with anything.