Lessons from my Mother
It still stings. My Mother, Marilou (Wintermute) Dana, passed away in late February of 2017.
As her maiden name would suggest, she was largely of German descent, and a complete force of Nature. She was the single biggest influence in my life, let alone the foundation for my very existence. The “sting” I reference is a feeling all of us suffer when we lose a parent, and stays with you until the end of your days.
When I say that my Mother was a force of Nature, that is no hyperbole. During the summer, she loved to garden, and our backyard was filled trees and flowers of many varieties planted over the years. In the winter, she would feed the birds, which over time eventually turned more into feeding the squirrels. She eagerly awaited the first signs of spring, the first crocus and daffodils from past plantings springing to life with each early thaw. Year after year, my Mother would take a picture of the first crocus springing to life after the long winter.
The inside of our home reflected the great outdoors. During the 1960’s, the inside of our home was filled with tropical plants hanging from the walls and ceilings of several rooms. We had aquariums filled with fish, and amphibians living in harmony with a multitude of cats and dogs. Despite the energy in the home, my Mother felt that the Family consisting of only daughters was missing something; a son. My Mother, a life-long Republican and Member of our County’s Central Committee, became enthralled with the ideal of Camelot and the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. It is fair to say that I would never have been born had my Mother not seen the pictures of John-John playing in the White House.
While President Kennedy was determined to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, my Mother was equally determined to add a son to the Family by the end of that same decade. Before Neil Armstrong made his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, my Mother’s prayers were answered with the birth of her only son. In a home that had previously consisted of two daughters and our beloved pets, it is fair to say that I was spoiled in my early youth. My earliest memories are of this home, our animals, my family, and being awakened while it was still dark outside to see the launch of one of the Apollo Missions, undoubtedly Apollo 17. It was a time when anything seemed possible in America. I also recall my Mother’s office where she ran her own employment agency. While my sisters attended school during the day, I would frequently accompany my Mother to work when appropriate daycare was unavailable. My mother rented an extra room in the office building where she ran her business, and equipped it with a playpen to occupy my time as she met with clients.
In a surprise to those who know me today, my Mother described me as “perfectly quiet” in that office setting and never disturbing her work. For lunch, I specifically remember eating my first hot dog at a local “arcade” in-between some downtown office buildings, washing the meal down with an orange soda. I have no memory of the events from the summer of 1972 until the time I boarded a school bus for my first day of Kindergarten a few years later.
Going to school can be a traumatic experience for both Parent and Child. For Parents, your Child is leaving the bonds of Family, coming under the influence of other persons within your neighborhood. Questions abound. How will your Child acclimate to his or her new surroundings? What friends will they make? What new habits will they learn or display from your Family? For the Child, there is wonderment. Dressed in my new Buster Brown shoes, and looking sharp in a dress shirt and sweater vest, what would this day bring? There were other concerns running in the mind of this five year old; would my Mother even be at home when I returned from school that day?
Before boarding the bus, my parents urging me on to start this new adventure, I turned to my Mother and asked if she would be home when the bus returned later that say. When my Mother answered “Yes,” I wanted the added assurances that she was “sure, positive, and honest” about her answer. It was only with these assurances that I boarded the bus. I had at that time, and still have, no conscious memory of “The Accident,” but my Mother nearly died in a horrible accident that left her hospitalized for months. While we were fortunate that no one else was injured, this event of no fault to my Mother changed our lives.
Within this blended Family, my Parents raised me and my two older sisters, who were each born eight years apart. At the time of “The Accident,” my eldest sister was a student at Cornell after earning a full scholarship. Do you tell a teenager that your Mother is near death when she is in the middle of a rigorous academic program in the field of science? How does a Father, suffering with his own sense of loss, raise a daughter about to enter her teenage years, let alone care for a three year old son? During tumultuous times for both our Country and my Family, we rallied.
My two sisters took it upon themselves to care for me at a time when I was most venerable, my eldest sister delaying her own education. After several months, our Mother was able to return home, but things were not quite right. When she returned home, her three year old son ran up to see her and, when looking into her unrecognizable face after the accident, ran away screaming: “That’s not my Mom, my Mom is dead.” Again, I have no memory of this occurrence, but the memory for my Mother stung when an event outside of your control changes your life forever.
For years, my Mother was not herself. She complained of serious back pain, and saw specialists at our major hospitals in Cleveland. However, in the days before magnetic resonance imaging, Doctors could find nothing wrong through existing x-ray technology. Some of her doctors, dismissing the complaints of a woman, refused to believe that she was even in pain. To combat the pain, or perhaps to stop her complaint of pain, my Mother was prescribed the opiate de jure of the day along with a benzodiazepine. This was a potential deadly cocktail not fully understood at the time. A young child’s fears, that his Mother would not be around when he returned home was not a fantasy. At some level, this five year old child could sense the danger, needing reassurances before boarding the daily school bus to school.
Aside from viewing my Mother’s physical pain, our household had dramatically changed. No longer was our home a virtual paradise of flowers, gardens, and animals of many kinds and descriptions. My Mother also made the conscious decision to move from our residential neighborhood just out of our downtown, to the smallest and least expensive home in the one of the best areas of our City. Always a tough negotiator, my Mother saw a home that had sat vacant for a number of years, and made what the realtor thought was a “low ball” offer, that the seller ultimately accepted. The sole reason for this move was to expand the educational opportunities for her son.
To this day, I remember all of my teachers, but I have a warm spot in my heart for Miss Nichols in Kindergarten who gave the confidence for a frightened little boy to excel in school. I am deeply indebted to Mr. Bentley, my 1st Grade teacher, who built a “Reading Rocket” in his classroom and permitted a child to leave the current course of study by grabbing a book and entering a child’s own kind of Apollo Mission and escape into a new World. Mr. Bentley also had the insight to convey to his students that, despite the uncertainty that exists in the World, future success was within each of our grasp. These are seemingly small, insignificant acts of kindness that make all the difference in the trajectory taken in the course of a child’s life.
When writing about Lessons that I learned from my Father, I mentioned a green box that my Father left me about his time in serving the military. Much like my Father, my Mother left me a similar box, containing information from her life, as well as advice left behind from Family Members of the past, such as the Wintermutes and my Great-grandmother Sensel. My Mother revered her Grandmother Sensel who told her granddaughter born during the depression that she could do anything she wanted in her life. Grandma Sensel was one of the pioneering women of her day, trained as an early school teacher, and committed to the cause of Women’s Suffrage. Taking this advice, I learned that my Mother dreamed of one day becoming an architect or attorney. However, during her senior year of High School, she was encouraged not to seek these occupations.
While her teachers acknowledged her analytical mind, women of the 1940’s did not enter professional careers. Alas, my Mother did not have a teacher like Mr. Bentley who encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Like many women of her generation, she delayed any thoughts of a career, got married, and started a Family. While I can sit here today, thankful at that choice, she may have harbored some regrets in her decision. While she never pushed her son into any choice of profession, perhaps subconsciously it played an impact in my future career. As early as Kindergarten, I have told persons that I would practice law.
Included in her box of material, my Mother left me many Medical Records, some from doctors who doubted the pain that she suffered, albeit acknowledging that she was involved in an accident that caused severe blunt trauma. Such was the life for a woman in the early 1970’s when science could not fully explain the exact cause of pain; all the better to dull the pain with seemingly revolutionary new medicines. What could go wrong? However, as the 1970’s continued, and medical science advanced, my Mother’s medical records revealed a possible solution. A Doctor from our small hometown was able to see what others had missed, a hairline fracture of her spine, and openly wondered how my Mother was able to walk with her condition.
The pain was not in my Mother’s head, but an actual physical problem that could possibly be fixed with surgery. Going under the knife has its own risk, but for my mother there was no other choice if she wanted to return to more normal activities. The surgery, to fuse a portion of her spine, was a success.
After a period of rehabilitation, I had my Mother back. Soon my Mother was back tending to her garden, feeding the birds/squirrels, entered a new career operating a kennel and raising dogs, mostly Borzoi with an occasional Scottish Deerhound or other hound within the Family. In addition to learning the “standard” of these breeds, and taking a part in a form of animal husbandry, I had the opportunity to show these dogs at events around the Country. My Mother was nice enough to share some of the photographs of my childhood activities to my wife shortly before we wed twenty plus years ago. If you ask my wife, she might show you pictures of me in action while sporting the “Shaun Cassidy” haircut popular in the late 1970’s. My wife is fond of asking who had the silkier hair at the time, me or the dog? As embarrassing as those photographs may be, they bring me back to a special time when I had my Mother back, not in pain, or otherwise in a zombie-like state to dull that pain.
My Mother was a fighter. Over the course of the next forty years, she continued her business while fighting two bouts of breast cancer. She fought cancer in the same way as the pain from “the Accident,” with dignity and as much grace as possible under the circumstances. All the while, she made decisions that impacted my own life, and always to my benefit.
The last year of my Mother’s life was extremely difficult. She suffered from reoccurring urinary tract infections that had a negative impact on her life both physically and mentally. By and large, my Mother received excellent care, but on occasion I would see a doctor who would give up on my Mother. In a repeat of the past, I could better understand my Mom’s frustration with certain doctors who previously dismissed her complaints of pain as mere fiction before her surgery, the timely dose of an antibiotic quickly renewing my Mother’s spirits. For the last year of her life, I found myself in the role of an advocate to insure that my Mother was as comfortable as possible.
On the day that my Mother passed away, an unseeingly warm February day, we had occasion to walk outside in a courtyard. For one last occasion, my Mother had the ability to see the first early signs of spring; the crocuses peeking through from their winter hibernation.
© 2019 by Richard L. Dana. The author is an Attorney and a part-time Instructor of Criminology and Justice Studies, The Department of Sociology, Kent State University at Ashtabula.