Thursday, December 17, 2009

Random Thoughts about my Mother

It's been a very hectic month for me.  I got very sick right after Thanksgiving and was barely able to hold my head up, let alone sit at a computer for long.  Got back to work last week and was good for the work day, but still pretty tired when I got home.  At long last this week, I started to feel like myself.  Then yesterday afternoon, my sister called me.  Our mother has died.  Not unexpected, but still a bit of a blow.  She lived nearly 92 years, her birthday is January 16th.  So in the interest of remembering my mother and returning to regular blogging, I present Random Thoughts about My Mother.

Mildred Irene Wallock Watt.  My mother was born in January 1918...just before the end of WWI.  Los Angeles was a different place then, a collection of small towns, some manufacturing, some agriculture, some business.  Her father moved his family there when the film industry was locating there because the sunshine and variety of landscape meant movie making could go on year round. An older actor, dark hair and beard, grandpa was often cast as "the heavy."

She grew up during the days of Prohibition and the Depression.  Her father made homemade wine and she could remember her mother pouring it all down the drain once when she thought the revenuers were coming down the street.   It's hard to say what the Depression did to my mother, but I know she never could bring herself to throw something away if she thought it might be useful for something else.  We had dozens upon dozens of margarine tubs when I was growing up.  And glass jars made perfectly good drinking glasses for a large family.  Some years ago when her VCR broke, she was amazed to discover that it was cheaper to get a new one than to have the old one fixed.  That just wasn't her way of doing things.

Mother went to Catholic school from grades 1-8.  She was a devout Catholic all her life, as was her father.   She went to public High School and graduated in 1935.  She had received a scholarship to study acting at a Shakespeare conservatory, but was stuck with tuberculosis and spent the next several years bedridden.  My father had met her around this time and he was a constant companion to her in her illness, bringing her news of the neighborhood and the world, books from the library and undying devotion.   He converted to Catholicism and when she was well enough, they married in 1939.

It's hard to imagine my mother as a young wife and mother.  I was born a full 20 years later and she was a very different person by then.  World War II had come and gone.  My father had been called overseas while she was pregnant with my sister Nancy.  Then after the war, they had relocated to Grants Pass Oregon where they found the community and pace of life they had known growing up in Los Angeles.  It was the kind of life they wanted for their family, but it meant that my mother had to be apart from her father, whom she loved dearly.  And from the place she had always called home.

Shortly after her parents death in 1952; within 2 weeks of each other, I might add; my mother organized and started a community theater group with the help of her uncle Mike.  Barnstomer's Theater is still in operation in Grants Pass.  It must be one of the longest running active community theaters in the country.  It was a thriving organization by the time I was born in 1959.   I grew up in the musty basement costume and make-up rooms.  I still find cold basements smelling of sawdust and musty clothes to be oddly comforting.

Mother was a wonderful actor.  She commanded your attention from the moment she was on stage.  With her striking white hair, dark eyes, and commanding posture, you couldn't help but watch her.  She was commanding in real life too.  I used to love to watch her getting ready to go out with my father or dressing for church.  My mother's hair was white, beautiful soft white, with one small patch of black at the back underneath.  And it was thick.  She used to let me brush it and then she would braid it before going to bed.  During the day, she wore it up in a bun at the back.  And I would watch her pinning it up, checking her hair from all angles, making sure the bun was set just right upon her head, just the right amount of curl in the bang down onto her forehead,  not quite hiding the widow's peak at the hairline. 

Imposing.  That's what one of my friends said to me after first meeting her. "Your mother is very imposing."  She was right.  You just didn't mess with my mother.

She gave me many gifts...a love of reading, music, dance, theater, art.  I used to listen to her records on our old hi-fi.  Chopin and Beethoven and Gershwin.  She taught me to play the piano and read music.  She took me to my first classical concert.  My first ballet. 

She loved irises.  And roses.  And lilies.  And begonias.  She missed the bougainvillea of California. 

Mother loved beautiful things.  And she made things beautiful by her wearing of them.  I shall always remember the large red poinsettia pin on the black wool coat with the soft fur cuffs.  I would sit and stroke her coat during mass.  When my brother Robert was getting married, she had a dress made of olive green with a matching duster, shoes died to match and a little hat like Jackie O. 

And when she was on stage, I couldn't take my eyes off her.  She played God once in JB.  Most children think their mother is God.  I knew she was. 

In many ways, I'm sure my mother didn't have the life she wanted.  But she made the most of the life she was given.  She was loved and admired.  She was respected and listened too.  Her opinion mattered to many people.  It wasn't easy being her child.  But it made me strong.  

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine