My mother was very pretty and funny and outgoing and smart and kind. She loved TV mysteries and card games and having fun. She had a voice like chalk on a blackboard, but she sang while she vacuumed or cooked dinner, "Moonlight Becomes You" and "I'm in the Mood for Love" and an 1890s tune called "My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon" that she'd learned from her father who'd spent part of his lost youth in vaudeville. She was a doer, not a dreamer, and she learned to drive in her 40s and took up golf when she was 50 and was interested in everything. Everyone who met her loved her.
She was also the bravest person I ever knew. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was six, and she and her sister were raised by her happy-go-lucky and mostly-unemployed father, who was a failure as a house painter but a rousing success as a parent (after he died, my mother asked her sister, "Did it ever bother you that I was Dad's favorite?" Her sister looked at her in astonishment and said, "What are you talking about? I was his favorite!"). This was the 1930s, and they were desperately poor and often homeless, camping out on various relatives' couches. In later years, my mother would speak of being so hungry when she came home from school that she'd mix up baking cocoa with water into a paste and eat that. She did very well in school, well enough to graduate early, and wanted to become a nurse, but she couldn't afford college and had to go to work instead. Which she did, on the assembly line at the Bulova Watch Company. Bitterness had no place in her psyche; she was a champion lemonade-maker.
When she was about 20, she was diagnosed with TB herself. At the time, it was inactive, and she and my father were married in 1943. The disease stayed dormant throughout the war and the birth of her first child, my brother, but in 1950 it came back with a vengeance. She was told she had a choice: she could admit herself to the hospital for treatment - which meant quarantine for an undetermined amount of time - or the state would take her son as a matter of public health. She went to the hospital, and my brother, age three, went to live with her sister. My father worked all day and visited her on Sundays, when the TB patients were allowed visitors. The TB ward was on an upper floor - a locked floor, like a prison - and my brother was too young to be allowed up to see her. Someone would stay with him down below and she would wave to him from a window. She was there for two and a half years.
They thought she was going to die. Her prognosis was "poor," but she would have none of it. "I thought it was ridiculous," she once said to me. She was lucky on two counts:one was the invention of streptomycin, the first antibiotic that was effective against TB, and the other was encountering a British doctor, whose name I do not know, who had developed a new surgery that allowed TB patients to have damaged lung material removed without disfigurement (his procedure "tented" the diaphragm so that the patient could stand upright after surgery, which involved removing ribs). She lost half of one lung and a quarter of the other, and it took 900 stitches to close up the incisions, but she survived.Eight years later, at the age of 40 and long before it was fashionable, she had me. I do not remember her not being a bit frail physically - she had asthma and later severe osteoporosis - but she was always upbeat and game and joyous. My father died in 1982, but she lived to see her grandchildren, and until her health really began to fail, she kept her sunny spirit. But as she got sicker and sicker, she got angry and unhappy - understandable in a woman who had always overwhelmed her own bad health with sheer will and grit. When she died, after several years of increasing dependence, weakening vision, and a bad fall, she was ready to go. The night before she died, the doctor said, "I'll see you in the morning." She said, "I won't be here" and she wasn't. She had had enough.
I tell people that, while from my father I got poetry, from my mother I got whatever steel I have in my spine. She was terrific. I miss her.
(Ed. note: This post originally appeared on May 9, 2010