What does a cup of coffee, a wicked sense of humor, and a loving and determined mother have in common? All three of the above elements served as foundation for all that my mom was – and remains in my memory. Coffee for my mother Ruth Christina Norman was the elixir of choice. I learned at an early age how to make coffee and every morning before I left for school I treated her to a cup before she got out of bed. She would sip a bit before getting up and getting ready for work then gulp the rest before grabbing her keys and heading downtown to work. This became our ritual after she and dad divorced in 1968. Gatherings around coffee brought forth so many memorable and hilarious expressions from a woman who was taken out of school after the 5th grade to help care for brothers and sisters who would later disown her. They showed this by failing to inform her of her mother’s death by almost a month. So afraid were they that my mother would show up with the darker members of her family. My mother carried around this well-hidden pain for 77 years. So many years to shrink into resentment and bitterness. But not my mother – not as long as there was coffee and people to enjoy.
My mother was so very proud of her six children. This was a pride that took root in her relentless devotion to her responsibilities as a parent. My mother married my stepfather in 1954 when I was three-years-old. It was my father’s discharge from the Air Force that year that caused our move to his hometown of Los Angeles, California. I say this to point out the fierceness of my mother’s spirit when confronted with the amazement of my father’s friends and family when he returned to L.A. with five children. It was this fierceness that drove my mother to her ultimate concern with appearance. You see, no one was going to say Ruthie came to America with all these raggedy babies. If my sisters, brother and I had a closet in which hung all the memories of growing under mom’s care I believe that first memory would be of cleaned and starched school clothes. Also, in that closet would hang the communion dresses, the shirts, and the wedding dresses that she made in those late-night hours after a full day’s work.
My mother was a wonderful cook. Her meals were hearty and unforgettable but few people knew that, in Canada, after the death of her first husband my mother took a job as a camp cook. She told me this story not long before she died and I am awestruck by the image of a 22 year old widow, tucking her three babies in the canoe before putting the kettle of food for the campers and paddling across the river behind her rural house to the camp on the other side. The stories of my mother’s miracle surrounding SPAM are legendary, as my college roommate will tell you. There was the proposed (in jest) cookbook 101 Ways to Cook Chicken & Potatoes Without Really Trying with my mom as author. Needless to say my mother was the queen of survival. There were evenings when our cupboards were seemingly bare and yet by the time we washed up for dinner, the table was set and we ate – and ate well. I remember hearing the “loaves and fishes” story in catechism and walking home convinced God was a woman – had to be – because my mom did that “loaves and fishes” thing – a lot. My mother knew the value of time and she filled hers with family, friends and work.
My siblings and I can tell you that the biggest sin in our house was looking un-busy. Looking back on mom’s indomitable will and spirit you can understand why. When I was in elementary school she would go to work at Terry Tuck sewing pockets on terry cloth robes earning three cents a pocket. She would then come home cook for six children and a husband before going to her second job sewing the cording on decorative pillows while my dad went to night school. My mother’s life was filled with hard work and I wonder now if she ever resented her mother taking her out of school to help care for her siblings?
My mother was not without her own creative gifts. Gifts that became visible when I went away to college and found my mailbox some days filled with poems written by her. I remember studying her usage and structure and knowing any gifts I may have demonstrated certainly had their foundation within this woman of modest dreams and wild desires. In spite of my mother’s lack of formal education she was the best teacher a child could have. She taught by example earning her PhD in the school of life.
My mother withstood the blows to her heart when her oldest daughter died of breast cancer and then, three years later, when her youngest succumbed to malaria. Such tragedy of monumental structure. My mother survived the inside out, upside down world takes over when a woman’s child dies before her. She refused to crumble rather, when we returned from the last wake my mother put on a pot of coffee, gathered her remaining family around her and carried on. In 1999 my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and even then I knew that this disease was not going to take my mother out – not this woman. In fact two years into her “dance” with multiple myeloma she called me from a Los Angeles hospital in tears – a new doctor told her to get her affairs in order. She was shaken and so was I as I listened to my tower of strength telling me I could have her Kaufman’s card (this was serious!). I called my mom the next morning. She picked up the phone just as she was telling the young doctor what she thought about his suggestion of the evening before. She told him never to darken her doorstep and stay away from her if he had no good news because she was going when she was ready and not a minute before. She was right.
And in the run-up to her ‘time’ my mother prepared us. I remember her taking my face between her hands forcing me to listen to her burial plans that ended with the option of burying her face down and all those who had nothing good to say about her could just “kiss my ass.” If we decided to cremate (which was her choice) then we could sprinkle her ashes over a J.C. Penney store for all the time and money she spent there.
My mom died on July 7th 2004 as I was making a connecting flight to L.A. True to form my mother was organized right to the very end. My sister and I were not surprised to find everything in order with all the important paperwork that accrues when a life is ending. My mother’s handwritten reminder list contained the name of the mortuary, the names of the contact people at the mortuary, what to do with her remains, and the numbers and codes relating to the small insurance policies she had. After each item on this list my mother put her signature smiley face ☺. Her last request on this list was not to forget her ashes. Here is where the smile was turned down ☹. My sister and I cried – not for my mother but for all of us. My mother was ready to die.
Sadly, we were not ready to see her go.