From A BIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER
The years between 1948 and 1953 might have been the hardest of Lucy’s life, the ones that formed her as she entered her forties. They included the prolonged death of her mother from cancer, her own breast cancer and radical mastectomy, a bad car accident (my angry father speeding hit a school bus with all of us in the car) that broke her arm, and the early drifting away of my father. Never a divorce nor even a fight. Those years were for me what are called pre-pubertal, pre-adolescent, or junior high — formative years and the ones in which I separated from my family.
This period was survived by my mother in part because of a household across the street, two women and a teenager. “The Madam” was barely surviving repeated surgeries. “Shirl”, an RN, had come to help and stayed to bond. The teenager was my friend but more beautiful, more worldly, and more exotic. I thought she was from India. Part of my formation was “The River,” a film based on the book by Rumer Godden and directed by Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist. In this period it was a template for me, reinforced by the book, which I checked out from the Vernon Branch library, just off Alberta on 17th. It involved a red-head (me), the girl across the street, and a wounded young veteran. Some about fathers. Nothing about mothers.
There was a dark aspect to this triune household, the shadow of Synanon and WWII Japanese internment from the girl’s father. This also accompanied me through life until it resurfaced much stronger when I was retired and writing alongside Tim. It was always there on the reservation, as best explained by Adrian Jawort in “Moonrise Falling: A Modern Gothic Tale” and the two anthologies he published, “Off the Path” Vols. 1 and 2. Death, sex. and chaos emerge from hiding, strike and go back. My mother liked Indians but preferred Momaday. So did a lot of other people.
The war between the females terrified my brothers but I had no clue about that until we were all adults. The older brother reassured the younger one, saying, “They’re just two dinosaurs fighting. Nothing about us.” But they remained scared of me, life-long. One ran away to New Mexico; the other would not leave Oregon.
I considered running away but instead joined the high school drama department and daily was at Jeff Hi until 10PM when rehearsals and set construction ended. At supper time my mother brought a plate with my dinner on it. She refused to let me eat at the Bun and Burger by the school, though many others did. I think she really wanted to be part of the action. We never talked.
I walked the mile or so every morning, again every afternoon after classes and back again for the evening drama stuff, but usually instead of the late walk my mother came to collect me in the car she had finally bought to attend Portland State College. Also, she ferried home Janet Lee Parker, who became part of my Eagles Mere repertory theatre summer and eventually a movie star if you count voice-overs. She was never a friend. Her mother was divorced which my mother found a moral failure. There was no overlap between my family and Northwestern or Eagles Mere Summer Theatre. My mother said plainly that the point was to get rid of me.
My mother’s style was stoicism, dependability, and getting things done. I tried to be the same, adding my father’s clowning to disarm people. But my father’s basic pride was being Scots, which he somehow managed to believe was the best of both the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. He never did pick up on the obstinate defiance of Scots which made room for innovation and renewal. Thus so prepared to oppose the King or Queen that they sheltered enemies and deviants of the English, like the American Unitarian movement. Though named “Bruce” and quoting the spider story, he was neither heretical nor conforming. He was avoidant until it was safe, professing progressivism and atheism, but not demonstrating either. Not fearful, but cautious. (“Non Timeo, Sed Cavio” is the Strachan motto.)
My mother did the demonstrations: “How to Make Day-glo Candles” from the wax my father’s employer sold as a by-product of petroleum. She was on local TV and toured little farmer co-ops. He had remarked, jokingly, “You work so hard on the PTA you might as well have a paid job.” She agreed so went back to school in order to teach. He was not pleased. Doing the candle demos was meant merely to make amends while she kept after her degree.
Lucky. He was fired. Took a teaching job for a few years. They had a trip around the world, then he died of a massive stroke. She was alone for a few years until my brother came home with a concussion. She couldn’t understand who would take care of him after she died, except me. She was about the age I am now when I had return to Portland and live with them for 8 months of unemployment. All this was twenty-five years ago.
My sibs and I were always enraged with our father but I don’t know why. Maybe it was the sudden “spankings” which were then not considered assaults. Counselors have suggested sexual inappropriateness, but I remember nothing but the cloying insistence that I be a sort of princess like his sister. (Neither could that elegant lady get her daughter to be a “princess” so what were they on about? A Scots thing?) As I say, it seems a guard against sexual inappropriateness, converting lust into pretty bows and ruffles. Desire of all kinds was made passive.
“The boys” could not explain their indignation either. Nor why they were so mad at me, except that I was an achiever (almost by accident) while they seemed to aim low and underachieve though both had college degrees. I found this photo with a revealing inscription in my father’s handwriting. I have no consciousness of noticing the heights of my brothers nor did I consider it important or even a virtue. I think my father was the one who wanted to tower over me.
No one in the family had used public assistance except I used unemployment twice. We didn’t know there was an expert on concussions at OHSU. No one had used welfare or food stamps or legal aid. No sisters or in-laws were asked for advice or offered any help. If Scots are stiff-necked with pride, consider defiant Irish like my mother’s father. She was more like her father than I was like mine. But I should have known more, done better for her in the end, esp. having been clergy, but my seminary was about high-flown ideas, not social services.
When my mother was widowed, she set about selling my father’s books. There were a LOT of books about chess and she took them to the Green Dolphin Street Bookstore across from the Oregon Oyster House where the owner was glad to buy them. If someone who didn’t know her was clerking, she went in and pretended to be interested in chess. The clerk would show her my father’s books and tell her they were from a master player, renowned by all. She never revealed herself. This was the policy of the family, to be secretly great but not to let on, because the secrecy was part of the romance of it.
When her cancer was diagnosed, it was a blood disorder and painless, just debilitating. She was a bit older than I am now and only bedridden for a week. The doctor authorized an hospice aide to come and bathe her. The woman came once but didn’t return. I wanted to call her. My brother said no, we must not offend official people. Okay, he’s in charge. My mother begged to be bathed. I offered to do it and she was indignant. “Absolutely not.” After a day my brother said, “You should call that woman.” I didn’t. He didn’t. Pretty soon our mother was unconscious. I did not bathe her then, either, but we put her housecoat on so she wouldn’t be embarrassed when the mortuary men came. Proper presentation was important.