The last thing my mother wanted was another birthday. And she got her wish.
She had had more than her fair share and died 12 days short of her 103rd last month.
Nothing was wrong with her and we all figured that she would at least get to 106, the age at which her mother, Hattie, had passed away. My brother and I thought 110 might be a possible ending but the final month saw a slow, steady decline and a peaceful demise with my brother holding her hand in the Cape Cod nursing home where she lived for the past year and a half.
She hated the nursing home. My brother and I figured that the mere decision to move her there would surely shorten her life, so fiercely did she treasure her independence. Up until the very end, she was in full possession of all her marbles, something of a curse if you are not happy with your circumstances and can only apprehend them with pitiless clarity.
Though it was not possible, she — her name was Bee — would have much preferred to be in her apartment in Chatham, Massachusetts where she had lived since 2005 after we moved her from her Southern California condo.
For almost all of that time she would walk to the drug store, the post office and grocery, and to a nearby park where she closely monitored a grove of ginkgo trees whose leaves, she observed, tended to drop to the ground on a single day. She also took note of a red fox that hung out around the dumpster at the back of her building until the mange epidemic took him.
My brother’s family was up the road in Orleans and his son and wife were nearby so she got lots of visits.
Until a year or so ago, it was a pretty good life.
In most ways it was a small life. A Nebraska farm girl, she married a Nebraska farm boy and followed him around the country as he taught psychology at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia, did his Army time in Southern California, ran an uncle’s optical business in St. Louis, then back to California for good as president of another optical company.
They were a good pair, homebodies who enjoyed each other’s company. He was more intellectual; she was endowed with great practical knowledge and became an indefatigable letter writer, charming several generations of recipients with epistles remembering birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, celebrating births and lamenting deaths.
It was the kind of life that did not change the world. But for many dozens of friends and relatives, she enriched their lives with kindnesses and thoughtful gestures. And it was those traits that were repeatedly cited at her memorial service, a pleasant lakeside affair with only traces of religiosity, a few choruses of “Amazing Grace” and several — mostly successful — stabs at humor.
My nephew was in full vaudevillian mode and unloaded several stories, winding up with one in which Bee sets a small fire on her stove. I reported on a couple of recent quips, which were not her strong suit, but she had a superior sense of humor and was one of those people who were predisposed to smile and laugh and thus encouraged the jokesters among us.
Late in the game, I realized that she was probably laughing at half my material through gritted teeth, marveling that she had given birth to such a comedic incompetent. (Thanks for pretending, Mom!)
The biggest laugh came from 3-year old Charlie, the blond grandson of my brother’s wife’s best friend. (Follow?) The word cherubic probably should be rarely used, but it barely captures Charlie. He and my mother formed an immediate bond when he started showing up at the nursing home, a total, mutual adoration. If Charlie were in the room, the other visitors could go out for several beers and my mother wouldn’t know they were gone.
Charlie’s blond mother reported that Charlie said his heart was broken over Bee’s death, a remark that choked up the whole room. He then wondered, she said, about the M&Ms that they both liked. Oh, Bee will have all the M&M’s she can possibly handle because that’s the way Heaven works, the mom said.
But will there be M&M’s, Charlie asked, for me to eat at the party for Bee?
From the mouths of babes.