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I’ve mentioned this favorite saying of my mother’s many times before. And for the first time, when I did my due diligence and searched the Internet before I wrote this, I found it attributed to someone else: Helen Gurley Brown. Pretty sure Mum didn’t get it from her, and I’ve long wondered if it was, perhaps, a line from a radio comedy show of the ’30s or ’40s that Mum heard and remembered. I guess there’ll forever be a mystery, and an unanswered question in my mind about that.
I know there are variants of it, but this formulation and the pithy distillation of sentiment is just perfection, and it evokes Mum to a “T.”
Because, for the last thirty years of her life, she was pretty miserable. And pretty comfortable, thanks to Dad and the care he’d taken to provide for his family.
As the oldest child (following a stillbirth two years’ previous, my brother Charles, who never took a breath), I was born when Mum was just 26. My sister (born seven years later) and my brother (born seven years after that), grew up, each with a different Mum than I did. I knew the vivacious, cheerful belle-of-the-ball, feted by young RAF officers and Dutch pilots in Nigeria, with a host of servants to do her bidding, highly-placed friends in the government, and dear friends among the local tribal elders and chiefs. Everyone loved Mum. Kind and generous to a fault, she was lovely.
But after we left Nigeria in 1963, Mum began to change. I think she missed being the center of attention. I don’t think she wanted to get old. I think she was frightened by a lot of things we didn’t realize she was frightened by. And I think she was miserable, most of the time we lived as a family in the States. (She continually made reference to how much better things were in England, and she had an open suitcase, ready to pack, on a card table in the bedroom for all the fifteen years she was there.)
Of course, when she, Dad, my brother, and my sister, moved back to the UK in 1978, she was miserable there too, and often talked about how much better things were in the States. Poor Mum.
The last fifteen or twenty years of her life were very difficult, as she became increasingly demented, irrational, and cruel. I’ve rarely seen her equal, when it comes to being able to spot a vulnerability on another’s part and then exploit it publicly, in an effort to humiliate and embarrass. Good thing for Dad he was oblivious to such insults, and also that he loved her so much he put up with her ups and downs, her highs and lows, and treated her with kindness and love, for over fifty years. I wish everyone a soulmate or life partner like my Dad. Lucky Mum.
Eighteen months after Dad died, and after herculean efforts on my sister’s part, Mum was moved into care at a wonderful nursing home in Worcestershire, England. And, perhaps for the last couple of years of her life, when so much of her mind was gone that she didn’t remember she was supposed to be aggrieved, cruel, ungrateful, and miserable, she achieved a happiness of a sort that she hadn’t enjoyed since she was a little girl before the war started and her world fell apart.
Thank God for Dad. For the work that he did. For the care that he took. For the provision that he made. For the house that he bought in England in 1950, and held onto throughout his years in Nigeria, and his years in the States, so that he and Mum had a lovely place to retire to when they moved back to England in 1978. And so we had a place to sell and cover her end-of-life expenses without hardship. Thank God for Dad’s love for my mother.
I think about Mum, and the trajectory of her life, often. And when I find myself going downstairs (or upstairs) in search of something, and realizing, when I get there, that I can’t remember what the hell it was I was supposed to do when I did, I worry a bit. Or when, as this morning, I realize, at about 11 a.m., that I was supposed to be at the car dealership at 8 a.m. to get a loose and rattling heat shield tightened up (it’s my phone’s fault–why didn’t the calendar remind me? I don’t suppose it could be that I forgot to enter it in??) I worry some more.
But I try to stay grateful. Grateful that I’m almost 65, and that most of my marbles are still rolling, and haven’t seized up yet. (I think about what Mum was like when she was 65, I do the math, and I think I’m OK). Grateful that, like Dad, Mr. She has been provident and careful in his financial arrangements. And that I have, too. Grateful (although with some carve-outs and exceptions) that the coal company eventually offered a very generous settlement against the promise of damage when they undermined the house, and that we haven’t really had to draw on that all that much (so far). And grateful for the frackers, who have provided an additional, and very unexpected, bit of a cushion for our old age.
I don’t want to be miserable in comfort. I want to stay grateful as long as possible.
Because I think gratitude is the key to happiness.
I don’t want to end up like Mum. I want to be happy for as long as I can.
Happy 91st Birthday, Mum. I miss you. Thanks for the lessons. I know they cost you.