There’s a lot of catching up I need to do, but first, because it’s Mother’s Day here in the US, is a bit of story about the two wonderful women I’ve gotten to call Mom. And a few other wonderful women who also played part-time or emergency-backup mom. This came about because Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse wrote a FANTASTIC post on his blog about his mom, and issued a challenge to write one of our own.
Back in 1968, a lady named Margaret Jane Crider (nee McCartney) gave birth to me in Los Angeles, California. I don’t recall any of that year in LA — around the time of my 1st birthday, Dad was transferred to Detroit and we moved. I have a few memories of those early years in the Detroit area, particularly going to the park with her, riding in the ’65 Mustang, getting soft pretzels at Wonderland Mall in Livonia near our home, some friends. Three years and a month after I came along, my brother David joined the party. Unknown to me at the time, Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer before they learned she was pregnant with David. David, thankfully, came along healthy and hale. But about a year later — and I do remember this — the cancer came back with a vengeance as a tumor in Mom’s brain stem. They treated it as best they could, but ultimately, Dad took a transfer to allow us to move back to Tulsa, the family home base.
Mom’s situation was that the tumor trapped her mind in a body that increasingly wouldn’t cooperate. We had a year or two in Tulsa, during which I started kindergarten, with her at home, but with Dad having to be on the road for work, and with Mom needing more and more care, she ultimately had to move to a nearby nursing home.
This was weird: she wasn’t OLD, and that nursing home was full of OLD PEOPLE. At first, we went to see her every night. And gradually, the frequency of the visits decreased. And it seemed like, to elementary-school-age me, that the less we saw her, the worse she got. It wasn’t until some years later I learned that the opposite was true: as her condition deteriorated, she didn’t want us to see her that way. It was her wish, but 6-8-year-old me didn’t see it that way.
I got in trouble a couple times for riding my bike over to the nursing home after school instead of going home. I was in 3rd grade, mind you, all of 8 years old, and this involved traveling along and crossing a major north-south artery in Tulsa, as well as cresting the tallest hill in SE Tulsa, without sidewalks or much of any support. I didn’t care: I had to see my mom, because if I saw her, she’d get better. I knew it would be that way. Sometimes, she was completely out of it. I didn’t care. I was there, and I knew she knew I was there. One time, I found her in her wheelchair down the hall, trying to get back to her room, but going the wrong way. I pushed her back. I don’t know if she was ashamed or embarrassed to be caught lost like that, but I want to think she was proud of me for finding her. Each time, Dad would find me there, with Mom, not at my friend’s house like I said I was going to do. He’d put my bike in the trunk of the big LTD and take me home.
I got in trouble with Dad, but it was for the danger of the main street, not because I went to see Mom. I think, even now, that he knew *why* I did it.
This is where I fill in some info I didn’t learn until I was well into my teen years, from my maternal grandfather. Mom knew that tumor was a death sentence. And she told Dad that when she was gone, he needed to find a good woman and marry her, because he needed a wife and her boys needed a mother to look after them. Dad, naturally, wouldn’t hear of it: he had a wife, and she was it. So Mom started working with the family, and friends from church, and I think it’s safe to say she "encouraged" the meeting of Dad and Barbara, the wonderful lady I also call Mom.
In September 1977, just barely into 4th grade for me, and 1st grade for David, Mom passed away. I was quite a bit lost, and even then I felt for David, who never really had the chance to spend time with Mom when she was healthy and active. One of the interesting things about that is I tend to hang a lot with Mom’s side of the extended family and David has always been closer to Dad’s side of the family. Part of this is the relative ages of cousins on each side (David and I are the youngest on Mom’s side, just as she was the youngest of 4, while Dad is the oldest of 2), I’m sure, but also has something to do with our personalities and interests. I do cars. Always have. That’s from Mom’s side of the family (though she herself wasn’t terribly keen on it). David, not really. Ever. Though based on how David’s son is, he was certainly a carrier of the Car Guy genetics.
A lot of what went on in 4th grade is a bit of a blur. One of my best friends, Jeff Ball, had moved away from Tulsa to Colorado during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. Jeff’s mom, Lola, was one of the Emergency Backup Moms. Luckily for me, my other best friends, Brent Estes and Steve Walton, were still there, as was Brent’s mom, Brenda, another Emergency Backup Mom, and Steve’s dad and stepmom (Steve’s parents had gone to high school with my parents — another level of connection).
But we were increasingly spending time with Barbara and her daughter Debbie. And sure enough, in April of 1978, Dad and Barbara were married, and I went from being the oldest child to being the middle child. Not a bad situation: now I had someone older to learn from (particularly helpful in the "avoiding getting in trouble" categories). And while neither Dad nor Barbara required it, both David and I started calling Barbara "Mom" pretty much from the beginning.
She earned it. Oh, yeah, she earned it. One of the first things that happened was she greatly improved our "cool" factor by nixing the usual-to-that-point school clothes of Sears Toughskins jeans — with iron-on knee reinforcements on the inside from the beginning — and made sure we had more fashionable choices, including shoes that didn’t have rubber toe caps (ala Chuck Taylors. They’re cool again now, but in 1978, not so much…). I pushed her. David pushed her. But she was consistent — we couldn’t get away with anything with her that would couldn’t get away with with Dad.
And we got to meet her family — the "third side" of the family. Her clan, the Garretts, are legion, and so we discovered a whole new group of cousins. And a whole new set of adventures there. It was the "third side" of the family that let me drive full-size tractors well before I was of legal driving age. That side had a private airplane brokerage. That side owned the World of Outlaws sprint car team for a while. That side had the big huge Christmas dinners with the giant yeast rolls and the barn/garage with the ’50 Ford in it. That side had the FBI agent uncle. So many things, so many people I wouldn’t have done or met otherwise.
I have no doubts that I, in particular, made it tough on her. I don’t think it was ever on purpose, or even conscious, but there was always this little comparison going on: she wasn’t my mom. And yet I never had any doubt of her love for me and for David, of her commitment to us as an entire family. Eventually, I made sure she knew how much I appreciated and loved her. It just took a while, I’m afraid. Not proud of that, but I hope I’ve made up for it since.
One incident from my college days jumps to mind: I went to school at U of Tulsa, just across town, and usually brought my laundry home on the weekends. Late in spring semester, sophomore year, Dad got transferred to Atlanta, and I came home one day to find Mom laying into David about something or other. I walked in the front door, laundry basket in hand, and she turned on me, finger pointing, and said, "AND YOU…" I dropped my laundry basket, and said something along the lines of "At least let me be home long enough to screw up before you yell at me." A brief silence. Then laughter.
If ever she’s doubted that I accepted her, I hope I set that to rest a long time ago. But I did. She picked up the baton and finished the job of raising David and me, children not of her, but her children all the same. And I love her as my mother.
While Mom/Barbara was (and is) present, I’ve never lost the memory, or indeed the influence, of Mom/Margaret. For a while, I was sure I’d just be a mechanic at the family auto repair shop. Oh, no, said Grandpa, you’re too smart to be "just a mechanic. You’ll be designing the stuff we just fix." That was Mom: she didn’t want her boys (including Dad) to work in that shop. It was a huge time sink. My grandparents and uncles often didn’t pay themselves in order to pay the guys & the bills. And Mom really, really hated that and didn’t want anything to do with it.
Well, after college and 20+ years as an engineer, I get to play with cars for fun. I’m pretty happy with how my life has turned out. A big reason for that are my Moms. Margaret. Barbara. I’d be extremely remiss if I left out my aunts, particularly Karen and Nancy. And I can’t ever not mention my grandmothers, Mary Jane and Mary. The Emergency Backup Moms, Lola and Brenda. All remarkable, amazing women who helped make me who I am now.
To my Moms, all of them, I salute you and I thank you. I hope I’ve made you proud of me. I know I’ve tried.