Mother’s Day 2010
Dear Faithful Family & Friends,
I wonder if you remember this custom, as I do, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s? On Mother’s Day, girls and women wore a corsage to church: a red carnation to honor a mother still living and a white carnation in memory of a mother no longer living. The custom faded away before my mother died in June 2005. So, here is my “white corsage: ” a tribute to her. To see photos of my mother, view the entry, “The Heroes Among Us: First in a Series.”
The Mother I Never Knew: A Tribute to Margaret Elizabeth “Peg” Van Hoy Blair
Born January 11, 1918 and Died June 20, 2005
Several years ago, my mother visited our Payne home in Tallahassee and recognized the cover illustration of a book on the coffee table. She remarked, “Oh, I know a friend who is reading that same book, I Never Knew Jesus.” We shared a chuckle about that, because the title of the book was, in fact, The Jesus I Never Knew.
During the long, sad months of my mother’s illness, in 2005, I began to think about The Mother I Never Knew. What portrait might emerge, if I discovered a perspective of my mother that I never knew or appreciated – until now?
In my search for clues, I reviewed the photographs of my mother. The year before Mother’s illness, my sisters [Susan and Amy] and I gathered the generational family photographs and created heirloom albums for my parents. I relished the figure of little Margaret, circa 1922, the beloved child, a preschooler: She wore a simple, handmade dress, Buster Brown shoes, wrinkled little socks, a bowl-cut hairstyle, a gentle smile, and a mischievous glint in her eyes. I turned the album page and gazed upon the likenesses of Alton and Margaret, the college sweethearts, circa 1940, on a Guilford College Choir Trip. On the next page, I pored over impressions of Alton & Margaret at Reynolds Park, in Winston-Salem, NC, during the summer of 1941, when they won the Swing Dance Competition. As a sweetheart, Margaret’s eyes were laughing, full of happiness and young love. I examined reflections of Margaret, as a bright-eyed, young newlywed, in 1946, on a crisp, fall morning, ready to walk to work at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Alton was in graduate school. I turned the page and studied the countenance of Margaret, in 1948, as a young mother. Naturally, her eyes looked a little tired.
Page after page, I scrutinized the images of my mother’s face, through the years and decades, births and birthdays, school days and graduations, vacations and camping trips, holidays and family reunions, marriages and anniversaries: Mother’s eyes were proud because of our accomplishments, wistful as we left home; her eyes were sometimes tired and sad, as she faced the “challenges and changes” of life: military transfers, empty nest, retirement, loss, sorrow, and grief.
I wondered now, as I examined the photographs: Besides being “our Mom,” did Mother have dreams and hopes of her own, separate from us? I never thought to ask her. Dreams and hopes are fragile. In a home like ours, with four, active children, she probably “kept her hopes and dreams in the back of her mind, the only safe place in the house.”*
I continued to rummage around, gleaning hints of The Mother I Never Knew: I scanned my mother’s books and retrieved her college Psychology textbook from 1970. That year, I was eighteen years old and a senior in high school. My mother was 52. After a twenty-five year hiatus [while raising her four children] Mother intended to return to her vocation as a secondary English teacher. In preparation, she took evening college courses during that academic year. Every afternoon, I arrived home and greeted my mother. Her eyes were deep in study and her mind was focused and sharp. I was proud of my mother.
After I left home for college, Mother served [briefly] as a substitute teacher and [for several years] as a community volunteer but she never returned to a full-time teaching profession. I was disappointed in that; I had always hoped she would have a life beyond being “just a mom.” If she had any regrets, she never mentioned them.
As I perused my mother’s 1970 textbook, I realized that now, in 2005, I was 52 years of age – the same age as she, when she studied for that course. I turned the pages of the textbook and read my mother’s notes and comments, in the margin of every page. Her notes revealed to me her hopes and dreams: to understand herself, her family, and her community; to fulfill her role in the world and to make her life significant. At the age of 52, she had personal goals and aspirations – some achieved and some yet unfulfilled — just as I did now, at 52 years of age.
I mused on this and continued to explore, as I organized her belongings. My mother had a habit of scattering her eyeglasses throughout the house so I gathered, washed, and polished each pair. I gently placed them together in a box, hoping she would return home soon to reclaim them and resume reading, solving crossword puzzles, and writing [“scribbling”] letters to family and friends.
I chuckled to myself as I found a Mother’s Day gift I had given Mother the year before her illness. It was a beaded eyeglass “necklace.” I had hoped that she would wear it daily and keep her eyeglasses always at hand. With the gift, I had enclosed a note card with a brief message. I found the eyeglass “necklace” in a drawer, where Mother kept gifts that were simply too cherished and valuable to actually use. She had carefully preserved the note card, treasuring the words, as much as the gift. I tucked both the “necklace” and the note card into the box, with the eyeglasses, closed the lid, and placed it on my mother’s dresser. Sadly, Mother never returned home.
The week after my mother died, my sisters and I sorted through my mother’s belongings. It was a bittersweet task. As we did this, we remembered, discovered, and appreciated more insights about our mother. Together, we reviewed the family tree, history, and stories. We tenderly preserved the very best of my mother’s “vintage” clothing, hats, gloves, and jewelry, remembering anecdotes to share with our daughters.
Later, alone in my mother’s bedroom, I retrieved the box of my mother’s eyeglasses. I opened the lid and smiled ruefully, as I absorbed the reality that Mother would never come home again to use and then to loose her eyeglasses. I held the beaded eyeglass “necklace” in my hands and re-read my hand-written note card to her:
Mother’s Day 2004
“Dear Mom, Thanks for always seeing me through the eyes of love. Love, Margot.”
I had discovered the most important facet of The Mother I Never Knew: For most of my adult life, I thought my mother lacked perception and careful observation. I, who am quick to see faults and flaws, was impatient with my mother, who saw only the good in almost everyone. I had often wondered why my mother did not look to the future and warn me about the various difficult “stages and phases” of life, as a wife and mother.
The truth seemed to be that she chose not to look too closely nor too far ahead. She tried to enjoy every “stage and phase” and she met every “challenge and change” to the best of her ability, according to the resources that she possessed. She expected and had every confidence that I would do the same.
The eyeglass “necklace” and note card, my Mother’s Day gift to her, was a reminder of her greatest gift to me: She was “just a Mom” but she stubbornly looked past the reality of the imperfect person I always was, in order to see the potential of the person I could become.
I am glad that I was able to thank her, before she closed those eyes for the very last time.
Margot Blair Payne, Daughter; The Fourth Week of Pentecost, 2005; Tallahassee, FL
*Paraphrased quote is from the author, Erma Bombeck.