Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day: A Tribute To 3 Mothers In Our Family

: What did the baby porcupine say when it backed into the cactus?

I know I have birthdays to catch up on, but it recently came to me that I was the only person who knew the story of my mother and 2 grandmothers, amazing women who did the best they could in spite of difficulties I can hardly imagine.

There are so many kinds of mothers: 2-parent-family mothers, stay-at-home mothers, working-outside-the-home mothers, single mothers, widowed mothers, birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, single fathers and widowers also functioning as mothers, grandmothers acting as mothers to grandchildren, and motherly women informally caring for children who need mothering. All of these are in our family's history, including mothers who protected their children as best they could from alcoholic fathers, mothers who died young, mothers who lived but neglected the basic duties of motherhood (and thereby also missed its joys). Some of our ancestors did not have ideal families, a few did not lead exemplary lives, but each one had a part in bringing us here to earth. As his wise Dad once said to Grampy, "You will respect your mother because she is your mother."

Our daughters are loving, talented, fun, intelligent, hardworking, college-educated mothers for nearly 20 years now. The future generation of our family is in good hands. I know our granddaughters will be excellent mothers because they have such wonderful mothers as examples to follow.

Let's look at the lives of the mothers I have known.

Dorothy "Dot" Marie (Trout) Nickerson [1919-2003]
My mother was born in Buffalo, NY, as her father, drafted into WW I, was stationed there. They moved back to New Jersey within the year, when he was discharged. Her life was shaped by several very unfortunate events. She was 10 when the Stock Market crashed, bringing the decade-long Great Depression, followed by the deprivation of World War II. As a very young teen, she developed scoliosis and kyphosis, twisting her spine into a hump and causing life-long unremitting pain. It was also a great blow to the self-esteem of this very pretty girl. She was in a cast for a year, which she said helped one curvature, but made the other one worse. Then, a month after her 15th birthday, her father died, plunging her family into grief and even greater poverty. With no money and her mother (a nurse) working nights, she had to stay home to look after her younger brothers and invalid grandmother, missing all the dates, movies, dances and parties she so loved. Three years later she moved with her family to a small town in Maine, which seemed like the wilderness to this big city (Trenton, NJ) girl. The natives were not friendly, and she never really fit in. She didn't leave the house for the last 20 years or so of her life.

Emily "Millie" Van Doren (Hall) Trout [1889-1959] 3 children, 5 grandchildren (1 died at birth)
My mother's mother's life was a story of loss and keeping going to make the best of what's left. She was born on her father's father's Bernardsville, New Jersey farm, but she rarely saw her father. Her mother left him and went home to her parents after the shock of having twins, and he died when she was 10. Her beloved grandfather then lost his farm in High Bridge, NJ and everything he owned by co-signing for a loan or some business venture with an irresponsible son-in-law who skipped out with the money. So by the time she was 10 she had lost 2 homes and her father.

Photo: Clinton, NJ one-room school that Millie may have attended.

She was studious and became a one-room schoolteacher. When she was 21, her husband-to-be died in a terrible accident just weeks before their wedding. She used her savings to become a Registered Nurse at the Polyclinic Hospital in New York City, and became a private-duty nurse to the rich. She married a month before she turned 28 and had 3 children in less than 3 years. At 44, after only 16 years of marriage, her husband died of an ear infection that a few years later could have been cured by a shot of penicillin. Three years later her mother died, and the rest of her life, after starting over in Maine, was unrelenting hard work and separation from all her dear relatives in NJ, including her beloved twin sister.
She was a widow for nearly 25 years. She had a tiny WW I widow's pension that had to cover all of her personal needs, food and bills, but there was always enough for bus fare for us to stock up on books at Portland Public Library, see a movie, buy me an ice cream soda at Moustaki's or a cookie from Cushman's Bakery. She always gave me a book for Christmas and birthdays. She also crocheted doilies and baby booties, shipping boxes of them to a New York City department store who sent the materials (and checks for tiny amounts) to her.
Her only happiness was reading her Bible, listening to ministers on her radio, and me, her oldest granddaughter, whom she called "my little comfort". She used all of her skills for my benefit. From infancy on I was sick just about all of the time in winter - hospitalized with pneumonia at least once a year, wheezing and allergic the rest of the time. I know her devoted round-the-clock nursing kept me alive. She was also my teacher, reading stories to entertain me when I was sickest, then teaching me during my long convalescences. The school let her keep a set of schoolbooks at home each year. Drawing on her years of teaching children of all ages, she prepared my lessons each night, after her long days of doing all the housework and cooking (to spare my mother's back) that started at dawn. She then taught me as she worked. I always returned to school ahead of the class in my lessons. She had taught me to read and write before I started Kindergarten. She gave me most of my happy childhood memories, always ready to take a few minutes to play a game, read a story, make a snack or play the piano and sing with me. She was the hardest working person I ever knew, yet her rough, callused hands were always there gently cooling my fevers, drying my tears and soothing my childhood's fears and heartaches.

Floy (Florence) "Floss" Helen MacDougal [1886-1965] 6 children (1 died at birth), 7 grandchildren
My father's mother was born on a potato farm in northern Maine on the Canadian border. She was the next to youngest of 9 children born to a Canadian-English mother whose parents emigrated to New Brunswick shortly before she was born, and a Canadian-Scottish Civil War veteran father, whose grandfather had been in a Highland Regiment sent by the British to New Brunswick during the Revolutionary War. 3 or 4 of her older siblings died in a diphtheria epidemic a few years before she was born.

Photo: An Aroostook Co. ME country school.

She once told me she had never been off the family farm until she went to school. She did well in school and became a one-room schoolteacher. Intelligent girls who could pass the rigorous teachers' examination (for a good description, see Laura Ingalls Wilder's book Little Town on the Prairie) could have a job, as long as they remained single, at no cost to their families for higher education. It also relieved their families of the cost of feeding them, as teachers had to room and board in their school district. My father remembered hearing his mother recite poems and speeches from memory when he was a little boy. He especially liked Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (1842) and "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (1861).
She married a month before her 20th birthday and became a potato farmer's wife. She had 6 children in 18 years, her 4th dying at birth. At 52, after 33 years of marriage her husband died of pneumonia in 1939, when my father was 18. Once again, a few years later penicillin might have saved him. Unable to pay the mortgage, their farm was lost. She then moved to Portland, ME so her youngest daughter could attend hairdressing school. They lived in a tiny one-room 3rd floor apartment with the bathroom in the hall, and for years she worked as housekeeper and cook for a wealthy family. Her hands were always busy knitting slippers, braiding rugs and making artificial flowers to earn a bit of money.
Her 3 daughters all married very well-to-do men, and later in life she had her own room in each of their spacious homes. She divided her time between Limestone, Fryeburg and Freeport, ME. She was a widow for 26 years . I was rarely able to visit her, but once, at 15, I "interviewed" her, learning the names of her grandparents and a few dates, but not really knowing what to ask way back then.

Riddle answer: "Is that you, Mother?"


Anonymous said...

Happy Mother's Day to the best Mom ever!! Thanks so much for writing this amazing blog entry. There is so much to be grateful for, isn't there? The struggles in my life seem so small compared to those in these women's lives. The important thing to remember is that the love of a mother can get you through anything!! Thanks for loving me, Mom. I love you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight into the lives of these 3 mothers.
You expressed compassion and understanding by describing the circumstances that shaped their lives.
The tender feelings you have for your mother's mother made me smile.
I remember her twin sister playing with me as a toddler.
You're a very good writer!
I'm so glad we're related

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see a blog from you again. Happy Mother's day to all of you!