A Pandemic Thanksgiving Memorial
My mother died on Pandemic Thanksgiving. She spent the last two years of her life in hospice, in a nursing home, and most of the last year of her life cut off from family and visitors. She did not die of the virus. She was blessed to have care staff who moved into the facility and locked themselves away from their own families to keep my mother and the other residents safe. Such a gift cannot be measured. I like to think Mom would have done the same, had there been a pandemic in her earlier years, when she was Director of Nurses in an elder care facility.
Mom was a nursing student in Chicago during World War II. Because so many nurses were on the front lines, Mom and her classmates went to school in the daytime and worked nursing shifts at night. In the last year of her life, when she and I were on the phone most days, she told me about a young man she dated after nursing school. She loved it when he drove her around Lake Michigan with the convertible top down. When she broke up with him, she told him she was only dating him for his car. Until that moment I had no idea my mother had been a Mean Girl.
But there was certainly more to her than her staid nurse-and-mother image. One day in the 1960s when I was a teenage nerd with my nose in a book and Mom was ironing her nursing caps, she started laughing out of the blue and put down the iron. I asked her what was going on.
“I just remembered a poem I hadn’t thought about in years.” She recited it from the ironing board.
“Under the spreading chestnut tree,
The village idiot sat,
Amusing himself by abusing himself
And catching it all in his hat.”
Before she worked in nursing homes, Mom was an Obstetrical and Gynecology nurse. She helped deliver babies and she helped with hysterectomies. She was amused when a doctor of her acquaintance paraphrased the Bible and said, “If thy uterus offend thee, pluck it out.” She eventually took that advice and had a hysterectomy, like her mother before her and like me afterwards: our long line of Matryoshka dolls hatching babies and then uteri.
One time, Mom insisted on telling me a lurid tale from a book she was reading on the history of Hollywood. Some movie star from the 1940s was known for wearing metal dildos to parties. She had never heard of such a thing. I was already a Steely Dan fan by then and didn’t find it quite so inexplicable.
After my dad left in the 1970s, Mom had a quiet social life. I often wonder what her life would have been like, had there been online dating sites when she was in her fifties and sixties. She did have one fling with a pharmacist, and it amused her no end that love came back into her life for a time after midlife.
Even in the nursing home she liked to talk about one handsome doctor who visited her. And when I published Aphrodite’s Pen, my book encouraging women after midlife to write erotica, Mom was so amused that she insisted on keeping a signed copy by her bedside. By then her eyes were not so good and I don’t think she read it, but she loved the idea.
There are stories of anyone’s life that don’t make the cut for the memorial service. We don’t speak ill of the dead and we also don’t speak bawdy of the dead. But the romantic lives of our forebears were as vivid and complex as our own and deserve their own memorial. The dead are real and their stories are real. It’s part of our role as mothers and grandmothers to be the storytellers and to keep the stories alive from generation to generation.
My Other Half reminded me that the author Sir Terry Pratchett in his book Going Postal has the character Robert Dearheart say “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.” We will broaden that definition to include all people, and especially women. When Sir Terry died in 2015 the nerds of the internet devised a way to emulate the telegraph system that Dearhart invented in the book, a system known as the Clacks, to ensure that Sir Terry’s name is spoken forever.
I mention this not to illustrate how nerdy our household is (it is!), but to emphasize that when we care enough our names and our stories live on. And they should: the funny, the bawdy, the real-life lessons that our forebears and we learnt. It’s how we can ensure that our children and grandchildren grow beyond whatever stage each generation achieved.
When I grew up I went into biotechnology, inspired by all the conversations with Mom about her nursing career. Up until the very last stage of her illness, Mom loved hearing about the progress being made on vaccines. She hoped I would do some consulting for those products. And although I’m consulting about treatments for other conditions, I think of myself as backup for those on the front lines, fighting the pandemic. I told Mom if she could hold out until we were vaccinated, I would see her again, but despite the incredible speed of vaccine development, she could not wait.
Mom would have agreed with Oscar Wilde that life is too important to be taken seriously, and perhaps death is too important as well. On the day Mom died, an old friend of hers had just walked up the driveway of the care home and was standing at her window calling her name and wishing her a Happy Thanksgiving. Mom took a deep breath, as if she had run a long race, and breathed her last. As the staff closed the window shades, Mom’s friend stood in the driveway, shaken and not sure what to do. The owner of the care home drove up just then and said to Mom’s friend, “I wish I could hug you and comfort you.” She spoke those caring words while dressed, head to foot, in a turkey costume.
My wish for all reading this is that we will be reunited with our families soon, and on this side of the grave. That until we can be together, we remain connected in every way we can that keeps us safe, by phone and letter and video call. That we will tell our stories to broaden and deepen our connections, be they mundane, or especially the bawdy stories, the funny, the moments that will make you, and others, smile for many years to come.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser said the universe is made of stories not atoms. And so is love, and so is memory.