My mother was, I suppose it could be put, an ordinary woman. She never graduated from high school (indeed, never allowed to do so), and she had no profession or trade or even what might have been considered an occupation—unless it was housewife and mother of two boys.
Her father wouldn’t allow her to attend the Milwaukee’s Girls Technical High School longer than what it took to learn to cook and sew, and then she had to go out and work until she had her own family to care for. (This did not, however, keep her from becoming the academic advocate for her younger sisters who did graduate.) She dropped out of the workforce to raise her boys and returned to help in the war effort, and then continued so she could pay her boys’ college tuitions.
Mom was ordinary in the sense of being-in-the-order-of motherness. One of her sisters told me, “Your mother is one bundle of love,” which is pretty good coming from a kid sister.
She was of a background where you restrained direct expressions of love to children lest they get big headed or become spoiled. You just love (active verb here), and they’ll know. But every now and then someone would tell me with understanding amusement that Mom would say, “I never graduated from high school, but both my sons are Ph.D.s!”
When I tried to tell her I loved her, she would give me a gentle shove and mutter, “Oh, go on now.”
She came to worry I had become a professional student and would never marry. Once, while ironing my shirts, she looked at me and said softly but most earnestly, “Wallace, I hope you marry a girl who will let me love her.”
Not, mind you: “whom I can love” or “who will love me”—but “who will let me love her.” That Mom would love whomever I marry was never an issue. This determined love was born within her about the time I was, and she nurtured it within for twenty-eight years until it finally burst out as confession, which I took as mandate precisely because I loved her. The least I could do was to present her with a daughter to love.
When I found Ann Carmichael, I arranged with a friend to buy rings and send them by air express to me in a Grand Rapids seminary. My father returned from work to find my mother packing an overnight bag, and he asked where she was going. Without pausing or looking up, she said, “To meet my new daughter.” She had scooped up the rings and was going to deliver them to me herself.
I asked Mom to stay out of sight long enough for me to put the engagement ring on Ann’s finger—and then present her to Mom as her new daughter. It was love, sight unseen and unquestioned. I didn’t meet Ann’s mum (like Ann, British-born) until after we were married, because she had left her parents in Ghana in order to finish high school in Florida. I later learned that she had assured her mum that I would be a good husband “because he is so sweet to his mother.” Of course.
The last time I saw Mom was in an Indiana hospital. Both our daughter and my nephew’s wife were expecting babies, and Mom had been looking forward to the arrivals of two great-grandchildren. But she knew this would be it.
With contented joy, she let go and said, “Tell the little ones I love them.”