She hated that name, and always went by her middle name, “Ruth”. Lillian is what you called her if you wanted to make her mad. She would have been 90 years old this week. But instead, she died one day after turning a mere 69. It was her birthday, and then her “death day” and her funeral and Mother’s Day all within a few days. We buried her on May 8th. It was the worst possible week, back in 1995.
It all comes flooding back this time every year. I remember driving her to the hospital for the “preventative” and also elective surgery that ultimately took her life. I had settled into the role of being a child who knew better than the parent. I scolded her when she expressed doubt about going through with it. Of course she was going to go through with it. Dad had died just one year earlier – we needed to do everything we could to have her around for a very long time. Even after more than two decades, writing this fills my eyes and I get that familiar sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that is like no other. It’s the one that means your mom is gone.
She didn’t have an easy life. She came from a large family, one where – and this is a direct quote that would rival anything Frank McCourt could offer up – “the early bird got the socks.” She was smart as a whip, and loved school. Nevertheless, one day in Grade 8 Grandad showed up at her school all excited because there was a job “going” at the brickyard. That was the end of her academic career, a sacrifice for the family
She married at 15. FIFTEEN. Dad was much, much older. And if you’re thinking sugar daddy, think again. Kind of the opposite. I now believe that my dad suffered a form of PTSD from living through the depression, and he lived very “frugally” for all of his life. (eg, didn’t splurge on niceties such as indoor plumbing or a furnace until the early 1980’s) Lived off the land, if you will. This was WAY before living off the grid was cool.
She didn’t have any kids until she was a ripe old 21, and eventually had six. In 1947, 49, 51, 53, 59, and 66, having the last one when she was 40. Three boys and three girls. It was a tough life. Imagine raising six kids. Now imagine it without running water and a wood stove for heat – when your family is the only one in the neighbourhood living like that.
But through all of the years and the hardship of raising six wild children, she never lost her “edge”. She was a firecracker. She always possessed a wicked sense of humour, and razor sharp wit. In spite of the lack of a toilet you could flush, our place was the place to hang out. Our friends who visited used to say we should have our own show, the quick witted insults and constant banter was rapid fire and would outdo any of the lame laugh tracked sit-coms of the day.
The late sixties were a little messy at our house, with all those teenagers, and eventually some weddings and a combination of menopause/postpartum/doctorsgaveyouvaliuminsteadofrealtreatment, but thankfully we all survived and came out on the other side with lots of great inside jokes.
Mom was a smart aleck, to the end. Below are a few of my favorite mom quotes that we heard as we were growing up. You won’t find many of these in “Today’s Parent”:
I thought she invented the ever popular, “Do you want me to give you something to cry for ?” (These were almost always empty threats)
Often followed by a firm, “The more you cry the less you’ll piss.”
If you were bugging her and trying to get her attention repeatedly you would get, “Call your ass ‘Mom’ and you’ll have one with you.”
“He went for a shit and the crows got him.” (This was the standard answer when you asked where dad or a brother or really anybody was)
“Screwing the dog and selling the pups – you wanna buy a bitch?” (Standard answer when you asked “what are you doing?”)
“Sick in bed with my feet hanging out the window.” (Standard answer when you asked how are you doing?”)
“Hot tongue cold shoulder.”– Standard answer when you asked what was for supper.
“Crazy, and you’re driving.” – Standard answer when you asked “Where are you going?”
Or the “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”
Sometimes she was “Busier than a one armed fiddler with the crabs.”
She didn’t limit her wisecracks to immediate family. I remember once she asked the doctor about something that she had that was a bit abnormal and his response was “I wouldn’t worry about it.” She said, “Frankly Doctor if you had it, I wouldn’t worry about it either.”
Nothing much phased her. One time my brothers and brothers in law were re-roofing our house, and one of them flicked a cigarette butt that rolled into a vent and was now sitting in the attic and very likely to start the house ablaze. My youngest brother raced down the ladder and into the house, past Mom who was rolling pastry on the kitchen table. He ran upstairs into a closet and then walked along a beam to get to the smoldering cigarette butt. Except he slipped, and fell so that he was now straddling the beam, having busted through the kitchen ceiling, and his legs dangled very near to Mom’s head as she continued to roll pastry. “Nice of you to drop in”, she said, without looking up.
My dad was in the hospital for some months before he died. The cashiers at the grocery store used to ask about him. But then he died, and in a relatively small town, everyone knew fairly quickly. Mom hadn’t been in the store for awhile and one of the forgetful cashiers asked her as she was bagging her groceries, “How’s your husband doing?” Mom didn’t miss a beat, continued piling bags and answered simply, “Still dead.”
She had a wicked sense of humour, and while it was never measured I’m sure a very high IQ.. In this day and age of opportunity and equality, she could have done ANYTHING. She was a voracious reader, understandably her preference ran to escapist type novels and thrillers. She loved to solve mysteries – if you watched a whodunnit with her, she always knew whodunnit way before you were supposed to.
She was an unconventional mom, but there was never any doubt that she loved you and would be there if you were in need. When as a teenager I had back surgery and was in Sick Children’s Hospital for 3 weeks she never really left my side. She watched my toddlers when I was in hospital having babies, and filled our freezer with home-made food.
She was good at bluffing at poker. She never learned to drive. She made amazing pies. She would lend you her last dollar. She loved Cribbage. She never stayed at a hotel. She never traveled beyond Ontario.
Nothing gave her more pleasure than having all her kids together. At the end, when the same doctor who strongly recommended the procedure and performed the surgery, informed us that the reality was that “Lillian” was now at the end of her life, we all six offspring gathered in a small hospital room in Hamilton and held her hand and watched her leave us. She wasn’t conscious, but there was no doubt that she was going under protest.
She was witty and funny and human and humane and did her very best with what she had and what she knew. She lives on in her kids and her grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. I and my siblings miss her every day. Our mom – Ruth – would have been a kick-ass 90 year old.