by Miles Woolley by Miles Woolley
I consider myself a lucky person who grew up in a loving family. As a hobbledehoy youngster my greatest complaint in the world was being the only boy in a huge family of girls (six!). My parents were both hard-working red-blooded, true blue Americans. The whole family attended church every Sunday without fail. Even if we were out of town, Dad would find a church for us. Sundays were strictly reserved for worship and resting. We could not even mow the lawn on Sunday. Playing card games was acceptable any day of the week except on Sunday. This may sound like life on Sundays in my childhood was mighty boring but with the hustle and bustle of a large family there were not many opportunities for being bored. Somebody always had some activity under way and everyone managed to get involved.
The big event of the day for Sunday was Mom's dinner. Before we would trek across the street to our church, my mother would start a big roast in her huge roaster and while we were singing hymns or listening to the preacher give his weekly dose of God's message, magical things were happening in that big roaster. By the time the family made it back to the house the entire dwelling would be completely filled with the smells of a roasted beef or pork. Mom would have potatoes and carrots cooking along with the meat so that the complete meal was ready for the hungry worshippers. Need I say that the dinner was always delicious?
As a child, I took these Sunday meals as well as the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. meal for granted. All I was required to do was to sit and consume it. In the spirit of cooperativeness, the family pitched in to clear the table and wash the dishes, though with all those sisters and in the era of double standards, the boys (my dad and me) usually did not get their hands in much dishwater. Along with taking meals for granted, I admit that practically all the things my mother did went unrecognized by most of my family. Having clean, ironed clothes to wear every day, or our beds made when we were in too much of a hurry to do it ourselves went by as though it was expected behavior.
My mother seemed to have an unlimited source of energy. In addition to the more than fulltime job of keeping the house in order with the regular chores of cooking, cleaning, mending, and ironing she always found time to help us with our homework. She loved to contribute poems and probably could have been a great writer yet she had an unusual knack for math, especially algebra. She would often tell us to ask Dad for math-related assistance because that was considered to be in the boys' domain in those days but the truth is she could handle about any math problem we could bring her way.
In addition to these jobs, my mother worked fulltime at a crappy knitting mill where she sewed children's clothes. I say the job was crappy because it required her to sit all day at a Flatlock sewing machine that had eight sewing needles. The parts of the apparel would come to her on a conveyor and she would place the parts together and sew them with her high-speed machine. She was paid minimum wage plus whatever she could make on her piece rate. This meant that once a person sewed more than a certain number of outfits, they made a bonus on the additional productivity. In theory, it encouraged the workers to work harder and earn more money for getting more done but in practice, the company would constantly adjust the rates until nobody made the extra. In the end, everybody walked out at the end of the week earning minimum wage. It did not seem to bother my mother. She brought the tiny paycheck home and it went into the family budget. Of course once home, she had the daily routine to follow: make dinner, clean up from dinner, help the kids with their homework and school projects, and keep a positive attitude every day.
I found that my mother kept her positive attitude even in the darkest times. She lost two children to misdiagnosed illnesses. My brother, whom I never knew was wrongly diagnosed and was treated for bronchitis while he was really dying from an aspirated nutshell. My oldest sister was diagnosed and treated for a heart condition while she died from kidney failure. Country medicine left much to be desired at that time. But these events did not ruin Mom's positive attitude on life. Though deeply distraught over the deaths, she found strength in her faith and accepted both of the passings as part of God's Will.
As the family grew up, my sisters married off and I became an uncle at age nine. The nieces and nephews were frequent visitors to our house and they quickly learned that Grandma's house was a great place to be. They could always count on the cookie jar holding something delicious. Store-bought, by the way, was a dirty word in our house! Everything was homemade by our mother. Having the older girls out of the house did not reduce Mom's workload much because she either had the next generation running through the house or stayed busy helping one of the girls with a sewing project.
As a lad I am sure I was unappreciative of my mother's unending supply of energy and her tremendous contributions to the family. She made life way too easy for me and let me go off doing "boy" things with my dad like fishing, hunting, or working with him in construction. I relished the role of "Dad's boy" and followed him like a shadow. I made every effort to stay with the male roles and distanced myself from the female-dominated house as much as possible. Apparently my testosterone told me to keep away from "that bunch of sissies."
I guess it was after I came back from Vietnam that the reality of parental duties hit me. I came back to a nine month-old son who was learning to walk at the same time I was re-learning to walk. My life was one continuous frustration trying to adjust to my disabilities. Dressing myself, tying my shoes and doing the simplest tasks (cutting meat) occupied me practically every waking moment. My fantasy of being a good dad or good parent to my son was unreachable. He needed and deserved a healthy father and all I could do was struggle. I was drowning in guilt from not being the ideal dad and from dealing with the atrocities of the war that nobody supported. After a year or more I learned how to survive the day-to-day routine chores and was able to take care of myself. I never became the dad I had envisioned. In the third year post-Vietnam, my first daughter was born and she gave me the first experience of raising a newborn. I thoroughly enjoyed being in her life from the very first moment I saw her. By now I had adapted quite well and I was able to help with her care. It was a good time in my life.
My mother came to stay with us for a week while we had the two children and it occurred to me to ask her how she did it. She did not understand my question so I told her that after becoming a parent, I learned to appreciate all she had done for her children. In my parenting role I had learned that there is never enough time in the day and never enough energy to get all the daddy things done. My question was how she managed to do all the things that are basic to mothering and parenting plus the extra things that she did for her children that were above and beyond the normal call to duty. She came back with some self-effacing comment like it was no big deal and that people just do what they can with what they have. As a young parent who had witnessed an epiphany relating to parenting I was trying to pay her a compliment but she just let it bounce off.
She knew I was paying her a tribute and acknowledged my offer but what she said next has always stayed with me. She asked me how I did it. She explained that although she had projected the Polly-Anna image through her life, she admitted to me that the loss of her two children had been almost unbearable. She confessed that she had second-guessed several times over the medical care that each had received. Perhaps a city doctor or larger hospital would have made the correct diagnoses and would have spared their lives. Instead of letting herself drown in quilt or sadness she chose to remain a functioning mother and wife. With tears in her eyes, she continued and told me of her anguish when she and my father received word that I was seriously injured in Vietnam. Her horror was "Not again!" She admitted that had I died in the war she doubted she could have handled it. This moment was the closest I ever felt to my mother. Then she explained that she saw how difficult it was for me to live with my disabilities yet she also saw that I was able to become a functioning person. She told me I was a good, kind person and a good man who could have chosen to just rot in a veterans' hospital. I was speechless, though now I can see that I learned how to tough it out from her.
At my mother's funeral, I gave the eulogy and I shared with the audience a family story involving each of her children. The event was well-attended and I impressed on the crowd that most likely many who were attending had experienced my mother's love. She was famous for providing a dish to people who were ill or were going through a death in their family. I had noticed that most of her casserole dishes had tape with her name on them so the bereaved would know where to return the empty dish. A lot of people nodded and it hit them that they had seen the dishes in their house and remembered the love she had sent out. I concluded the eulogy with the observation that although I no longer believed in life ever after, I did believe that Planet Earth had lost an angel.
So as Mother's Day approaches and I see that our death toll in the Iraq war has reached nearly 2500 Americans, I reflect on all the mothers who will not have their son or daughter to be with them this year and how difficult it must be for them. I imagine the pain is like someone took a spoon and scooped out every good feeling and memory of their child and just threw it onto the ground. What must hurt is the area in their souls or bodies where the good feelings and love they had for their child used to be.
Can we now stand up to our moronic leaders and say Enough! Have we not lost enough Americans and caused enough pain?
To all the mothers who have their children safely back and can appreciate the joy of watching them grow into mature citizens, have a very happy Mother's Day! Enjoy your good fortune and if you are so lucky, enjoy your grandchildren. Take today's opportunity and hug them all. Hug them a little extra just to ensure they get the message. To the mothers who know the pain of losing your child, my heart goes out to you. I was fortunate to have had a loving mother and fortunate as well to know that had I not made it back, she would have been destroyed.
Miles Woolley [send him mail] is a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Miami, Florida. He served with the 9th Infantry Division in The Mekong Delta in a Ranger unit doing reconnaissance 1968–69 where he received a gunshot wound to the head leaving one side severely paralyzed. He is a father of four grown children and grandfather of seven, including a set of triplets.