My mother the Viking

I figure everyone reading this knows my mom’s story and how important it is to my story.

But Mom’s been dead over 15 years, so some of you may not know her. Get to know her here.

My mother was born way before her time. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants (a barber and a garment worker in NYC), but graduated from high school at 16, college at 20. She was one of the first 5 members of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Queen’s College. She was also a bit of a hellion in college. She told me the story repeatedly of being informed she was in Phi Beta Kappa. A prof came up to her in the hall and asked “Mary, what’s your last name?” When she told him, he paled and responded “Oh my God, I voted you into Phi Beta Kappa last night.”

Maybe more than a bit of a hellion. She also frequently told the story of out-drinking a sheik at one of dad’s frat parties. (“I can outdrink any man in this place!” “Yeah, but not my girlfriend.” Not the thing to say to sheiks.) When I finished my undergraduate career, I realized my two big life goals had been to go to college to drink lots and get elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Oh, and to major in economics. Mom was an econ major. But a professor came to her and asked her to look around the room and see if see saw any other girls there. It was the late 1940s/early 1950s. She didn’t see any other girls. She ended up majoring in elementary education.

You see, economics was a good major for law school. When she was pregnant with me, Mom walked around the UF Law School. I doubt my initials are LAW by coincidence.

I did the drinking, PBK, and economics, but didn’t go to law school. Mom mostly forgave me. (We fought a lot in college, but came out of it very strongly mother and daughter.)

But at the beginning of my junior year in college, about a week after my brother went to school in Florida and Mom was faced with an empty nest, she found a lump in her breast. It was the week of her 48th birthday and as best I understand it, she just didn’t get out of bed.

Apparently, breast cancer was a big fear of hers. It was all over the news–Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller (the wives of the president and vice president for you youngsters reading this) had had 3 mastectomies between them. The topical joke was “Now there’s just one boob in the White House–Gerald Ford.”

Her first doctor told her it was just mastitis, not to worry. My mother was a forceful person and didn’t like that answer. She saw another doctor (the head of the Virginia Cancer Society?) and had a mastectomy very soon thereafter. The world was different then (good for me, bad for her). She was given anesthesia and a biopsy was taken. She had the option of being woken up, if it was positive to make the decision. She told them just to go ahead with it. She’d bagged up all her bras and told my dad that she never wanted to see them again if anything went wrong.

She came out of surgery, called her mom, and then asked for a cigarette in recovery. (She died of lung cancer 13 years later. Is anyone surprised?)

There was marginal lymph involvement, but enough so they went ahead with 18 months of chemotherapy. It was not pretty. I went home almost every weekend at first. I’d try to help and get yelled at that she wasn’t dead and could do stuff for herself. I wouldn’t help and would get yelled at that she just had surgery for cancer and why wasn’t I helping. I was your typical 20 year old snot, so didn’t go home as often after a while.

It was horribly rough on her. But she survived the breast cancer. There was a special sadness when she got done with treatment. She called her mom the night after her last treatment and told her she was done with chemo and they thought she was cured. They talked a little about my graduation (to happen later that month) and Grandma told Mom that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to call a doctor. Grandma never called doctors, so when she didn’t answer when Mom called a few minutes later, Mom called her sister-in-law, the nurse, who lived around the corner from Grandma. By the time Aunt Ronnie got there, Grandma was dead.

I find this somehow romantic…my grandfather had taken years to die and took lots of Grandma’s care. Grandma didn’t want anyone to have to do this for her, so she stayed around as long as her daughter needed her prayers. But Mom was fine, I was fine, she could go join her husband and she did. She was Catholic (since I’ve already said she was an Italian immigrant, is this redundant?) and went to mass every morning. She’d lit a candle for my mom the morning she died. That’s one of the silly things I like about being Episcopalian…I can light candles for people like Grandma did.

Did I mention I was 48 1/2 when I found my lump? Six months older than Mom? (Hey, I don’t smoke, so got an extra 6 months.?)

I know surgery and biopsy and chemo have all changed a lot in the last 28 years. But I still remember Mom all the time as I’m going through this.

I may have been a snot but I did make a point of mailing cards to my mom almost every day as she was recovering. (Ok, youngsters…there was a time before email when we put paper in boxes and people delivered them.) As I was cleaning out her house after her death, I found one of them. It was a postcard with the following on it:

A Maxim for Vikings

Here is a fact
That should help you to fight
A bit longer.

Things that don’t act-
ually kill you outright
Make you stronger.

Piet Hein


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