My Mother’s Story

My mother was born March 23, 1910 in Jackson Michigan,  the second daughter of Frank and Marie Erich.  My grandfather was a German immigrant and my grandmother was a Michigan native.   Frank worked as a tool and die maker and managed a decent living.   But, anti German Hysteria turned my mother’s family upside down as the US entered WW1 right around the time my mother started grade school.

My Great grandparents on my grandfather’s side spoke German at home, and my mother and my aunts were bi-lingual as children.   My grandfather took his family to  worship at a Methodist Church that had services in German so his family could worship with their grandparents.

Anti German hysteria when we entered the war in 1917 rode high.  Germans were lynched, tarred and feathered and some 6,000 of them were interred in relocation camps, much as the Japanese were in WW2.   The local breweries (most of them owned by German immigrants) were shut down.  (Most people don’t know that prohibition was most likely hastened by anti-German sentiment. ) Church services in German were banned. My mother was moved to a different school with mostly German American and black students.

My grandfather never spoke of any of this, but my mother had stories that shocked me. She had a root-for-the-underdog spirit and feisty-ness that never left her.  You also never used the N-Word in her presence more than once.   I’ve seen her end friendships over it.

My mom was the black sheep and tomboy (she had three sisters and no brothers) of the family.  My grandfather used to take her on trips to Detroit to see his beloved Tigers play.  On one hand she was in many ways her father’s favorite, but rebelled at being smothered by his strict overprotective rules, and ended up leaving home at the age of 16. (after I was born my mom and grandfather reconciled)

She spent some time at the University of Michigan studying painting but got caught up in the jazz age and lived a rather “bohemian” lifestyle, as the photo of her here at the age of 22 might suggest.   She gave the photo to her parents, but they never hung it on the walls.  It wasn’t till I was in my 40’s that she would talk to me about her youth.  She had a short lived marriage in the mid 30’s to a man named Tom, but aside from that she seemed to avoid long term relationships.  She managed to travel a lot with periods spent in such diverse places as Los Angeles, Spokane, Portland, Wilmington Delaware, Detroit, New York, and supported herself by doing commercial art with the occasional water color or oil painting.

She was travelling through Cleveland in 1942 when she saw a man setting on a bench reading a volume of poems by Shelly.   She sat down on the same bench, pulled a volume of the same book out of her purse and they struck up a conversation.  I’m not sure what followed , but when I was in infant, my chief rival for attention was a wired hair terrier named “Statler”  after the Statler Hotel in Cleveland.   They also named me for F Scott Fitzgerald.

He was headed East on his way to the war and I’m hazy on just where she was headed, but the main thing is they kept in contact and he managed to get her to move to Lebanon, Ore and become his wife.

I’m sure she had her fair share of “My God, what have I Done?” moments, as she had to be somewhat of a fish out of water.

When my father passed away in February of 1960, I remember being concerned that at that point it was just me and her.   My father’s family had never approved of her and it only took a couple years before contact dwindled to nothing.

It was years before I had any appreciation of what it must have been for her to be one month shy of your 50th birthday and find yourself in the position of being a single mom with a headstrong eight year old boy.  It had to be tough.   She went through a failed marriage with a younger man who drank too much which ended in divorce.   She had lovers.    Some of her behavior was indiscreet and in a small town, people are prone to talk.    During this period, though, she worked at a number of jobs, and worked for at Cent-Wise drug (a local drug/ variety store) for a couple of years.   She later operated a succession of “Art Studios” where she taught people of all ages to paint and draw.    She also sold a number of paintings. She managed.

We had a somewhat frosty relationship during this time.     I blamed her for some of the flack I was getting because of her lifestyle,  and I also think, unconsciously, for my father’s death.    Fortunately for me (and her) she found a man who became a good stepfather to me and supported her dreams and for the next 15 years lived what she called the best years of he life.   But we never became close.   She had much better relationships with a number of my friends, some of whom became very close with her.

After my step father passed away in 1979, the plan was that I was moving to California and that she was going to sell her house at some point and move to California, to be near her younger sister (and me).    I did move to California in 1980, but she could never get herself to sell her house.  It was always: “Maybe in a year or so.”.

I moved back to Lebanon during the 90’s as I realized she was never going to leave.  She had friends in the town she’d lived in for 40 years and she loved her house and garden.  We tried living together, but fought like cats and dogs, and things went much better if we lived under different roofs.

Eventually, I actually got to know her as a person and learned a little about the 2o years of her adult life that were largely a mystery to me.  She had a lot of friends of all walks of life and she seemed to have an affinity for those who couldn’t find anyone else to talk to.   During the 80’s she had a number of friend/students who were young gay men.   She was someone who wouldn’t sit in judgement of them and I remember coming home to visit her and noticing that these guys just LOVED my mom.    They were very kind to her and cut wood for her and helped her with yard work.     The AIDS epidemic hit her hard.  I remember a former student of hers who  died shortly after coming to visit my mom and say goodbye.  He was blind at this time and dropped by with his mother. My mom kept up a brave front while he was there, but right after his departure dashed off into her bedroom.

I went in to comfort her, and at that point we had a breakthrough.  Some of the distance between us was gone.   It wasn’t like a dam bursting or anything, but it was like a physical barrier was no longer there.   We slowly became friends as opposed to just relatives.

We still had our points of contention, but at least now we had some closeness to get us through.   I expected a battle when I finally took her car keys as it was clear to me that she should no longer be driving, but she understood and trusted me.

Three of four years after she passed on in 1999, I was in the middle of taking a shower when it all finally hit me.  It was the realization that no one would ever love me like she did.      That was both painful and comforting at the same time but the main idea was that I’d always known that no matter what else I was feeling, I never doubted that I was loved.

The day my mom passed, her friend Edna called me at work and told me I needed to go see her, that something was up.  (She had been in a care facility for a couple weeks after suffering congestive heart failure) I went to see her and she was quite lucid.  She had emphysema (Lifelong smoker, since age 16) and dementia had set in as she wasn’t getting enough oxygen–her lucidity was a welcome sign.    She knew her time had come and she said good-bye to me and told me she appreciated that I had been a good son to her.  She told me not to feel sorry for her: she’d had a long and interesting life and that she was ready to go.  With that, she rolled over and went to sleep, inadvertently uncovering her left hip, revealing the tattoo of a rose.   I knew nothing of this, and to this day have no idea how long it had been there, but it didn’t look contemporary.   I pulled the covers over her and discovered a little pencil sketch beside her bed: it was entitled, “Scott hiking in the hills of Oregon”.  She was creative right up to the end.

When I was leaving the nursing home, there was a room where some of the patients were watching a children’s program on TV where someone was singing “You Are my Sunshine”.   My mother used to sing me to sleep with that, when I was a little boy.

That night, when I got back from playing guitar at the tavern, there was a message on my phone from the nursing home:  “Scott, your mother passed on in her sleep a couple hours after your visit.”    Something I already knew.

Visions

I’m not all that happy with the way this came out, it just doesn’t do the painting justice as it’s a scan from the original Polaroid my mom sent me, so it really doesn’t do it justice in any way.  She painted this one sometime in the 80’s.  I’m not sure where any other photos I have of her stuff are, so this will have to do.

This isn’t a painting of anything that actually exists, she just thought it up.   The last 15 years or so that she was painting in oil, she really just was doing it to please herself, and stopped doing anything that was representational.   I think she did her best stuff in her late 60’s and early 70’s.  At her best, she was really good.

In the mid 70’s, (when she was in her mid 60’s) she had a one woman show at the then Pat Boone Inn on the Oregon Coast, and pretty much sold everything she had on display, and bagged a few other commissions for large oil paintings from people who saw her work.     She understood that her clients wanted home decoration rather than art, but she wanted to pay off her house, and that little burst just about did it for her. It gave her the freedom to do what she wanted.

After that, she did paint whatever she wanted, and 90% of it came straight out of her head.   Since I’d been watching her do this since before I could talk, I understood most of the time where she was coming from: how her eye viewed things.   She once did a large oil painting on a sheet of plywood.   My stepfather had a 4X6 sheet out in the garage where she parked her car, and one night she noticed the grain reminded her of the ocean.   She just added colors to the existing patterns, a little sea foam, a couple seagulls and she had a painting she called “The Restless Sea”.   Before she painted it my stepdad sprayed water on it a couple times to bring out the grain a little more,  it really added an interesting texture and seemed to cause the painting to  change colors depending on viewing angle.

I din’t get any of her artistic talent as I’m barely able to write legibly, let alone paint or draw anything.   But I did learn to see the world, to a degree, through her eyes.   It’s not what you’re looking at that’s important: it’s what you see when you do.