My mother's journey from mountain top to Chicago: a toast

This one’s for my mom. She died ten years ago after a several-years’ bout with Alzheimer’s Disease. I miss her a lot, but I am relieved that that disease finally lost its grip on her. It took a grim toll on all of us. This year, I’ve been celebrating her. This spring my family and I trudged up a mountain to visit her birthplace in the Smokies. We gained a new appreciation for how far she’d come from that no-bathroom, not-even-an-outhouse mountainside.

Next I’m celebrating September 28th, the 99th anniversary of her birth. Now that I know what it was like on the side of her mountain, I’m curious about what was going on in the wider world when she was born, not that her family would have heard about any of it very soon.

The day she was born, British soldiers defeated the Turks in a battle in Mesopotamia, and advanced on Bagdad. On the mountain, the previous April, her 2 year old sister had died, leaving a grieving household to welcome the new baby. Her mother told the siblings they could name her, so they had a meeting and chose Jessie, the name of President Wilson’s daughter. No middle name.

Three years later, on the day my three-year-old mother was playing around on the mountain waiting for her big brothers to come home from school, a World War I British soldier reportedly spared the life of a wounded Adolf Hitler near a French village. He was quoted as saying, “I took aim but couldn’t shoot an injured man.” What if…  Meanwhile, a flu epidemic was moving through the country and the world, killing an estimated 30 million people worldwide.

When she was 13 in 1928, penicillin was discovered, but wasn’t used for several more years to treat disease. By then the family had moved to town, and she was in eighth grade. She gave herself a middle name, Patricia.

In 1934, when she was 19, French actress/ bombshell Brigitte Bardot was born, and my mother headed to college over the mountain into Tennessee, the first one in the family to get to go. Her siblings chipped in to send her and her younger sister, and they picked a college with an early form of work-study. She did very well there, ending up the salutatorian and part of the May Queen court.

Four years later, Ben E. King (“Stand By Me,” “Save the Last Dance for Me”) was born in a nearby North Carolina town. But 23 year-old Jessie had moved on by then to become a career girl in the big city of Cincinnati.

On her 26th birthday in 1941, Ted Williams raised his end of season batting average to .406. Jessie had met my dad by then, at a work Christmas party. He was utterly smitten, and I have the almost daily letters to prove it. They had ten years together, until he died in an accident at 34. She and I went on and did fine, but less fine than we might have, of course.

She taught school in Chicago, then had the job she was meant to do, as a “superb” editor, according to one grateful author. She volunteered too, and always had a project going on her desk. She was kind to the tipsy neighbor, and stalwart about making the annual summer trip to see her family back home in the Smokies, despite the harrowing drive in our 1950 Ford, later replaced by a 1960 Ford Falcon.

She was the sturdy, stubborn, independent person she needed to be, and I was the lucky beneficiary of her love and attention throughout my life. In the years since her death, I have discovered her all over again, now that we don’t have Alzheimer’s in between us. I don’t dream about her very often, but when I do, she is fine and I am puzzled about what we were so worried about. In one dream, she was climbing a ladder and wearing short shorts (not a style she embraced in life). I smiled for days.

That’s how it is in grief, if you approach it with a holding-on rather than a letting-go intention. I still have everything she gave me and my children, and I still have the memory of everything we gave her. Join me in a toast, to Jessie.


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