My mom turned 94 years old yesterday. 94! If you caught a glimpse of her now, you would see someone doing simple puzzles, reveling in sing alongs, loving her sweets, repeating the same questions. A little confused or a lot. Perhaps quieter during conversations in recent years, content to just be in your presence for a moment. Forgetting you were there moments later. That’s what you would see.
But I see someone else. The further she moves into this place of content, unencumbered by personality and memories and to-do lists, that is, the quieter she and her life become, the more clearly I can see her core, much of which I missed in years past.
I see the cute little girl they listed as Katie on the Kansas City census sheet – 711 Fifth Street – peering out from behind her mama along with Annie, her sister and side-by-side.
I see all of the hope and sacrifice poured into her by that mama, my grandmother Bara Suc, who tried to let go of Croatia as quickly as possible to ensure acceptance for her daughters in this new life. And I feel my mom’s resulting embarrassment and pride, confusion and excitement from walking with a foot in each of these two worlds.
I see her in her SPARS uniform. Free. Exploring. Clicking her smart pumps on the Pennsylvania Avenue pavement. Skipping a little. Maybe puffing a cigarette. Smiling, always smiling a wide full smile. The aura of being far from home and part of something big pouring off of her. Ideas of more big to follow.
I see the woman in the babushka on her wedding day looking perfectly American and beautifully ethnic in one blurry black and white image.
I see her clad in cap and gown, baby Susan on her hip, fresh journalism degree already busy at work crafting and plotting essays and stories – the ones she still talks about writing today.
I feel her trying desperately to simultaneously fit in and stand out when she moved with her young family to her husband’s hometown. A woman who had the wholeness and diversity of Kansas City, Brooklyn, Detroit and D.C. as her only knowns. Her undomesticated and undomestic rumblings, bubbling and churning, barely contained, often not at all – her independence and limited-ness, her rebel dreams in her traditional mother body. Amelia Earhart and June Cleaver. Envisioning both, unable (or unwilling) to embody either.
I feel her ever-present striving for the underdog having been one herself, the ‘other’, and see her declarative actions rising out of righteous anger that John-John and his mentally challenged friends receive First Communion, and Janie get extra hugs, and Alice receive tutoring to ensure a move to third grade with her class, and Mae and Bee learn English so they are welcomed.
I see the woman who sheepishly said to us a few years ago, “I know I wasn’t the best mom”, making me dig deep to see what a good mother really is, both in actions and words. You must think outside of yourself and serve others. Always. You must leave home. You must be educated even if you never work for pay a day in your life. You must see the world. You must challenge what is declared right for a woman more than I could. Hurry.
Sometimes I am sad about her struggles and shelved visions. I feel deeply her angst of never really fitting in or being seen and perhaps some disappointment at living a life seemingly smaller than she had hoped. And I often wonder if any of that or a combination of all of it led to her dementia. Who knows?
What I do know is that there is wisdom in each era. Light in each life. Yearning with each try. I see it and I feel it in her now, in her quiet and simple life.