As my 96 year-old mother prepares to leave for Florida to join her hubby Al, I don’t know if she will return.
Images of illnesses, or falls, or injuries float through my mind. But, to be honest, most of us in the family are already taking bets on WHEN she will return, not IF. Like Arnold, “She’ll be back!” She has for forty years.
But I do think about the legacy she has left behind. As I have cared for her over the past months, I realize that she has made me nuts at times, but she has also made me who I am today. I’ve frequently heard friends say, “Oh, God, I sound just like my mother!” And I realize that I do. I groan to think that I will become just as stubborn, knot-headed, self-willed and obstinate in my old age. But I will also live a fruitful and happy life because of her.
Mom lived a very comfortable life in Mexico with my father from their marriage in 1945 until his heart attack in 1963. Upon his death, she had to scramble to get out of Mexico with us four kids, leaving behind everything, escaping with almost nothing. There was no insurance. We came across the border with very little.
She spent the next twenty years putting us all through school on a teachers’ salary, while she finished her master’s and her doctorate. Schooling was the only way she knew to make money to survive.
Once we were all clear of the house, she sold it, divided the money among us, and took to the roads with Al whom she had met on a Miami tennis court.
Over the next twenty years, we saw her sporadically as they followed their migratory path north and south. Back in the days before cell phones, we rarely knew where she was or even how she was. Periodically, we would get phone calls with stories of camping out in weeds, staying in empty apartments, living out of dumpsters, all with great gusto, humor and laughter, and finally an address where we could actually find her.
But there was always the swimming. Everywhere they have been, she has found a pool to do her half mile of backstroke laps. When she still had her car, she would drive herself there. Once her car was gone, Al has faithfully taken her for her daily swim, five days a week, wherever they are.
And learning. There was always something to learn. Education was the answer to survival. She told me to get a teaching degree so I could always eat. She was right. While she wandered in the halls of academe, she would latch on to some idea or philosophy or philosopher, and espouse it as the answer to all the world’s ills.
Esalen and T-Groups, Fredrick Perls and Gestalt, Vipassana and meditation, Eckhart Tolle and Self awareness, QiGong and new philosophies. Always some book to send to us, some idea to discuss, some esoteric belief to consider.
And good health. From her father she learned to live an active, healthy lifestyle. From her mother, stoicism. So we were not allowed to be hypochondriacs. Illness was not a means of gaining attention, it was not a cause for alarm, it did not provide a reason to be pampered or pandered to. We toughed it out, whatever happened. Her illness, a few months ago, was the first time she had ever been hospitalized for more than a day.
And humor and love of life. From her husband, my father José Castillo, she learned to laugh. He enjoyed people and everyone enjoyed him. Because of Daddy, they had parties and rollicking good times in Mexico. She still congratulates herself for having chosen him as her partner and our father. His legacy of happiness and joy and love of people also lives on. I see it in all of us, but most in my nephew, Spicy José.
And reading and writing. She always has something to read. Now, of course, it’s the Jack Reacher collection of Lee Childs, but also Will Durant, Montesquieu, the Bible, Plutarch, whoever, anyone she can find at the library. And, although I haven’t been able to convince her to write her autobiography, she religiously writes in her diary every day. Those little notebooks, if I can find them and put them all together, may provide the story of her life.
As she packs, unpacks, washes, irons, sorts clothes, (Cousin Becca did send some new clothes,
thank goodness), and repacks, I consider her legacy. No great wealth, no home in Florida, no great art or great writing, no scientific breakthroughs, no prizes or great victories, no fame or fortune.
Four children, a few grandchildren. Exercise and good health, learning and education, humor and love of life, reading and writing. Not a bad legacy to leave behind.