One father was all I needed. I had five mothers and loved each one in different ways. They were born between 1890 and 1925. The year I came along, the oldest was fifty five and the youngest was eighteen.
My birth mother, Terry, was born in Saskatoon in 1912. She gave up on teaching in the frigid north and went to Toronto in 1938 in the middle of the depression. There she worked as a secretary in the movie business and married my father. It took her eight years to conceive me, and since she didn’t care much for him (kindness and hard work were his characteristics, not intellectualism or ambition), that took a supreme effort. Her successful career as an inner-city vice-principal in Cleveland speaks volumes for a hundred-ten-pound white woman. Never too demonstrative until her sentimental sixties, she braided my hair and tightened my ponytail, never failed to put a great meal on the table but let me have Chef Boy Ar Dee instead of liver, sewed my prom dress and sent me off to college, getting part of a PhD herself and proud of mine. Though she never divorced my dad, in our huge multi-family home she had her own “live-in” friend and drinking companion as part of a strangely functional trio that survived her death. My father called her a saint. Maybe, but so was he.
Summers Terry had “off” because from five to fifteen she sent me to Canada to stay with Aunt Belle. Belle was born in 1890 and never married. A miller’s daughter and one of eight children, she became a draftswoman until retirement for the Hydro (electric company), a progressive job for a woman, even in the Roaring Twenties. We’d met her and her maiden sister Holly in our apartment at 77 Wellesley Street in Toronto, where I’d toddle to her unit and learn to walk, balancing on a wine bottle. A third sister had a large estate nearby in West Hill and a small cabin for Aunt Belle and me. She’d make applesauce from our trees, point out hummingbird’s eggs, deal out rummy, and tell me to put my “wheel” in the barn. We slept in a huge pull-down Murphy bed amid her wall collection of butter patties. Heading for the Big House for toast and cheese before bed, she’d sing, “There’ll be a hot time in the old time tonight,” and add “Paul Kruger.” She never explained, but possibly she had been too young to remember the Boer War and the man the Krugerrand is named for. When I broke a gravestone by climbing it, Aunt Belle kept quiet. My mother had turned me in for selling black market candy and gum in junior high out of a hollowed-out hymnbook. Aunt Belle had been sent at eighteen after an illness to stay with her uncle, an innkeeper in far-off Dinorwic, Ontario. I have her precious photo album from 1908 with her dolled up like a Gibson Girl, hat and gown, sitting with a beau under a tree. He looks slightly Metis, and very handsome. I got the album only after she died and never was able to ask her about him. Later I gave my main mystery series character the name of Belle. Framed on my wall is her home-sewn tapestry of King Tut, circa 1922, alongside an oil painting of our little cabin.
At the time Aunt Belle died and I went to college, my Jewish mother appeared. Jesse was born in 1899, and fell a few years short of spanning three centuries. Growing up in Cleveland, she got a BA in Physical Education around 1920. She was a fervent socialist with a lawyer husband who died young and left her with one boy. Jesse and I drove to Florida together and toured Hong Kong and Bangkok with my mother. I made a beeline to her tiny house when I came home from college to enjoy her fresh-squeezed orange juice and sugar-dusted cottage cheese pancakes. From Israel she brought me a silver pin, unaware that it read Allah Akbar as I learned years after her death. That would have made her smile. Jesse was a regular at our holiday dinners, and always brought zucchini casserole and chestnut dressing. At seventy-eight, she was game to drive all the way to Sudbury, Ontario, four hundred miles north of Toronto, when I interviewed there for the teaching job I would have for thirty years. When I asked her if she knew about my relationship with my female partner, she said, “Certainly. I wasn’t born in a tree.” Jesse wrote my mother’s obituary, more familiar with their careers in the Cleveland public schools. No slender waif, “Jezebel” swore by her sturdy “foundation” and pounds of vitamins and supplements. I think of her on my birthday because hers came one day later. June 6. We were typical madcap Gemini.
The list continued. My widowed father in Florida joined a Life Goes On group. There he met Mary, a zoftig Italian widow nine years younger who made him the happiest I’d ever seen him. His mental health failed at eighty-two, but Mary helped smooth the process of selling his house and getting him back to Canada to a nursing home. After spending ten days at her home in Punta Gorda on an alligator pond, I watched them say goodbye at the airport and shed a tear. Mary and I kept close for the next seven years, by phone and letter. She thought he was the smartest and funniest man in the world, gave him bagpipe music, and called him Sir Norman after his British heritage. She was his “consort.”
At age sixty-seven, I thought I was finished with mothers. But no one stems their tide. I had known Inez in 1968-71 when I was teaching in Columbus. Then I moved to Nothern Ontario for thirty years and retired to the West Coast. By coincidence, so had Inez and her son John. Suddenly she was in Seattle, a jump from Vancouver Island. Now I’m her daughter, too. This dynamic ball of energy is four-foot-ten, but she was a professor of Comparative Literature until age seventy-five, and bought a Lexus sports car at eighty. Inez is a Portuguese Jew, convent escapee and fiercely liberal. She published journal articles on Chicano children’s games, and interviewed a prisoner to write his biography. Her new project is a Japanese garden.
Together these five women mark the progress of their eras. Aunt Belle and Jesse couldn’t vote in the beginning, my mother couldn’t be married and teach in the Lakewood schools. Mary nearly watched a black man became president of the United States. And now Inez sees gay marriage legal in Canada and challenging American laws.
From 1890 to 2012. One hundred and twenty two years. Every Mother’s Day I’m still buying a card.