Motherhood then: Where there’s love, memories never fadeAt 92, my mother hails not only from a bygone era but still lives in it.
By: David McGrath, for the News Tribune
At 92, my mother, Gertrude McGrath, hails not only from a bygone era but still lives in it. She has no computer, no e-mail, no GPS and no iPod. She does not use the CD player or DVD player we got her, and when the cell phone my sister Rosie purchased for her starts to ring she stares at it as if it were an IED.
Sharp as a push pin, she continues to live in her own condo. She doesn’t get out as much as she used to, spending her time instead entertaining visitors, chatting on the phone (the land line, of course), writing greeting cards, reading the newspaper, discussing with her sons the latest news regarding President Obama, for whom she voted, and watching the Chicago White Sox on TV.
So I was more than a little curious recently when she asked that I show her how to use her cell phone’s camera function. Though cataracts have been lasered from both eyes, she was having difficulty finding the button with the miniature camera icon. Also, hand tremors kept spoiling the aim on her target. But, after half a dozen tries, she was able to take a fuzzy but recognizable picture of my feet. Then my baseball cap. And, finally, me. When my brothers, Kenneth and Charlie, arrived, she made them pose together while she snapped several digital shots of them, too.
Kenneth was impressed. He asked, “Do you also know how to send them?”
I, too, was wondering if she were just showing off her new technological sophistication or if there was some other motivating factor.
That’s when my cousin, Mary Kay of Franksville, Wis., showed up with son Donald and a Rubbermaid storage box of old photographs. Her late father, Don Sr., was my mother’s little brother, and after Mary Kay’s mother died two years earlier, the box was all that remained following the estate sale.
“Some of these pictures are 100 years old,” said Mary Kay, “and they were all obviously important to my parents. But you’re the only person in the world, Aunt Gert, who can tell us who they are.”
I thought about that as they started going through the stack, with Mary Kay writing names on the backs of cardboard frames while my mother held each photo inches from her eyeglasses, identifying faces that made her laugh or bite her lip.
Mary Kay relied on my mother, her mental database housing nearly 100 years of faces and images, replete with individual stories and their accompanying sounds and smells, and the emotions they evoked.
Such as Gert’s paternal grandfather whom she hated to have to kiss because of that waxy mustache. And the snapshot of her father, Joe, leaning on the pump at his gas station, where Al Capone’s beer trucks were rumored to have refueled. Or Mary Kay’s dad, Don Sr., at age 21, and didn’t he have the most amazing singing voice at St. Joseph’s? And this one of Uncle Kayo; she remembers like it was yesterday how proud he was of his new suit, back when you had to be 14 before making your first holy communion.
When you think of it, in 92 years, a person acquires and then loses a ton of people, places and things. But lost are only the physical manifestations. Their countenance, the sound of their voice, the longing you have for them — my mom can call it back like opening a Word document.
Yes, even photographs fade or, nowadays, get deleted. Yet more eternal than any archive and more powerful than any amount of RAM memory is the love generated and nurtured during a life. Love which a mother conjures instantly, and without need of a single keystroke; love she radiated each day for her children.
Happy Mother’s Day to Gertrude and to all like her who are the search engines and servers for their families, powered by the most renewable energy source ever known.
David McGrath of Hayward is the author of “The Territory,” a story collection. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.