If I have done anything in life worth attention,
I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother.
Booker T. Washington
My mom came down to our place for lunch the other day. Maria and I live in the old neighborhood, just down the hill from Mom, so I was able to give her a call spur of the moment and invite her down for a bite to eat when we realized we were going to have more of Maria's fabulous nachos (and my rather good guacamole) than we could polish off by ourselves. As we engaged in our version of multi-tasking – chatting while watching the Mariners game on the tube – conversation turned to my business travels and eventually made its way to my website. She'd never seen it. She has a Facebook account, so I wondered if she'd read any of my blog posts, seeing how I put links to them on Facebook. No, she hadn't read any of my blogs. Apparently, she goes on Facebook even less than Maria does – a level of infrequency that hovers between never and I-looked-at-it-last-month. After explaining to her what a blog was and how it could exist on Facebook and on my website simultaneously, I opened my latest blog post on my phone and handed the phone to her. “You want me to read this?” she asked. I indicated the affirmative and she started reading, glancing up at the Mariners' at-bat from time to time. After close to a minute of reading, she asked/observed, “Oh, this is about you?” I think I might have rolled my eyes. “Well, yes. Yes, it is. It's about me. And by me, too. I wrote it.” Disabused of the notion that I was making her read some random article about the Nuremburg Defense, she returned to reading my blog, more interested, I suspect, knowing I'd written it.
She read all five of my story blogs in one sitting. Really liked them, too. She wondered if I'd ever thought about writing a book (of course I had) and if my brothers had read my posts (not likely). A couple days later, she payed me an extraordinary compliment, comparing my story-telling favorably to that of Daniel James Brown whose #1 New York Times–bestselling Boys In The Boat she is presently reading for a second time. I regarded that as high praise even after factoring in her maternal bias and unflagging Robert Schuller-inspired positivity, and as a result, I immediately went from being annoyed at her ignorance of my blog's existence to being thrilled by her assessment of its contents.
As Mother's Day approaches, I am wondering, yet again, who this person is, this other human being I've always called Mom. What do I know about her? She was 25 when my existence began in early September, 1956, and 25 still when I was born on May 7, 1957. She's been the constant in my life since then, but who is she? This sort of question never fails to intrigue me. Regarding the mystery that every human being is to every other, Charles Dickens wrote:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon [is] that every human creature
is constituted to be a profound secret and mystery to every other.
A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night,
[is] that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret;
that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret;
that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there,
is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
A Tale of Two Cities, chapter 3
Sometimes I look at pictures from my mom's childhood and wonder, “Who was that girl? What was she like? What kinds of thoughts did she have? What were her hopes?” And when I ask those questions, I have no answers because, of course, I didn't know her then, and even now I barely know the one whose beating heart gave beat to mine. I'm not saying that my mom is a greater mystery to me than yours is or was to you, I'm saying that every person, even one's own mother, is a mystery to every other. That's the universal truth and “wonderful fact” that Dickens was reflecting on when he wrote, “every human creature is constituted to be a profound secret and mystery to every other . . . a secret [even] to the heart nearest it!” I'm not claiming an unusual or extreme case of this mystery, I'm just narrowing down that universal truth to a personal one – the truth that my mom is a mystery to me simply because she is another human being. We lived under the same roof for 19 years, and after being away for almost three decades I'm back in the old neighborhood and see her often, so of course I know her - I know aspects of her personality, some of her idiosyncrasies, her basic likes, dislikes and values, her taste in music, etc. - but still, she's a wonderful mystery to me.
My mom comes from pioneer stock. On her dad's side, the family line is traced directly back to Thomas Dustin and Hannah Emerson, born in 1652 and 1657, respectively, in two of the original 13 colonies, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Thomas and Hannah's great-great-grandson, Dudley Bailey Dustin, brought his family to the Willamette Valley of Oregon in 1849, fairly early for Oregon. On my mom's maternal side, her grandfather, Aaron Cornelius Hall, was born in Ohio in 1838, led wagon trains to California and Oregon as a teenager in the late 1850's, and arrived at Canyon Creek near John Day, Oregon, in 1862, with the party that discovered gold there, triggering the Oregon gold rush.
Aaron and his wife, Mary (he was 60 years old when they wed) and their seven children (three from Mary's previous marriage and four of their own) lived south of town in a house set back and well-hidden from the road, and being sort of out of the way like that, they had long wondered why they got so many hobos showing up at their door. A son who did some drifting himself for a time finally figured it out: an inconspicuous pair of crossed sticks at the side of the road, placed there by a hobo to be noticed by those who knew to look for it, was the hobo code marking a house where all were welcome and no one was ever turned away. That was the home of my mom's grandparents; the home where my mom's mom grew up; a home where hospitality, generosity, love, and racial equality were lived values.
Sam McDonald was a recipient of those Hall values. Though Sam went on to became a beloved member of the Stanford University community, working there in a non-academic capacity from 1903-1953, he was a destitute teenage grandson of slaves when Aaron and Mary took him into their home. The brief time he spent there had a big impact on him. Writing 54 years later in his book Sam McDonald's Farm (Stanford University Press, 1954), Sam still had vivid memories of life with my great grandparents in Canyon City, Oregon:
Mr. Aaron Cornelius Hall . . . had many acres and raised horses and cattle. I collected part of my wages at seventy-five cents per day in cash, and applied the other part at one dollar per day toward the purchase of two horses. These cost twenty-five dollars apiece and were to be used for my return trip to California. The Halls were wonderful people . . . In my short employment they came to think of me as part of the family, and Mr. Hall promised me my pick of one of his three hundred head of range horses should I return to them again. My pack was sufficiently laden with food by Mrs. Hall to supply my needs for several days of my journey. At a breakfast unsurpassed on any table in those parts, sadness came over me when all gathered to wish me farewell. And so at last on October 11, 1900, I was off to begin my journey [back to California] . . . I started from Canyon City with three horses, the one for which I had traded my bicycle and the two which I had purchased with my labor.
My mom is a mystery to me, but with stories like the one above, I know where she gets her kindness, generosity and goodness. She not only comes from pioneer stock, she comes from good people; salt of the earth people.
Just a couple months shy of her 85th birthday, my mom is still very active and healthy, lives on her own in the house I grew up in, still drives. She takes care of her granddaughter (daughter of my deceased brother, Gary) a couple days a week and visits friends who can't get out on their own anymore, driving them around for shopping, picking up meds or getting them to their doctor appointments.
Almost 40 years ago, I was off on one of my teenage adventures, camping in Kauai's remote Kalalau Valley. Digging through my backpack after a few weeks of playing caveman, I came across a brown paper bag I didn't remember packing (didn't remember because I hadn't). Inside, I found a mirror and a greeting card. The front of the greeting card was a cartoon bug in sunglasses laying on its back on a green leaf, just soaking up some rays without a care in the world. Except for the number of legs, that bug was a dead ringer for me at the time. Inside the card was a $20 bill and a note from my mom. In addition to a caution about not placing the mirror in a way that its reflection could start a fire (!) and an apology for sneaking it into my pack and thereby adding to the weight I carried for 11 miles along the rugged Na Pali coast, she wrote:
Wherever you are and whatever you're doing,
I hope you are having fun and that your adventure
is everything you hoped it would be.
When you look in this mirror,
know that you see someone we love very much
and look forward to seeing again between his adventures.
The $20 is to tuck away and forget about
until you're down to your last
and need it for fun or an emergency.
Who is this person I call Mom? I don't know, but I love her.
Almost Mother's Day, 2016