The first person I thought of today was my mother, Dorothy Marie Palmer Coleman. Today is her 96th birthday; she’s celebrating in heaven with her family and friends.
I don’t know the story of her birth as intimately as I know my own or my sisters’. She was the teller of our birth tales and, for all I know, she might have started that tradition. I know that she was a big baby at 10+ pounds and that she was born at home. Her dad sent her 3-year-old brother to the neighbor’s house for the day so he would be out of the way during the birthing process.
She was a pretty little girl, judging by her pictures, with long blonde hair that hung in ringlets to the middle of her back. She gave us her frizzy hair so her orderly blonde curls were the result of rag rollers on her hair. My grandmother told me that she would set Mother’s hair in the middle of the afternoon so she’d be beautiful for her dad’s arrival home. That was pre-car ownership so he rode the street car from the City Public Service yard to their home every day.
She was a Daddy’s girl like GE’s Sophia. Sophia told me that her daddy doesn’t care about anything….except his little girl. That was probably Dorothy’s way of life. Her family walked to 6 a.m. Mass every Sunday, leaving home at 5 a.m. so they would be there early enough to say the rosary before church started. My grandfather carried Mother; my uncle as the big boy walked beside them, holding my grandmother’s hand.
I suspect Mother was a good student; she was so competitive that I don’t think she’d have been anything else. She was the kind of mom who didn’t just let you win in a game of checkers or Go Fish. She also expected the Very Best from us, validated in her job as Mother by excellence in her daughters. Alternately, she took our mis-steps as job reprimands.
It was fun to see her relax with her grandkids. She loved piling grandchildren on her bed and telling stories in her smoke-deepened voice. There was no pressure for them to achieve, no parental report card for her to get signed by God.
She must have liked being in the center of things as a young woman. She was 5’6″ and had to work to get her weight up to 100. She did not pass that genetic propensity to her daughters. Her childhood friend Genie told stories of her donning a size 18 swimsuit and modelling it around the pool when they were in college. That doesn’t fit with the woman who raised me; Mother didn’t call attention to herself.
I wonder whether breaking her back at 18 caused a shift in her personality as it did in her life. She and her friend rode a toboggan down some daredevil mountain in northern California. She told me about gleefully shouting that she wanted sunflowers at her funeral if they wrecked on the way down. After the toboggan lost control, her friend broke his neck and she broke her back. He died in the snow next to her while she waited for hours for rescue.
It took a year of recovery for her to walk again. The medical costs were so great that she discarded plans for college and went to business school instead. It was a career that she loved. I suspect that if she were my contemporary, she would have skipped the Mom route. She was as efficient as a mother as she was as a secretary. Our dad’s behind Mother’s back nickname was “Eagle Eye Crack of the Big Whip.” That suited her.
She nurtured us so well physically, intellectually, and spiritually that it seems disloyal to mention that “touchy-feely” wasn’t part of her character as a mother. We may have been lucky with that since Daddy was the tender-hearted, “I’m proud of you no matter what” kind of unconditional parent. We’d have been ax murderers without Mother’s “You only made a 97 why not 100 on that test” conditional love. A little neurotism balanced us.