My mother was a lady. Her name is Donna- which, fittingly, means ‘lady’.
She’s been in heaven 20 long years, and I’ve missed her every single day. In honor of her memory, I’d like to share a little of what I remember, and what I know, about this mighty little woman.
She was born in the depression, 1923, to a large, troubled English-Irish family who lived in a tiny house beside the railroad tracks. They were poor in every way. My mother was the 7th of 8 children…I don’t imagine she got much attention, especially since one of the older children was severely handicapped with cerebral palsy.
My grandmother Henrietta, whom we always called Grandma Chase, married John William Chase at 16 to escape an abusive stepmother. Her first little son, born when she was 17, died at just a few months old as a result of a horrific scalding accident. My teenaged grandmother was canning something and the boiler tipped over on the baby in the carriage beside the stove. My mind doesn’t want to go here, but I’m told the baby simply gasped and gasped for 3 days and then died. Right when it happened, my grandfather screamed, ‘You’ve killed my son!’ and fled. He never came back till it was all over and the baby was buried. I have never been told the child’s name.
My grandma was pregnant at the time with her second child- and gave birth to a severely brain-damaged little girl, Hazel.
Then came Fred, Lloyd, May, and Evelyn. And then my mother, ‘Donna Pearl’. I think fondly that giving their 7th baby such a beautiful name may have meant some reconciliation on the part of her parents. Later came a little boy, Ralph. He froze to death in a city gutter at the age of 45, an alcoholic and homeless, and my mother grieved unspeakably.
So treasured was my mother among her siblings that her older brother Fred named his little girl ‘Donna Pearl’ too. When he later brought home his motherless child to be raised and eventually adopted by Grandma Chase, it was quite confusing to have two ‘Donna Pearl’s in the house, so mom became just ‘Donna’ and the little one was always ‘Donna Pearl’, spoken as one word- ‘Donnapurl’.
Mom almost died at the age of 7 from pneumonia in both lungs. No antibiotics then…in the hospital they put tubes directly into her lungs to drain the fluid that was strangling her. I was always horrified at the vast holes in her little back, evidence of what must have been a ghastly surgery. My grandmother used to tell me in hushed tones of the day she saw the death angel in my mom’s hospital room, and how she rebuked the gray shrouded figure and commanded her dying daughter to live.
And live she did.
She graduated from high school and became a ‘stenographer’- an old-fashioned term for ‘secretary with typing skills’. Along the way she became an excellent piano player and singer. Her sweet voice gave her a chance to sing in a rather famous gospel trio, ‘The Grace Trio’, at her home church in the city. She sang on the church’s radio program for years.
Donna developed an evangelistic fervor that caused her to begin to travel with an evangelist, ‘Sister Margaret’, on crusades. This is how she met my dad…during a crusade in a little country church she found him standing alone on the edge of the crowd under a tree, like Nathaniel- and stepped forward to save his soul.
And so, and so…they fell in love.
This tiny, elegant, frail city girl walked bravely out of her world when she married my father. She moved with him to a farm and did her very best to learn how to live without luxury and conveniences. She tried so hard. Baking bread, milking cows, planting home gardens, and having a baby every year…her little frame began to bend with weariness and the telling scars of the harshness of the winters took a toll. She went snow-blind sometimes. Her teeth fell out. Her dainty hands became crooked and wrinkled from handwashing clothes for years on the washboard.
But she still sang.
Her voice was a lilting soprano, with a brilliant timbre in the gentle vibrato. She’d sing through the trials, sing through the dark hours, hum when things were really, really bad. Her crooked fingers taught each of us to play piano, accompanied by the delicate but firm whomp of a hairbrush on the head when we made mistakes. She played the pump organ for services at the little country church, until I got old enough to be commandeered for that job.
She baked and cooked and kept a sparsely beautiful house filled with cast-off antiques. We learned to eat properly and have good table manners. We were poor, but we were proud. There were flowers in the house in summertime, fresh bread when we’d get home from school on cold winter afternoons. We were fed oatmeal, and sardines, and apples, and roast beef on Sundays with sometimes a pie…and always the tea- strong, sweet, creamy…proper English tea.
We were loved, prodded, pushed to achieve, admonished sternly and disciplined without mercy. There was a line we dared not cross. The glint in her green eyes and the tightening of her lips was enough to signify that it was time to stop.
But Mother could laugh! Oh, she could laugh. A deep roaring belly laugh would burst out of her tiny throat and we would gaze in astonishment at the tears of hilarity flowing down.
Mom suffered from headaches, possibly due to her eye problems. In retrospect, I think they were migraines. She would ask me to brush her hair; it seemed to ease the pain. I would scowl selfishly and quickly run the bristle brush through her fine light-brown hair, just wanting to get it done and get on with what I was doing. How I wish I could go back and do it again with gentleness and compassion.
As the oldest, I silently and sadly watched my mother’s strength fade with the years. During her last pregnancy, she wept in frustrated exhaustion as the child within refused to be born on time. After ten months, finally my youngest sister came forth, weighing ten pounds 13 ounces. How my little mama did that, I don’t know. She told me that she said to the despairing doctor, ‘You pull, and I’ll push’ and out came the baby. Mom was about 4 feet ten. Incredible.
But she was strong on the inside. As dad disappeared periodically into his depressive episodes, she held on. She cowered to nothing. She wept in secret but she flamed in public. She flapped her spiritual apron at the demons oppressing us the same way she flapped it at the raging bull in our field. ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ she screamed, at both the bull and the devil.
She washed endless dishes, made thousands of meals, changed diapers for 8 children, nursed illness, swept floors, helped with homework, entertained, and as the house emptied out of the older ones, took in and fostered two native boys. She taught choirs at the local school. She was a cook in a shelter for problematic juveniles. She was discerning in her friendships, but those she chose were precious to her. When my little sisters were playing sports in school, she went to games and cheered them on. She was spunky and brave and resilient, even after a head-on car accident and then a fall that resulted in a broken pelvis and challenged her aging body to rebound.
One of my favorite memories is a turbulent meal when my father was being particularly difficult. Mother came to the end of her patience, as she occasionally did. She grabbed a large open gallon pail of Roger’s Corn Syrup and set it upside down on his head, and the golden liquid slowly ran down around his ears and over his eyes. My dad was so astounded that his rage turned to hysteria- I can still see him with his head under the tap, cackling with laughter. We children did not know whether to laugh or cry.
Mom’s green eyes would crackle with fury when she was angry. But quick as a lightning flash, the sweet lines of her mouth would bend in laughter. She could talk…she’d stay up with us late at night while the parties were going on in our house- grand central, we were…she loved kids and company and fun. Dad, of course, had long since hidden away in his room and gone to bed.
Her disapproval brought ice to the bones. A steely quiet would reign in the house, and until she was pacified, the air was thick with gloom. We were accustomed to dad’s moods and they meant nothing, but mom had to be happy or ‘ain’t nobody happy.’ If we lipped off to her, a swift stinging slap to the face would happen before we could even flinch or blink.
Some of my kids and grandkids have her attributes, including the ‘Irish’, as she called it- meaning the ability to instantly switch moods and go from night to day. Some of them have the sweet voice, the huge doe eyes, the dear little pointy off-center nose. And one of them has the special gift of her name- ‘Pearl’ .
I miss her every day. I miss seeing her perfect slanted handwriting on letters. I miss her scolding. I miss her singing. I miss her gift for entertaining and making people of every race and color feel like they belonged. I miss her love of rummage sale bargains, and her joy in sunshine and flowers and the colors of fall. I miss making her tea- strong and sweet.
I wish she had lived longer- cancer captured her as it did with all her sisters except Hazel. I wish she hadn’t died before she’d seen all of my children, and their children. I wish, I wish…
Happy mother’s day, dearest mother…I know you probably are very busy in heaven leading the children's choir and organizing bake sales and giving advice to the Lord on how to deal with the devil, but I hope just for one moment you are allowed to remember that you have 8 very thankful children here on earth, and ever so many grandchildren- 25, I think- and quite a few greatgrandchildren- 14, I think- and all of them are a result of your choices and your love.
And someday soon, we will be together again. And we shall have tea.