Her Way

Last fall …

I’ve been at this for a few weeks now. I still don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to go. I’ve written 2,500 words and trashed them all. I’ve started and stopped and started and screamed and given up a dozen times. I’m struggling for perspective.

I’m trying to be honest and true. But I have to be considerate, right? 

I guess I’ll start with my freshest memories. That’s as good a place as any …

Last fall, I took a week off from my not-as-packed-as-it-should-be schedule, caught a flight from Atlanta to BWI, picked up a car in one of those dreadful off-off-airport second-rate Hertzes (I think it was Rent-An-Ashtray), plugged some directions into my phone and drove an hour and a half into southern Maryland to visit my Mom.

I carried with me: a gym bag filled with a week’s worth of casual clothes, my working backpack (laptop, voice recorder, headphones, backup batteries, various cords and dongles, a couple pair of reading glasses, a fistful of assorted change, some ibuprofen, a candy bar, a dozen pens, a travel pack of Kleenex, a mini-umbrella, a few small notebooks) and a fair load, if I’m going to be honest, of dread. It was October 2018. I hadn’t seen my rapidly aging mother in more than a year. This wasn’t going to be easy.

A few years ago, after spending some 30 years teaching in Hawaii, Mom moved back to the mainland, to a “retirement” home — a nice one, if you have to be in such a place — in Lusby, just a few minutes from my brother’s house. She hated everything about that joint.

Luke and I (with Mom), trying to look cool in front of her monogrammed Smart Car (which is not an easy thing to do), Honolulu, about 2011. ‘Sup?

She hated that she couldn’t jump into her Smart Car, parked forlornly in a handicap space out front, putter up to BWI and catch a flight back to Honolulu. She hated the snow in winter, even though she rarely ventured out. She hated that she couldn’t smoke there — those damn doctors — and hated that she did’t have a say in what she ate. 

She hated Connie, the woman who runs the place. (Mom called her “The Warden.”) More than anything, though, Mom despised the whole idea that she had to be there at all, among the “feeders” (her unkind term for those who couldn’t feed themselves) and the rest of the old people.

At 87, with a couple bad hips, a cancer diagnosis, a case of diabetes and an unbroken but misplaced belief that she still could do anything that she damn well pleased, the last place my near nonagenarian Mom wanted to be — that’s right, nonagenarian; I looked it up — was around a bunch of old people.

I went to see Mom in this Shawshank, backpack in tow, to ask her about her life. I was a little nervous about it; quiz an 87-year-old about her past, she might think you’re trying to beat, you know … deadline.

I should have known better. It never occurred to her.

Mom saw my visit in a couple ways. First, she seized on it as a chance to talk to one of her kids about her all-time favorite subject: Dolores. If there’s one easily verifiable fact about Mom — irrepressible, proudly irredeemable, exhaustingly stubborn, a woman who lived her life, first and last, the way she wanted to live it, by damn — it’s that the only thing she liked more than talking was talking about herself. And, my god, could she talk. 

Secondly, Mom pictured my visit as an opportunity to finagle a few lunches out of me, so she wouldn’t have to eat the prison slop the Warden was serving up. Eating was definitely in her Top 5, too. Maybe Top 3, behind just talking.

I’m not being cruel or hard-hearted about the talking. Mom could out-jaw anyone. It was a point of some pride. It was, for anyone who knew her, a defining characteristic. Perhaps THE defining characteristic. 

Her children, as we got older, kidded her about it mercilessly. She’d acknowledge her prodigious gift of gab with a kind of trademark chuckle and a shrug. 

“Welll …,” she’d chuckle, dentures flashing, cigarette in hand if she had a choice, “yeah.”

But, seriously. Whew.

Example: One time, on a visit to my place in Northern Kentucky, Mom was barely through the door of my townhome — I mean, honestly, it was less than a minute — before she pulled a VHS tape from her carry-on. She had been teaching something called, at the time, a “telecourse,” where students would tune into a local TV channel (this was before the internet) for classes. She had recorded a lesson.

So it was, minutes into our visit, that I was listening to Mom talk on TV while real-time Mom talked about Mom talking on TV. It was a Hall of Mom Mirrors. Overdubbed with Surround Sound.

Example II: I remember painfully Mary Jo’s shellshocked face, during one of her early meetings with Mom, not so much because of the unbelievable and unforgiving aural assault — certainly, that was stunning enough — but because Mom’s kids and daughters-in-law were simply strolling out of the room in the middle of it, without any sense of guilt or civility. No “Excuse me,” or “I’ll be right back,” or “Sorry, got to hit the bathroom, my ears are bleeding.” Just … whoosh, and they were gone. Mary Jo was aghast.

She learned, soon enough, that ditching Mom in mid-sentence often was a matter of self-preservation. And , the thing about it: Mom understood. She didn’t stop talking, didn’t miss a syllable. She often would end up in an empty room, projecting her story into the kitchen, or the bathroom.

She’d chuckle when we brought it up. And, heck yeah, we brought it up.

Back in Maryland, immediately blowing away my apprehensions, Mom began to talk. For hours over those few days in her little room, I recorded her as she rambled about growing up an only child in Philadelphia, eloping to Delaware, raising seven kids, leaving that life to teach, her 30 years in Hawaii. We talked about the good times. I asked  if she had any regrets.

These are my freshest memories of Mom.

One afternoon late in the week, after several order-in lunches threatened to push her vitals to a place that doctors didn’t want them to go, I tried to coax her into eating the food at The Hermitage — that’s her prison — instead.

We went back and forth for a half-hour. I wasn’t about to make another trip to Subway. (I didn’t want to be responsible for sending her into some diabetic death spiral.) She wasn’t going to stop demanding.

I don’t remember ever having a real cross word with Mom. Ever. And I’m not sure this qualified. But the debate had reached a head.

“All I want,” she finally said, “is a fuckin’ sub.”

And Mom — true-to-form stubborn, irrepressible Mom — chuckled.

It’s too bad that, too often, these late-life encounters with loved ones are what you remember first when they’re gone. Mom and I shared plenty of laughs over the years, and lots of adventures growing up. She laughed, around me and my siblings, as much as she talked. There was a joy, a lot of love there.

But that moment in Maryland, of all the moments over all the years, probably was about as Mom as Mom could get.

She wanted what she wanted. And that was that.

***  ***

I was a year out of high school …

No use beating about the narrative bush any more, no use burying the lede (we’re talking journalism now!) …

I was relatively fresh out of high school, still living at home in Delaware with my three younger brothers, still trying to figure out where I was going with my life. I was riding in the back seat of the family station wagon one morning, heading to my gig as a stockboy at Nichols Discount City.

((The bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds who worked there filling shelves, chasing down layaway orders, unloading trucks and flirting with salesgirls were insulted enough by our place in the Nichols pecking order that we insisted that the manager, when he called for us over the store intercom, call us “stockmen.” So it was, “Stockman, clean up on Aisle 15.”))

Dad was driving, as he always did, on his way to his job at Delaware State College in Dover. Mom was taking undergrad courses there. She was upfront, in the passenger seat. They were arguing again.

It had become ceaseless that year, and probably for some time before that. An arrow there. A shiv back. A wall of defense. An atmosphere of hopelessness. It was a scene that anyone who has been around a failing relationship knows painfully well.

The argument could have been about anything. In retrospect, it was likely about everything.

Mom was pursuing an English degree with the idea of teaching full-time. ((She was a substitute teacher throughout my years in high school. Nothing is quite as mortifying, for a 15-year-old striving for Fonzarelli status, as having your mom call your name in homeroom.)) Dad was wondering, as dads of his time probably would, where a working wife with her own source of income might leave him and what it all meant for the kids still living at home.

“I think he felt threatened,” Mom told me in Maryland. “I was sorry about that. And I tried to do everything I could to cut down on that feeling for him. I think he felt like his wife was getting another interest and he didn’t appreciate it.”

At some point in that time so long, long ago, Mom made a fateful decision that she would go after a graduate degree, too, so she could teach college. And she would do that in Ohio. “I did it on my own,” Mom said and, looking back, this makes total sense. “I didn’t ask anybody’s opinion or anything else.”

That, duh, meant only one thing.

“It was just understood that I was going away for school, I wasn’t going to be there and, pretty much, the marriage was shot,” Mom said.

Families break up all the time, even back then. This was hardly novel. Most of us were pretty much grown anyway. I was to leave for Arizona State in a few months. One of my younger brothers already had committed to join the Navy. The majority of the Donovan kids, then, dodged most of the final, messy details. We dodged the worst.

Still, I worried then, and for some time after, how the breakup affected my two youngest brothers, still in school, and how it may have changed my only sister, who stayed in Delaware after going to a college near Boston. (We are fine now, all of us. Many of us have survived divorces of our own. We all get along famously.)

My dad, predictably, was hit the hardest by the breakup. His family was disintegrating. Kids leaving, wife taking off, two boys still at home he’d have to care for on his own. It had to be devastating for him. (He’d be dead less than a decade later.)

To be fair and considerate, the decisions wasn’t easy for Mom, either. “They were my babies, and I wasn’t there for them. It was tough, it was really tough,” she said. “I mean, I was alone, I was a female, I was going out on my own, and there was no sympathy for me. None, whatsoever. There was nobody I could turn to.”

Leaving, in the bumpy path of Mom’s life, turned out to be both an excruciating ending — her voice faded in the retelling, the only time all week it seemed she grew quiet — and the beginning of the rest of her life.

It was a new life, it should be fairly noted, that she chose. It was what she wanted.

***  ***

I’m sure I have more photos somewhere, but this I could find: Me, my ‘stache and Mom in Pensacola, I’m guessing around ’87 or ’88.

Over the years …

Yeah, we’d better move this along. It’s a long story. Eighty-seven years. And still a lot to try to try to understand …

Over the years, the Donovan kids got married, unmarried as I said, had kids of their own. The kids’ kids had kids. Mom would visit for a few days, almost every year, even after she moved to Hawaii (where my oldest brother has lived for some 40 years).

But Mom, it’s again fair and necessary to say, never completely embraced her kids’ kids or — my god, no — her great-grandkids. She never came close. To be painfully fair and honest, she avoided them, at great cost, and probably couldn’t name many of them.

It’s this, more than anything, that flabbergasts people when I bring up the subject of my mom. More surprising than the fact that she left her family to live a life of her own — which might be seen as brave and admirable, then and now — is the revelation that she stayed away, at least emotionally speaking. She disconnected. And, in large part, stayed that way.

Mom explained it easily, and often. “I put in my time raising seven kids,” she’d say. She had no intention, she said, of raising any more.

One time, when Mom was visiting Atlanta, Mary Jo picked her at the airport, a newborn Luke strapped into the backseat. Mary Jo had pulled away and was a good few minutes into the drive. Mom already was talking. Mary Jo couldn’t wait any longer.

“Aren’t you going to at least say hello to your grandson?” she said to Mom.

Mom chuckled, I’m sure. She did that when she was confronted, too. She did that to diffuse tension. 

Still, I don’t remember her ever holding Luke. Never sent him a birthday card. Never acknowledged graduation. Never called. It’s a shame Luke didn’t know his Grandma like he knows his Nonna.

All my brothers have similar stories. Even Charlie, who lived with his wife and son a half-hour away on Oahu. Mom sometimes wouldn’t see them for weeks.

That was Mom, though. She put in her time raising kids. She was done with that.

As our lives wore on, almost without realizing it, I’d go months without speaking to Mom, and I was not alone among my siblings. Part of it, honestly, was on me; who wants to get stuck on the phone for 45 minutes (easy!) just … listening? (We kids learned, after years, that we could sneak in a word or two when we heard her taking a drag on her ever-present cigarettes.)

When Mom and I did talk — usually on her birthday, on Mother’s Day and around Christmas — I was always the one who initiated the call. In the past 30 years, Mom called me maybe once. Once. No birthday calls or cards. No anniversary greetings. No Get Well Soons.

It took me awhile, but I discovered that’s kind of weird. If Mary Jo goes a couple days without talking to her Mom — Luke’s Nonna — she’ll get a call from Mrs. D. In a hurry. We talk to Luke at least two days a week when he’s in school. And if he doesn’t call, we’ll call him. In a damn hurry.

Mom raised us, she told me more than once, to be independent. I asked her about that in Maryland. I asked her how she broke away and, mostly, stayed away.

“I cut myself off. It’s what I had to do,” she said. “But it worked out fine. Eventually.”

***  ***

Mom had her hands full … that’s me on the right with a Dad-done haircut.

It’s been a month now  …

Time flies. It flies and flies and flies and you can’t do anything to keep it from getting away from you. That much I know …

It’s been a month now since Mom died. I missed the call that Friday morning from my brother in Maryland. In a perhaps ironic turn, and maybe one that would have made her chuckle, Jim later told me that Mom died in her sleep. Quietly.

I didn’t cry when I heard the news. I can’t imagine I will now. I have, in talks with my wife and my brothers over the years, come to a sort of peace with my mother, how she lived her life and her place in mine. That discovery simply doesn’t call for tears.

Mom lived two lives as an adult, one filled with a houseful of loving kids and a caring husband and adventures that she recalled years later. The other began after that, after finding the belief in herself, the unflinching courage, the outrageous chutzpah, to leave her first life behind — at a time when few women did that — and to rarely turn back.

She had her students in that second life, and she had a few friends (though Mom, pointedly, called herself a “loner” in our talks in Maryland). She and a second-life friend, Al, would go on trips. They’d stay together when Mom was in New York and when Al made it out to Hawaii. Mom told me in Maryland that he had asked to marry her. She said no. I never met Al. He died several years ago.

To be clear: Mom took pride in her kids. She enjoyed our exploits and shared them with anyone who would listen. She didn’t call, but she loved to talk on the phone when we did. In her later life, I’d squeeze in some comments about Luke. She told me when she approved of what we were doing as parents (relating it, of course, to how she raised us) and mostly, mostly — this had to be hard for her — stayed silent when she didn’t.

She welcomed visits. She made her own, many yearseven into her 80s.

But she had her life and we had ours. They existed together only in some cold Venn diagram, barely touching.

To be fair, and honest, and with real consideration, Mom and my sister Jean — my sister was angry with Mom for some while after she left Delaware — grew closer through the later years of Mom’s life. They’d vacation together. Mom would fly Jean to Hawaii to visit. Jean would keep Mom up on what all the other kids were doing. When Mom moved to Maryland, Jean would drive over every couple weeks, sometimes more often.

“It worked out fine,” Mom said again. “Eventually.”

Mom lived — this is what I keep coming back to — how she wanted to live. Every choice she made, certainly in Act II of her life, was hers and only hers. Logic and reason often  played no role in her decisions. Her pride and stubbornness trumped all.

Still, I know this, too, and to be clear and honest and fair, this is what I want to remember: She did a lot right. She, along with my sainted Dad, raised my siblings and I, in that first act of her life, in a way that not only embraces family but celebrates it. She gave me, in my brothers and my sister, some of the greatest gifts of my life.

Yet it’s ironic, again — and not without some sadness, I think — that whatever joy that Mom experienced in the later stages of her life, as she slipped into her lonely retirement and returned from a kind of emotional self-exile, came from those that for years and years she pushed out of her life. They are the very ones, of course, to whom she gave life.

Like all our lives, Mom’s was filled with joys and sorrow. But they were her triumphs, her pain, her regrets. In the end, I return to this: She lived as she chose to live. She lived as she wanted. For better and for worse. 

Either way, both ways, it’s a life worth remembering.

***  ***

Dolores Martha Donovan (née Roeth), born August 12, 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, died on May 10, 2019 in Lusby, Maryland. She is survived by her seven children — Charles Thomas (of Honolulu, Hawaii), Robert Paul (of Daytona Beach, Florida), Jean Louise (of Laurel, Delaware), John Allan (of Alpharetta, Georgia), James Richard (of Lusby, Maryland), David William (of Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania) and Mark Jeffrey (of Stow, Ohio) — and their families, including a dozen grandchildren and some great-grandchildren. In June, her ashes will be committed to the waters off of Oahu, Hawaii.


CAPTION: Way before we were married, I told Mary Jo that she was expected to memorize the names of my siblings, in order. She nailed it in no time. That might have sealed the deal for me. Way up top (^) are all seven of the Donovan kids (courtesy, as is the black-and-white pick ^, of my sister the record-keeper), circa 1998, in Marietta, Georgia. From right to left, in order, after Mom at right: Charlie, Bob, Jean, John, Jim, David, Mark.

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