Growing up I was very much aware that mothers were dispensable. I was also aware that for most of my friends that fact didn’t even appear on their radar screens. To them mothers were fixtures like the kitchen sink or walls of a room—just there, always there. But I knew differently.
My mother’s mother died from complications of diabetes when Mom was 17 years old. But it wasn’t just her death that shaped my mother’s life. For years before her death, my grandmother teetered between this life and the next. Mother often recounted stories of coming home from school and finding her mother in a coma, or family outings where the main event became insulin shock. Because Grandmother’s health was so precarious, the burden of housework and caring for her two younger sisters fell on my mother. On top of this, my grandfather dealt with the situation by retreating someplace deep within himself where no one could reach him. He was kind. He was quiet. He was gentle. But he was a living shadow. The real him lay buried in an unreachable spot.
I know mother never realized how often her past surfaced or in what ways it did. But for me it seemed a running dialogue that underscored everything else. So much of what we did was punctuated by her past. Often she would say things to me like “When I was your age, I did all the cooking.” Or “My mother never could do anything like this with me.” Or “If I ever wanted an ironed shirt I had to do it myself.” As I grew older the dialogue changed to include, “When I was your age, I didn’t have a mother.”
These statements confused me. I was never sure why she was telling me these things nor did I understand the emotion that accompanied them. The heaviness always seemed foreign to the activity they punctuated. We might be playing a game or innocently eating supper and suddenly the words and the far away look in her eyes would descend over the event like a wet, wool quilt. At times I felt like somehow she was blaming me for the fact she didn’t have a mother. I realize now that was absurd, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what I had to do with her past and why she kept connecting me to it as if I were an integral part of what had happened.
This is why I knew that mothers weren’t as constant as walls and sinks. Mothers sometimes died and left terrible scars on the people they loved.
That’s one reason her sickness jolted terror through me. The other reason is that no one explained. When someone said “a fever of one-hundred-and-four” I had no intellectual way of knowing whether that was a good or a bad thing. But the sound of their voices and the looks on their faces told me more than I wanted to know. I heard other words and phrases like “six months pregnant,” “rheumatic fever,” and “stay in bed.” And bed became the place she always was now. Before Mother was constant motion. She rarely even sat down during the day. But even worse, bed was the place my grandmother always was in the stories mother told.
Dad wasn’t used to her like this either. I observed the consuming grimace on his face, and knew that my grandfather must have looked just like that. Surely that was the look that preceded the withdrawal into himself. But the most frightening thing was that I had become invisible. No one saw me. Mother couldn’t see me for the pain and the fever. Dad couldn’t see me for the worry. Neighbors dropped by with food and good wishes, but didn’t think to look for a cowering five year old observing from the shadows of the room. It was mother that was sick. Mother that was the focus of their attention.
Dutifully, however, the Relief Society arranged for me and my brother to be tended during the day while Dad was at work. There were five women, one for each day of the week, who took us into their homes the weeks mother was ill. It was then I discovered that not all days have the same number of hours in them. Saturday and Sunday were very short. We could stay home because Dad was there. Most of the other days were long, but Mondays were so long they never seemed to end. Instead they flowed on and on like a thick, muddy river. The woman who took us on Mondays was older and had only been able to have one child, a daughter my brother’s age and in whom the very breath of life centered for that home.
Anything I did the girl screamed until her mother came running to the rescue. “What’s wrong?” she would ask, her face drawn tight. And Alice would inform her of my crimes. I had touched her toy, or I had looked at her, or I had refused to play with her, or I wasn’t being nice to her. I’d never seen a child exert such power over an adult and while it fascinated me to know that it was possible, I hated being set in the corner to learn my lesson or being made to apologize to “Sweet Alice” when it was Alice who had grabbed the drum sticks out of my hands because they were hers. I took to sitting in a corner plotting ways to escape. I remember wondering why I couldn’t be invisible here like I was at home. But even my withdrawal often sent Alice into shrieking fits and her mother running to save her.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays were long, but not terrible. On those days, I was merely an interruption, an extra mouth to feed, an added task to perform. In those places the pain wasn’t inflicted by anyone. Instead it sprang out of the situation—missing Mom, worrying about Mom, being in a strange environment. Being around people too busy to notice I was hurthing. The miracle was Thursdays which were almost as short as Saturday and Sunday. Sister Loosli was young and had only sons about our ages and in her home I was a person rather than a task. She told me how excited she was to have a little girl about the house. The first day she picked me up, she told me to bring my doll to play with because she didn’t have girl toys. But the best thing was that she bought me paper dolls. I loved paper dolls. But the more amazing thing is that she actually sat down on the floor and played with me. We spent time cutting out the paper dolls, dressing them, and acting out all sorts of plays with them as the main characters. Together we also fed and rocked my Tiny Tears doll to sleep and laughed when she wet her diaper.
Because of all this, I’m not sure why it was on a Thursday that I ran away. Maybe it was that the other women were more controlling and I didn’t have the opportunity. Or maybe it was just that my emotions came to a volcanic boil on a Thursday so I had to run. Or maybe it was that her kindness made me even more homesick. Whatever the reason, it was on a Thursday that feelings choked in me so violently I couldn’t breathe. I knew that to get air, to escape suffocation, I had to go home. No matter the cost. No matter the consequences. I had to go home. And so I ran. It was a fair distance for a five year old, but I had no trouble finding the way.
I remember watching the green shake-shingle house grow closer. I remember the terrible burning in my lungs from running. I remember seeing the front porch steps, and lifting a foot that quivered from exhaustion onto the step. I remember the effort of moving up the steps, panting, reaching out my hand, feeling the cool metal under my sweating finger tips and turning it only to find that it was locked. Falling against the door, the tears gushed—pushed out of my eye sockets by intense pressure.
For a long while I sat on the step. The sun was out, but I was cold. No one passed. I had no idea what to do next. The thought of going back didn’t occur to me. Was mother dead? Where could she possibly be, but dead? She was too sick to get out of bed. I don’t know that I thought about anything but death. Feeling it. Knowing it. Experiencing it. Wondering what would now happen to me. Would the rest of my life be Mondays? Would even the Saturdays and Sundays ever again be good?
I don’t know how long I sat on the hard cement before Sister Loosli drove into the unpaved driveway. I knew it was her, but refused to look. I couldn’t, however, escape the sound of the car tires crunching the gravel. Slowly Sister Loosli got out of her car, walked to the porch, and sat down beside me. I don’t remember her words, but she wasn’t mad. She didn’t yell at me. She didn’t scold. Instead she sat beside me sharing my pain. No longer invisible, I cried and she listened and then explained to me that one of the other sisters in the ward had taken mother to the doctor’s office. Mother was alive and even though she was sick, she would get better. No one had told me that before.
The Loosli family moved awhile after mother recovered. I’ve never seen Sister Loosli again. However, every time I see paper dolls, I think of her with great fondness and gratitude.
The Catholics canonize saints—men and women eminent for their piety or virtue who have made a mark on the history of the Catholic Church. We Mormons, on the other hand, are challenged to be saints. Perhaps the difference is that for us becoming a saint doesn’t mean making a difference in the history of the Church as much as it means making a difference in the history of the people around us. Sister Loosli is a saint.