Dugo je živjela, Kakva je bila —
She lived a long life for the kind of woman she was.
This was Sophie’s Serbian mantra. “And I want it engraved on my tomb stone after I die,” she’d say, her eyes twinkling, a smile on her lips that held unspoken secrets.
My mom was a Judy Garland look alike. Drop dead gorgeous…her entire life! Well… except for the time around menopause when life was asking too much of her at the same time that her hormones were freaking out. Those were unattractive years when her eyes were sad and her face was dry and contracted with anger and disappointment.
In her twenties she used to dazzle the men, especially on the dance floor. “I wouldn’t even look twice at a man if he couldn’t dance,” she would remind us again and again. She married a tall good-looking guy in a military uniform who was smooth on his feet. They would win samba and waltz contests and bring home trophies. She wore red satin dresses and spiked heels and I remember that she could put on her makeup and smoke at the same time.
When she was young, however, she was dealt a tough hand—the fourth, unwanted daughter of seven siblings—not an auspicious beginning. She didn’t get to have a childhood. When she was nine years old she was farmed out to cook in boarding houses and take care of local neighborhood women after they had their babies. She had to quit school in tenth grade to work and help support the family. During the depression they had a still in their basement to augment their hard times and she had to run bootleg whiskey under her coat to neighbors homes in the dark of the night.
In addition to being a military wife, she had three children. Neither was easy, and it didn’t go well a lot of the time. Looking back, however, it is easy to understand. Living with my father was problematic, and I can see that she raised us the best she could, considering she had never ever been mothered herself and had absolutely no context for the job.
It was very telling when once, during a visit to my home when the kids were still young, she sat in the living room listening intently as we cuddled up and read aloud—a nightly bedtime ritual. She looked perplexed and thoughtful. When I tucked her in and kissed her goodnight in the guest room, she reached for my hand, and stroked it, saying softly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never knew to do that. I had no idea.” I went to bed that night weeping for her loss.
Now, at the age of ninety, nearing the end of her life, she would finally get to experience what it was like to be nurtured. This became her time to be mothered. After she and I moved in together, my brothers and a posse of my dear friends stepped up. We circled our wagons around Sophie, and rolled up our sleeves. It was payback time for a woman who had given so much to so many for so long.
Next chapter: It Takes a Village…