Today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. She was born in 1923 in Homestead, Florida, 30 miles south of Miami down Dixie Highway (US Highway 1) through orange, mango and avocado groves and the occasional alligator infested swamp. She was the second of five children, only the oldest of whom still survives, my Aunt Frances who now lives in Pensacola.
My mother died five years ago this March. By the time she died, many of my friends had taken to calling her Saint Marge. There was much in her history which suggested sainthood was, indeed, in order.
She had put up with my hard-headed Dad and three of us strong-willed children for 55 years. She had survived killer hurricanes of the late 20s and early 30s in Dade County (including the one that washed away her friends in Islamorada who were aboard the train fleeing the killer storm up the Overseas Highway through the Keys). She had survived the loss of her baby brother to alcoholism. He died at 51.
Saint Marge had managed to run an entire USDA office as its clerk for about 30 years, repeatedly hitting the glass ceiling in federal circles, never receiving her due reward for her labors and leadership, always standing in the background when the office received award after award based upon her hard work. But she enjoyed the result of that hard work when she was able to travel all around the world with my Dad upon their retirement.
My mother was one of the most courageous women I have ever known. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, braving a radical mastectomy, a second removal of scar tissue, round after round of chemotherapy and radiation. In the end, she simply wasted away. But she fought to live right up to the day she died.
I tell people I come from a long line of strong women. My mother was decidedly one of them. She had been among the handful of coeds who broke the gender barrier at the University of Florida in 1948 when its long reign as a male only university ended. She endured the taunts of the frat boys sensing their unearned privilege was about to be challenged, taunts which combined sexism with racism: “The maids are gettin’ whiter every day.”
But it was there that she met my father and left school after two years to get married. Mother only managed an Associate degree out of that and took classes wherever she could the rest of her life. She would type and retype and retype my father’s master’s thesis from the UF College of Agriculture in 1954, typing the manuscript out on a manual typewriter while attending to a one year old child, myself, and living in former military barracks moved to the campus and charmingly called the FlaVets.
Within a year of my dad’s graduation, she’d give birth to my brother, a baby born with a partial cleft palate and numerous health problems that would result in five surgeries by the time he was five years old. She would endure years of vicarious pain watching him suffer the abuse by the children in our small town and the grown ups who should have known better. And at 40, amidst the thalidomide scare of 1962 (Mom wouldn’t even take aspirin during her pregnancy) she gave birth to my sister.
Perhaps the most striking aspect about my mother was how other people responded to her. My sister repeated something at her funeral (the three homilies were delivered by her children, at her request) we had heard all of our lives: “You have such a nice mother.” And it was true. She was unbelievably pleasant to the many people who came through her office at the Farmer’s Home Administration whether they were drunk, rude or civil. She was temperate in her judgments and long in compassion in her interactions with her fellow churchmen and women at First United Methodist of Bushnell where she sang in the choir for four decades. And she was the face of motherly love, compassion and a fierce mother lion protectiveness when it came to the three of us.
For my mother, the cardinal sin was “being ugly.” I don’t have to explain that to Southern children. But for the uninitiated, it simply means not using vulgar language and being cordial regardless of circumstance in one’s dealings with others. I wish I could say her son has perfected those skills. Those who know me will quickly say otherwise. But I am trying. And, in all honesty, when I say things I know my mother would frown at and shake her head, I can honestly hear her voice inside my head saying, “Now, son, don’t be ugly.” And I often reply, “I’m trying, Momma.”
The common wisdom is that time heals all wounds. While it is true that I do not mourn my mother’s passing each moment of the day as I did at first, the missing chunk of my heart that was my mother has not grown particularly insensitive over time. I hear her voice in my aunt and my sister’s voices as they speak. I hear her laugh - so readily delighted in the small joys of our world from small children to old people snoring - in my own laughter. And I watch my father tear up as he remembers his lost soul mate and I turn away so he will not see me cry.
Indeed, there are times I find myself saying, “Mother, I miss you. I really miss you” as if that urgent appeal to the gods will somehow bring her back though I know that it won’t. Time has not healed this wound. The jagged edges of my heart where my mother once resided have simply devolved to a dull, painful place that springs to life periodically when I smell my mother’s perfume and see her image amidst the many photos making up the Tree of Life composite on the wall at the foot of my bed. And while I know my mother would not want any of us to be sad over her absence, it’s difficult not to miss having a saint in your midst.
In my home I maintain four altars facing each the four directions, each with a different purpose. My south altar is my family altar with the photos of my family of birth and family of choice as well as the non-human animal family members I have loved over the years. This day as I placed the incense in the bowl beneath my mother’s wedding photo, I whispered “Thank you, Momma.”
So Happy Birthday, St. Marge. Know you are missed. Know your life has shaped the world in a very wonderful way. Know that you were one of G-d’s best creations. But most of all, know that your eldest child still loves you and misses you more than you could ever know. More than that, know how grateful he is for all you did to make him who he is.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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