“I pray that I may be all that my mother would have been
had she lived in an age when women could aspire and
achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her nomination acceptance speech
I met her because her daughter worked at my office. When her doctor retired both her and her husband were steered into my practice. She was a very well groomed woman, around five foot two, who was strikingly articulate. As I got to know her better I was able to put together the pieces of an eventful life.
She was born with musical talent. She could sing, and play the organ and the piano. When she finished high school she wanted to go on to study music in college, but in those days “girls” were not supposed to study much. Even after she was accepted into college, her father told her that she should find a job.
She entered the service economy, and soon did what “girls” were supposed to do: she got married. This lasted a few months. Details are fuzzy, but it appears likely that she was being abused. Her father showed up at her house one day and took her away.
She joined the Navy, where she met her second husband, who became the father of my employee. He was of German stock; she was Irish protestant. They blended well together. She took care of the house and four daughters, and also managed to work in retail, or at the school cafeteria, and eventually in a doctor’s office. He was a carpenter who was busy during the summer and disappeared into the basement when work was slow and he felt as if he wasn’t contributing.
In many ways an odd couple. She had the talent to perform in front of hundreds of people (and did so at church). He was reluctant to open up in front of strangers, and never shared any of his life’s details with me. In retrospect, I think they were bound by a sacred commitment to duty and doing the right thing. Years after I met her we were talking about a family member’s impending divorce. She expressed puzzlement at what she felt was a casual attitude that young people assumed about marriage.
“For us,” she said, “there was never any thought of someone else.”
I believed her.
We knew each other for more than twenty years. The more that I got to know her, the deeper became my admiration for her intelligence; her attention to detail; her inspiring love for her children and grandchildren. We could discuss Mozart and opera and current events: she was up on everything. At one point I asked her to come to work for me. I offered to double her pay and lighten her load. She turned me down. She had been at this doctor’s office a long time, and she felt an obligation to him.
When she was close to retirement I asked her how she would keep busy. She mentioned her knitting machine, and her garden, and the fact that her husband’s health was beginning to fail. I asked about music: what would she listen to? To my astonishment she mentioned that they didn’t own a record or cassette player (no CD’s in those days). She ran a tight budget, and she had decided long ago that this piece of equipment that would have given her so much joy was something that she could do without. Even more surprising to me, she did not seem terribly bothered by what would have been a huge gap in my existence, had I been in her position. She did what had to be done, and did not ask any questions. It did not occur to her to think that life was not fair.
The next day I went out and bought an inexpensive portable cassette player. I spent a few evenings recording my favorite symphonies and arias. The next time that I saw her I presented her with her well-deserved present, which she reluctantly accepted. She later told me that she liked to listen to her music in the evening, to help her relax.
I asked her what it was that she needed to relax from. The kids were gone; she had retired; her grandchildren were a source of joy…
She became very uncomfortable, yet she smiled.
“I don’t know. That’s the way I am.”
It hit me that this very accomplished woman who had every reason to feel proud of herself lived in some fear of not being good enough. Now I understood why we had never been able to get her off cigarettes. Why there she kept so many checklists, and why everything in her house was so well organized. She really, really did not want to fail.
I decided that she deserved more. I told her that she would spend a weekend in New York City, on me. That I would make arrangements for her to go to the Metropolitan Opera House to watch a performance. That, by golly, she had earned every bit of this privilege, and that there was no way I would be denied on this one.
To my surprise, she accepted. Before I had the chance to make any plans she complained of a vague chest pain. I had her come in for an X ray, expecting to find nothing. When I put the films up on the viewer I felt as if I had been punched very hard. As if I could share her pain.
She had a huge aneurysm in her chest. It was a wonder that it had not ruptured yet. I got her to a chest surgeon, and then another one. Her prognosis was dismal, but she agreed to a procedure that had to be done in several stages.
Her recovery was hindered by lung disease, a result of her many years of smoking. My employee and her husband took her in after she left the hospital. She did not do well. It was hard for her even to eat. It was clear to me that she was not made for the role of “caree.” She was very much the caregiver.
One evening after a very small dinner she asked to lie down on the living room couch. A few minutes later her daughter found her dead.
I delivered her eulogy. I said that it bothered me that her life had been a seemingly endless chain of duty and obligation. That she always did what had to be done; that she never questioned what life brought to her doorstep. That she could have been a talented musician, and life had instead made her a mother and wife and indispensable assistant. That there could have been so much more, that I was so upset that I was not allowed to take her on her dream trip to the Met…
Then I realized that this was my problem, not hers. My wife (her daughter) tells me that this is my major flaw: I try to fix people’s lives. She had decided that her dream was to be a good wife and caring mother. That she wanted to do a good job at work. That she desired to burden no one. Everything else was gravy, but other than when she was cooking, she did not obsess about the gravy.
Over the years since she died I have learned not to be so upset about the missing trip to the Met. Both hers and mine. I have learned that one cannot possibly get it all in. That there will always be something that did not get done. That our only MUST is to serve, like my wife’s mother (and a second mother to me) did. That gravy is just that: gravy.
Today my blog is a tribute to Dorothy, who cared so much and taught us even more. To all women who had the talent but were presented with limited choices, and made the most of them. To Dorothy’s grandchildren, five very successful human beings who inherited her compulsion to care and serve (two of them are talented musicians). To her rhubarb pies and the lessons I learned from her.
Some day, we will meet at the Met.