Monday, November 14, 2011

She has been a true Mother Superior

Part Two of "I Did it My Way."

   The doctor who came over to deliver one of Mama's four younger siblings referred to the Baird house as "the sorriest shack I've ever seen." It was the first time my mother -- who was just a little girl -- had ever experienced shame. And shock as well: She loved home, as most of us instinctively do. She recalls running, with tears in her eyes, to her grandmother's house across the field, and asking her for some flower seeds. A few months later, the hardscrabble yard had blossomed into a pastel wonderland of sweet peas, blue flax, bachelor buttons, larkspur, zinnias, asters, poppies and daisies that captivated passersby (and hid the shack). That was the opening act in a life devoted to the transformative power of beauty.

The "sorry shack" becomes a storybook cottage.
      Mama  is one high-class lady -- with great taste, panache and cultured charm -- but she emerged from a dirt-poor existence in the rural South  -- Fuquay-Varina, N.C. -- where everybody said "ain't," and chewed tobacco, and badmouthed "them Nigras." 
    Her parents, Millie and Willie Baird, struggled mightily to provide for their children, and they imbued them with resiliency, resourcefulness and determination. Every one of them emerged from poverty to become successful as a human beings and as a wage-earner.

"Miss Eunice" took pitchers of sweet tea out to the black

 tenant farmers as they hung tobacco in the rafters of sweltering barn.

Her Grandpa always shortchanged them, she said. “It still makes me cry.”
   In my mother's memory, slavery still existed when she was a child. I've never been able to make her remember that this isn't true. Her adamant belief is understandable, given the way black people were treated in the 1920s South. Instead of having housing and some sort of edible slop provided to them, as the slaves did, the tenant farmers her Grandpa employed had to pay rent for their falling-down shacks, and buy overpriced provisions from his onsite "company store." My mother recalls standing next to him as the black cotton and tobacco pickers stood in line to have their day's "haul" weighed.
    "They begged him: 'Please, massuh, weight it again. I know I done picked more than that!', " she says tearfully. "He told them to 'get goin, boy' or he'd dock their pay even more," she told me.
    The high point of life in those desperate times was when the extended family got together in Grandma's parlor for Sunday dinners, and the sunburned men started telling their knee-slappin' accounts of all them goings-on they'd come across during the week. They hooted and hollered. "Them little ladies" laughed too, but most of them didn't holler, especially that cutie-pie Eunice.

Any "real man" had to have storytelling skills.

     In preparation for dinner, Grandma Baird would step out the door and grab a few chickens, casually chop their heads off with a little hatchet, and go into a fury of plucking. It wouldn't be long before it would be fried up and served, along with biscuits (of course) and accompaniments right out of the garden: collards, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and butter beans. Everything but the cole slaw had lard in it, which made it taste extra special. For the cole slaw they used Duke's mayonnaise, which was introduced in 1917, the year before Mama was born. (For thousands of people around the South, "there is no other mayonnaise but Duke's," even today, according to the website, and expats from the South order it by the case, including my mother.) Strong coffee, and some kind of cobbler made with fruit from "one a them trees out yonder,"  topped off the meal.

Eugenia Duke "created the unique recipe."

     As soon as she finished high school, Mama fled to the “big-city” life of Charlotte, N.C., where she enrolled in the School of Business and Commerce. She was especially interested in business law (for some reason) but acquired excellent secretarial skills just in case. She was exhilarated by her new life of independence, and immediately embarked upon an adventure of self-improvement, taking evening classes at the community college in classical music, art, Greek mythology, Latin and literature. 
Mama was enchanted by these timeless melodramas.
    She even went to a “finishing school,” where she learned how to dress, move, speak and behave in a “refined fashion,” although her inborn Southern charm would undoubtedly have sufficed. She especially savored her subsequent years in Boston, where she married chemist Reuben Kronstadt, and basked in the cultural and intellectual atmosphere, the weekend bike rides along the Charles River, and the famed Boston Pops concerts. She worked as a secretary at MIT, and she regrets to this day that she was the one who transcribed material that was critical to the development of a nuclear warhead. (Bad Mommie! You and Henry Kissinger should be placed in front of an International Tribunal, right next to Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of them bastards!)

The romantic Charles River esplanade -- a perfect place for a proposal.
     I have often wished I understood what drove my mother to rise so far above her circumstances. I realize it's not uncommon, but the psychological dynamics intrigue me. I never wanted to rise above my circumstances. In fact, I have generally chosen to do just the opposite.  
    As our mother, Eunice Baird Kronstadt  created a wonderful home for us, a home that was spotless (we are still devotees of Lysol and Clorox), orderly and awash in natural light, and which had touches of beauty and originality everywhere. We were surrounded by classical music, art, books, nature, ideas and her colorful flair for contemporary design, not to mention the endless banquet of health-conscious, gourmet food that she placed before us, always festively garnished. When the electricity went out, she turned it into a candlelit party -- at which we roasted yummy shish-kebabs over a hibachi grill and sang in four-part harmony (we pretended to be the Lennon Sisters)  -- and she stocked our cozy basement “bomb shelter” with so many books, games and snacks that we almost wished World War III would hurry up and get started.

I loved it when the electricity went out.
     When a massive blizzard brought everything to a halt, she declared, "Let's have a picnic in the snow!" I wish we had a picture of our jubilant, make-the-best-of-it extravaganza: Mama and her three adoring daughters enjoying hot chocolate and platters of wholesome treats -- peach-and-berry crisp and soybean pie, for example -- surrounded by a "winter wonderland."

We awoke to find a winter wonderland.
     We were expected to get good grades, to keep our rooms orderly and clean, to use "proper English" (no 'ain't'!) at all times, and to show absolute respect for those of all races, religions and cultures. We were expected, from day one, to go to college. My mother's dream for me was that I would be a concert pianist or surgeon, and ultimately marry Prince Charles. I'm serious. I persuaded her when I was in college that Ralph Nader was preferable, and he is still my Number Two Boyfriend. My Joe is just as cute, and he has a more calming temperament, which is what I need.
Sorry, Charlie. My heart is taken.
      When we moved into our first little house in Salt Lake City, in a tidy but colorless and barren subdivision, she immediately distinguished it and herself by ripping down the chain-link fence that defined each lot and putting up a redwood one. copyright Helen Brack

    She planted poplars, flowering shrubs, pussywillow, forsythia and lilac. She painted the front door red! To match it, she filled the long planter with red geraniums. It was the 1950s, but our house was filled with modern-art prints, and Asian and African artifacts, and our furniture was very sleek and nouveau. Among our entirely Mormon neighbors there was murmuring: Was she a Communist? "Let them talk!" she laughed. "We know what we are, and it has nothing to do with 'Das Kapital'!"
    The rich beginning which she gave us was built, ironically, upon a foundation of extreme thrift (the only thing worse than wasting money was wasting time). We always headed straight for the “75 percent off” racks and the ‘bargain basement” at Auerbach’s, and we loved searching for stylish castoffs at Deseret Industries Thrift Shop. Living elegantly on as little as possible is the best revenge, she taught us. Before we drove home Mama would sometimes take us to Auerbach's bargain basement cafe, where we had pie and coffee. This was one of our most special treats as children: Drinking coffee with Mama after a long morning in the trenches of consumerism.
    It is because of all my parents' money-saving tactics that she succeeded in "not becoming a burden" to her children as the bills for her care pour in. 
Mama found stunning designer fashions by digging through the junk.
     She insisted that we take all sorts of classes (such as art , music, and dance) and “practice, practice” so we could unlock our hidden talents. We were taken to the library every Saturday to check out a new stack of reading materials. Education is something that no one can take away from you, she said repeatedly. She told us we could be and do anything, and urged us to “aim for the stars.” 
    It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized how priceless this foundation was. I met people who had always been told they would never amount to anything, that they were stupid, that there was no point in trying. This was devastating to their self-esteem and their ability to create a satisfying life for themselves.
    Her devotion to the role of mother and homemaker is all the more heroic if one realizes that it isn’t the life she wanted at all, but rather the life that was quite brutally imposed upon young women of that era. She could have been out there in the “real world” -- with her charisma, people skills and work ethic -- running a corporation or implementing public policy or leading a global nonprofit -- but she dutifully took the hand she was dealt and made the best of it.  
She could have been a contender -- and bossed lots of men around.
    What emerged, despite the frustration and pain that she would never fully acknowledge, was a life that was a Work of Art: She essentially rewrote her job description in order to accommodate her larger-than-life personality. Amid all the numbing, repetitive work she did as a “housewife,” she became a master of The Beautiful Gesture. While succumbing in a superficial way to what was “expected” of her, she remained a rebel, an original, someone who was always ahead of her time. She began studying alternative medicine and nutrition in the ‘50s, and brewed up all sorts of herbal potions to cure our ills.
Her herbal concoctions seemed to do the trick, except for PMS.
    She started an organic garden that over the years became a miracle of abundance. She launched her fights against air pollution and pesticides in the early 1960s, and was a leader in the years-long campaign against fluoridation.  She was a woman with great range: She could be in the back yard with a pick, digging a trench on a blazing hot afternoon (she did not perspire) and then be floating about in a sleek formal gown a few hours later, on her way to the Symphony Ball.
    She was legendary among our friends and her own for her gracious hospitality.  If you were to drop by unexpectedly, a platter of scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and a sparkly beverage would appear almost instantly.
"It was no trouble at all! I just whipped these up while you were in the restroom."
    Everything she did was special. As one of my sisters once characterized it: “Even her carrot strips taste better.” That was accurate! Everything she did tasted better, smelled better, had a particular “touch” that reflected the love, devotion and care she poured into it. Her tenderness reached its peak when her two grandsons were born. It seemed that she had never loved anyone so completely and with such joy and compassion.
    For 15 years -- until she was nearly 90 years old and the program was disbanded -- she was a volunteer Patient Advocate at the University of Utah Medical Center. It was the first “job” she’d had in 60 years, and it became both a whole new universe and a new identity for her. 
She strode through the lobby, thrilled to have needy patients waiting for her upstairs.
    She later said this work was the high point of her life, with the exception of having had children. She was gratified that she was able to resolve patients’ concerns and was honored to collaborate with the wonderful people who cared for them. She especially enjoyed training pre-med students to serve as Advocates, and received dozens of letters from them, expressing their affection and admiration. She even got a kick out of driving to the U. in rush-hour traffic. “It makes me feel that I’m really a part of things -- all of us together, going to work!” she exclaimed. She bore witness to the thankless menial work that was done with such dignity and diligence by the poorly paid, “unskilled” hospital staff. She developed a profound empathy and respect for people such as these. She began spontaneously handing out envelopes containing cash to those she saw doing backbreaking roadwork in the sweltering summer, and she eventually endowed two scholarship funds to help needy, deserving young people.

How she loves helping young people achieve their dreams!

   She continued to visit her friends -- as one after another endured a prolonged dying process -- even after they no longer recognized her. She delivered flowers and treats, and she rigorously monitored the quality of care they were receiving, demanding to “speak to a supervisor” if something was amiss.  
    For several excruciating years, as our father declined physically and intellectually, she was his devoted caregiver. It took a great toll on her, but she couldn’t walk away from what she regarded as her duty.
    She never fully recovered from this devastating experience, but after he died, she found delight in living alone for the first time in her 91 years, and said she felt “free as a bird."
"Free as a Bird," by Lana Wynne
    When she fell down the stairs one night and believed she might be  having a heart attack, she drove herself to the emergency room, not wanting to “bother” anybody. She was quickly taken into surgery to have a pacemaker implanted. The next morning, she sat in bed -- looking as beautiful as she ever had in her whole beautiful life -- cheerfully eating whole-wheat blueberry pancakes and reading the Tribune. 
     Despite her “advanced age,” her intellect has remained keen. She continues reading with great enthusiasm -- often until well past midnight -- magazines on finance, the environment, design, food, natural living, and one of her favorite new passions: entrepreneurship. She underlines everything, clips articles to be placed into her gargantuan file cabinet, and saves things for me to read that “we must do something about,” such as the wage gap and our friendly neighborhood nuclear waste dump. She can't resist clipping recipes, even though she admits she already has enough to fill several lifetimes with a new smorgasbord every day.
    She is a bit wary of technology, especially when she found out that she could be “Googled,” which she regards as an infuriating invasion of privacy. 
    In conversations, she participates with interest, insight, and sensitivity. It was delightful to sit at her kitchen table, laden with sliced tropical fruits and homemade, whole-grain baked goods, and chat for hours, laughing sometimes until we cried. She asked the best questions of anyone I knew. She listened critically and responded analytically as well as compassionately. She has never ceased to amaze me.

I ate the fruit, while she had bacon, eggs, and 5-grain toast "with lots of butter."
    There are perhaps not a lot of people who can honestly say that their mother is the most fascinating person they have ever known, but for me -- even after all these years -- she remains the most fascinating, the most complex and the most mysterious character on Earth.
    Even after all these years, all these decades, she is the most vigorous,  generous and responsive person who has ever been in my life. She is the bravest, most moral and most loyal. She is the most  thoughtful, the most creative and colorful, the most disciplined and determined. She has grace and style, a sense of decorum and tact, that leaves those around her feeling valued and cared for. She has become deeper, sweeter, gentler and more gorgeous over time -- despite the many ways in which she has suffered. 

In her seventies, she was still beautiful at a friend's party..

At 96, she retained her angelic radiance.