She Had Another 100lbs of Ornery She Could Call Up On Short Notice
by Mad Rocket Scientist
On Friday, October 3rd, 2008, my mom started forth on the next leg of her journey as her struggle with Breast Cancer came to an end. She left painlessly and peacefully, surrounded by her husband and friends. I got the call about 1530 my time as I was dropping the dogs off at the Kennel and my wife was finalizing our airline tickets. We knew it was coming. The earliest flight we could get was at 0600 Saturday morning, so after a mostly sleepless night, we boarded a plane at SEATAC and started flying East. We landed in Milwaukee about 1400 and rented a Prius (nice car, and the gas savings were great since my parents live in the middle of nowhere). By 1530 we were at my parents 100+ year old farmhouse, greeting family and friends, and starting to sort through the things that defined my mothers life.
My mom came into this world in Chicago in July of 1951. She lived a pretty full life, married my dad, and had my sister and me while still in her early 20’s. My parents moved away from the north suburbs of Chicago and to the solitude of the Wisconsin countryside when I was 4. I turned 5 in an old rented farmhouse on a working farm. Mom stayed at home for the most part and raised us kids. We played in the yard, climbed trees, and explored our world. The farmer who owned the property lived a half mile down the road and was a friendly, grandfatherly sort who had no trouble with kids around the farm, and I spent many a day in his lap steering an old Case tractor around a field plowing, planting, or spreading manure. I also got to feed cows, watch them milk, and play in the barn with the barn cats. The farmer plowed a huge garden for my mom, and since I was the one who loved to play in the dirt, I got to help mom grow things. The excitement I got when the seeds sprouted, and when the plants all flowered, and the garden was ready to harvest, is still with me today, and is a big reason I continue to garden, and why I am teaching my wife how to, and why I will teach my kids how to garden as well.
But the best part was just being able to wander away from home. The fields were open, and my mom could see me from almost any window in the house. If she lost sight of me, she kept a gym whistle handy, and she would step outside and blow it, and I had better stop whatever I was doing and report my location to her if I did not want my ass tenderized with a wooden spoon. She trained the dogs and cats to respond to the whistle as well. Three blows on the whistle and there’d be a thundering of little feet as kids and critters came hauling ass home to report that all is quiet on the Eastern 40 and, “No Ma’am, I wasn’t poking that dead Raccoon with a stick.”
During my wanderings one day, I found a strange plant that had some odd caterpillars on them, hairless and having white, yellow, and black stripes around the body. I broke off part of the plant with the caterpillar and brought it home to mom. Never one to miss a chance to teach me something, mom found an old gallon pickle jar, punched a few holes in the lid, and put the caterpillar and its lunch in the jar. She then had me show her where I found the plant, and then we were off to the library. A while later we knew the plant was called Milkweed, and the caterpillar was a Monarch caterpillar.
We spent the summer raising that caterpillar, and after it became a Chrysalis, we watched it. Soon enough, it hatched into a butterfly, and we all stepped outside into the warm afternoon sun to let it go. As the new butterfly took wing and fluttered into the air, my mom saw a flock of birds flying toward us and was suddenly afraid that the little butterfly was about to fall prey to a hungry migrating bird. To our amazement, the flock of birds turned out to be a migrating flock of Monarchs, heading south for the winter, and our little guy was all too happy to join up and head out.
After that, in the spring we would watch for the Monarchs to return, and then start hunting the Milkweed patches for Monarch eggs and caterpillars. During the summers, our house was full of pickle jars, most with monarchs, but some with other butterflies and moths, like Sphinx, or Cecropia. Later on there would be tanks with tadpoles and crawdads. We also raised a chick into a chicken one summer (the dogs and cats left it alone, we had it trained to stay in the kitchen unless given permission to cross into the rest of the house, and it would delight in the mornings with picking the hairs out of my fathers toes as he drank his coffee). Another year we had two ducklings who never learned how to fly, but could do a mean hover when the dog was pissing them off (and the dog was always pissing them off because he loved to be chased by low flying ducks). But no matter what, we had the Monarchs.
When I was 10, my mom got herself licensed to do in-home daycare (up to 8 kids at a time), and I was her first little helper. I learned to change diapers, and how to hold and feed babies. I watched the kids, and helped out my mom, although not always exactly how she wanted me to help. Now mom was a firm believer in the “Work Smarter, Not Harder” Philosophy. Anyone who knows my mom will understand the truth of this when I ask you, “How many times have you done the dishes for my mom?” (mom hated doing the dishes). You knew you were a friend when you helped do the dishes. You were family when you didn’t need to be asked to help do the dishes, you just came over, and started washing the damn things.
So, when mom started her Home Daycare business, her first victim child was Matt. Matt was still in an infant, only 4 months old, and one day, during the summer, I was watching cartoons when mom walked into the room and laid Matt down on the Cedar Chest, then told me to come over and keep an eye on him while she went to get the diaper bag. What mom had failed to tell me that Matt was starting to learn how to roll over, and I decided that Matt was a baby, and not going anywhere, and my cartoons were on, so I turned back to the TV. A second later, I heard a thump, and I found Matt on the floor, screaming his head off.
Mom was NOT amused. I got quite the scolding about how I had to keep an eye on him, and be responsible, and follow instructions, and yadda yadda hey.
A few days later, Matt once again needed to be changed, and once again, I was watching cartoons, and once again, mom had to go get the diaper bag, and once again, I was told, in no uncertain terms, to make sure Matt did not roll off of the Cedar Chest and hurt himself on the floor. So mom left the room, and returned to find me lifting a giggling little baby out of the laundry basket of towels I had placed next to the Cedar Chest.
That was the first time I’d ever seen my mother at once furious with me, and very proud of me for finding a creative way around an instruction without breaking the spirit of it.
I did have to rewash the towels.
And every summer, the daycare kids got to raise Monarch Butterflies. This was a big deal, as the kids helped with all parts of the process, from finding the eggs to making sure the caterpillars had enough fresh food, to letting the butterflies go. On the days when the caterpillars were becoming Chrysalises, and the days when the butterflies were to emerge (mom could time it to within 12 hours for both events), mom would call all the parents and try to make a day of it so all the kids could watch it happen, even if that day was not their normal day, or if it was a weekend (mom would not charge them if the parent stayed). Juice, snacks, and transformational metamorphosis was the order of the day, and I shit you not, it didn’t matter if the kids were busy running around the house or yard screaming their fool heads off, if someone declared that a change was happening, the dining room table was instantly surrounded and the house was silent except for whispered ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’. Nothing holds a child’s attention like watching a living creature turn itself inside out and form a smooth green shell with a golden zipper, or watching the same shell, now transparent with the compressed butterfly inside, split open along that zipper and the new butterfly dry itself out and inflate its wings with fluid. And anyone who thinks children, small children (3 or 4 years old) are too uncontrollable has never seen those children hold stock still while a new butterfly crawled across their head or arm or chest.
And mom opened her daycare to all children, good or bad, healthy or disabled, as long as the parents were willing to work with her. My mom did not run a place for children to be deposited, she ran a place for children to learn. If a parent tried to tell mom how to run her daycare, that parent was asked to go elsewhere. There were tons of Legos, and Lincoln Logs, and Erector sets. Dolls and trucks and games and puzzles and doo-dads of all sorts were piled on shelves and in boxes all over the house. TV was only on for Sesame Street, or Mister Rogers (or later on, Barney) and the like, and only on rainy days. If the sun was out and it was warm enough, the kids were outside! Amazingly, the kids were never bored. There was always something to do, and mom always knew what every kid was up to (her hearing was uncanny). The dogs were always Shepherds, and they did their job with kids instead of sheep. We never had a fenced in yard, and we never had a kid wander into the street. If a kid left the play area, one of the dogs would try to body block them back into the yard. If the kid insisted, the dogs would start barking and an adult would investigate and rectify the situation.
And the kids worked. When mom determined they were able, she’d get them to help out around the house. Some kids set the table for lunch or snack time, others made sure the toys were put away properly, others kept an eye on the younger children. The kids would help with yard work and gardening and the care of critters great and small. Mom believed that if you gave a child responsibility, they would rise to the duty, and she was rarely ever proven wrong. And during the weekends and summers, my sister and I, along with our visiting cousins and a lot of our friends, became helpers in the day care. No one slept in past 0700, and no one just lazed about the house. And no one ever, and I mean EVER, uttered the words “I’m Bored” around my mom, because she always had a remedy at her disposal for idle hands.
She wasn’t a perfect mom, she had a temper and was tough as hell and not afraid to get physical with adults if it was warranted (I’ve watched her bring men twice her size to their knees through the judicious use of pain – nipples and testicles were not off limits in her mind), but she was a good mom. I may not have had a wealthy childhood, but it was one rich in all the experiences my parents could provide.
Mom ran that daycare until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Once her biopsy came back positive, my wife & I helped her get into the breast center at the UW. She had chemo, radiation, and a partial mastectomy, and made it five more years before the cancer came roaring back. She was gone within 6 months of it’s return. I delivered her eulogy & acted as Master of Ceremonies at her funeral (complete with a black bowler on my head, because no one could find a top hat). She was seen off by nearly every child who spent time in her care (many of whom I still keep in touch with), and by a community of educators who find her knowledge & experience with nature to be an asset.
I wish my mom could have known my son, I think… I know she would have loved his spirit of adventure & his sense of humor. The picture below would have made her heart leap with joy, especially if I told her that Bug was the first to touch the giant python & did not even hesitate when offered the chance.