With the approach of Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own mother, gone 16 years ago this month, how much I miss her, how much I regret the lost opportunities for moments as simple as a chat with her over a cup of coffee.
So, let me tell you a bit about my mother, Irene Lois Whale
Irene Lois Whale had an uneventful arrival in this world, in a Honolulu hospital in Hawaii, on May 22, 1929.
The baby was not home for long, however, when a man and woman showed up at her folks’ door. A husband and wife to claim her as the child they could not have, they informed my shocked grandmother.
Story was that her father, my grandfather, Fremon Paris Sprouse, then in the U.S. Navy, had bet his third child on the outcome of a card game in the Philippines — and lost. My grandmother said afterward that the only thing that saved his hide that day was she didn’t have a gun in the house.
My mother grew up working on the family apple orchard in Oroville in Eastern Washington. As children are apt to do, she knew how to embarrass her parents, including on the occasion when her mama brought her along to visit a neighbor.
“Ooh, look at the big man with the teeny little head!” my mother announced, turning her mother scarlet with embarrassment.
“Well,” my unrepentant mother said half a century later, “Amos Teague did have a teeny little head!”
My mother met George Whale one night at a dance at the Trianon Ballroom in Seattle in 1952. She was a nurse, then on affiliation with Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. He was in the U.S. Coast Guard out for a night on the dance floor, dressed in his best blues.
Her thought: “Looks stuck up.”
His thought: “Not much meat on her, but what’s there’s cherse,” borrowing a line from a Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn film.
He would later describe the slender, raven-haired beauty he’d met to an old Jewish man, sitting on a park bench in his native Maspeth in the New York City borough of Queens.
“Hmm,” said the old man, in a heavy Yiddish accent. “Sounds like a nice goil.”
Indeed, my mother was “a nice goil.” If she had one enemy in the world, I never met that person.
My parents were married in 1953. In two years time, they would move from their first abode in the Burlingame Hotel in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district to a home in a then-brand new neighborhood in north Auburn.
Shortly thereafter, we kids began to arrive — there would be six of us, born between 1955 and 1963. That collective load, she said, so sapped the calcium from her system she had to have all of her teeth pulled. She wore dentures the rest of her life.
Because my mother, the nurse, worked late at night, she had a tough time sleeping when the sun went down, so she snoozed in the afternoon. All of her kids — OK, those of us who misbehaved — retain vivid memories of her, rising at noon in toothless wrath, at the young hooligans who had disturbed her sleep.
Often in the wee hours of the morning we’d find her, sleepless, playing endless games of solitaire at the kitchen table.
I know my father underestimated her, but he figured out over time what everyone else already knew: he had married an extraordinary woman. For one thing, her skill as a nurse was top flight, and he would comment in genuine astonishment and admiration at the nightly transformation from wife and mother into this creature he called Nurse Whale.
“Shh, kids, there goes Nurse Whale,” he’d say in hushed tones as she made her way to the door.
There was the traumatic night in 1975 we lost my brother, Jim, to a car accident. Seeing what losing a child does to one’s parents is something I would not wish on anyone. But I was there the next day when the folks went out to select his coffin.
My mother returned from the funeral home, shattered, barely able to stand on her own with the sobbing that wracked her, she wailed “They’re going to close that lid on him, and I’ll never see him again!”
And perhaps most touching moment of all, at the conclusion of his funeral when the pallbearers were loading the casket into the hearse, she turned to my father in a daze, and said, “But…but that’s our baby!”
“I know, Rene, I know,” my father said, his arm around her, tears flooding his eyes.
On the lighter side, like every one of us on this planet, my mother had her quirks.
For one thing, she flat-out refused to set a record on the record player. Refused. No explanation. I never understood this. Perhaps at some time in the deep past, she had put a record on, expecting to hear The Beatles and got Englebert Humperdink instead. Hey, that would have traumatized me.
Whenever we asked her, “what’s for dinner,” she had a stockpile of ready answers. “Slop doodle,” she’d say. Or the ever reliable, “poison ickies.” It only occurred to me later that was her way of saying, “Go away, kid, you’re bothering me.”
On May 21, 2006, one day shy of her 77th birthday, we lost her to cancer. I was at her bedside with my father when she breathed her last.
I remember how in the preceding months, she related how she’d been at hand when a patient died on the operating table at Virginia Mason, before doctors revived the woman.
“It was so beautiful there.” she said, then declared in fury, “Now, I going to die again, and don’t you dare bring me back.” They honored her wish.
My mother referred to that incident, with hope in the afterlife often as her own time approached.
“That comforts me,” she said.
This all leads me back to that cup of coffee I talked about at the beginning of this column. What would it have cost? A buck or two?
Because the immutable truth is that all of the accumulated wealth in the universe that ever was or ever will be, culled from the moon, the stars and all the planets combined could not today buy me that simple cup of coffee with my mother and that chat.
Treasure your mamas while you’ve got ‘em folks. I miss mine every day.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.