Hope for the best, expect the worst, and try not to be disappointed. My mother’s life philosophy was actually pretty upbeat for a kid whose family lost everything during The Great Depression, including her father, who died of Brain Fever when she was only eight. Grandma Rhea supported her children by sewing and taking in wash. My mom shared a bed with Grandma, so they could rent out her room to make ends meet. But they didn’t always quite make it. In the freezing Detroit winters, they nailed blankets over the windows because they couldn’t afford coal to heat the house.
Their only book was the family bible. But Mom found a copy of Alice in Wonderland in a box of textbooks left by a renter. She read it cover to cover. As soon as she finished, she turned back to the first page and started over. She had discovered her passion and her escape–in books.
Mom was the first in her family to attend college, working her way through by reading to blind students. A person of quiet, if impractical passions, Mom passed on normal school and secretarial school to study Classical Greek and Latin, French, German, and Russian. Italian, too, but she said that hardly counted. “After Latin,” Mom said, “Italian is a snap.”
I remember going home from college to visit one weekend. There were index cards by Mom’s reading chair, on the kitchen windowsill, on the nightstand by her bed. They had strange writing on them.
“It’s Greek,” she explained. “Passages from The Iliad, by Homer.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m memorizing it,” she said.
“For fun, dear. After I’ve memorized The Iliad, I’m going to memorize The Odyssey.”
As a young college grad, she had never shown any interest in men, and was still living at home while working for the War Department. Grandma planned on having a spinster daughter to keep her company in her old age, unaware that Mom had already promised herself she would move out and find a place of her own by her 25th birthday, if she hadn’t gotten married by then. Mom just hadn’t met her intellectual equal. Then Harry Baltuck came along.
He was handsome, funny, brilliant; every woman in the office had her eye on him. But he had eyes only for Mom. She was so nervous on their first date that she threw up in his car. Actually, she threw up every time they went out. “But he kept coming back,” she said, laughing.
He was intrigued, and not just because she was determined to remain a virgin until her wedding night. It was a very quick courtship.
His proposal wasn’t exactly story book. “Well, what if we made it legal?” he asked.
“Would you wear a ring?” she countered. And the rest is family history.
They traveled many peaks and valleys in their time. They had seven children and eighteen years together. She was still young when widowed, and Mom received several proposals from Daddy’s friends and army buddies; some decent and well-intended, others not so much. But Mom didn’t take anyone up on his offer. She never remarried, or even dated. Books, once again, became her passion and her escape.
In 1989, I sat at her bedside as she lay dying of cancer. It had been a long hard battle. Mom looked up and caught her breath. “Harry,” she whispered.
“What did you say, Mom?” I asked.
“Harry!” She pointed toward the door, but I saw nothing there.
“Mom, do you see someone?”
“It’s Harry,” she said, nodding. “He’s standing right there.”
Was it the delusion of a dying woman? Or the love of her life, who had been patiently waiting for twenty-five years to take her home?
Let’s hope for the best. Just like Mom always said, you have to hope for the best.
All images and words c2012 Naomi Baltuck