Tribute to a
(I Remember Mom the Way She Used to Be)
By Carol Abbott, 1998
my wonderful mother-in-law, has always been my friend. From the first time I met
her, she made me feel like a welcome addition to her home. She was friendly without
being gushing and I felt comfortable with her. She has a really infectious smile and
always showed total interest in and complete acceptance of those she loves.
When I married her younger son in 1964, she asked me to call her
Mom. My own mother has always been "Mama" so it was easy for me to comply
and may have also cemented our continuing closeness. She wasn't THE Mother-In-Law---she was "Mom", and I was glad she was
My own Mother died when I was 25 years old. It was a
terrible thing to have to deal with her loss and adjust to life without her. Phyllis
couldn't have taken her place and wouldn't have tried to in any case, but thank heavens
she was there for me and in some practical ways she did fill the void left by my Mama's
death and I am grateful that I was lucky enough to have her to turn to for some motherly
advice,for by then we had two little girls of our own.
Boy, could Mom Abbott cook, and apparently loved to do it!
Big family dinners appeared effortless with the hardest thing being to find enough table
seating in their rather small house, over on Flora Avenue, for the 15, 20 or more
that were sometimes there for Thanksgiving or Christmas Day dinners. She always made
dinner rolls and caramel rolls from scratch for these dinners along with huge turkeys or
hams or sometimes both. All the usual fixin's like mashed potatoes, dressing and
gravy, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and pecan pies were served up to the family in that
little dining room and there were at least five different conversations going on at once
and lots of laughter and we all did our best to catch up on the latest going ons in each
Eventually she taught me how to make wonderful, crusty, yeasty
bread as well as other things. Just watching her and "helping out" in the
kitchen, while we cooked (and talked) was an education on how to cook. She loved to
try new recipes and she cooked with wine and other interesting ingredients, that no one in
my family seemed to know about. One memorable New Years Eve, it was Phyllis who
introduced me to steak tartar and her husband (my father-in-law) and mine (her son) made
what they thought were cutting remarks about mooing and so forth and of course, wouldn't
touch the stuff. But I not only tried it, I found it good, if somewhat exotic,
portioned out on little toast rounds with finely minced onion. I've only had it one
other time since then (at a restaurant) and didn't think it even half as good as what
Phyllis made that night.
All her life, Phyllis has been generous
with her time and talents. When John and I moved from our apartment to a house,
Phyllis and Bryce came over to help with the packing. It seemed, to me, to be such a
daunting task and really had me stymied but Phyllis started unloading kitchen cabinets
into boxes and using just enough newspaper to cushion things so they'd make it across town
and voila....it was done. She was up and down the apartment steps at least six times
for every trip that her pregnant daughter-in-law managed. Pillows and bedding; the
contents of our bathroom medicine cabinet; all the hanging clothes in both the
closets plus the shoes on the floor and the extra wedding gifts we had put away for later;
the miscellany from the built-in desk that I had loved and hated to leave; all
neatly, efficiently and orderly packed, labeled and stacked by the door waiting for John
and Dad to carry it all down to the truck. It was Mom doing what we all counted on
Mom to do for us.
I've thought of that moving day many times
over the years and said (with conviction) that I might still be trying to get the first
box packed just right, if it hadn't been for Mom just coming in and getting it done!
Mom's talents weren't reserved just for
her own family though. At various times over the years, she cooked meals for some of the
groups that met at her parish hall. Once, I helped her make a specialty of mine, called
mint dessert, for 75 senior citizens. Instead of one 7 X 11 inch pan, which was what my
recipe made, we calculated enough ingredients to make eight times as much. It didn't phase
Mom to do so and I just went along for the ride, running the big, industrial size mixer to
whip the cream, and we had a real ball in the kitchen at the church center and laughed all
Mom also went to adult education classes
and taught several people how to read English. Some of these women became friends of long
standing in Mom's life, long after the lessons were finished.
I can say with honesty, that my Mother-in-Law wasn't an
interfering one. She would pitch in and DO
ANYTHING that you asked her to help out with but
she generally waited to be asked. In my case, I told her very early on that I loved
her help and she should just do what ever she was moved to do. Housekeeping and I
have never been on really friendly terms and I sure didn't take offense if Mom did the
dishes or ran the vacuum when she would be in the house to watch the girls for us while we
went out for an evening. She always respected our right to handle our lives and
raise our children the way we felt was correct. We were on very comfortable terms,
where I knew she wouldn't take offense if I told her what I was really thinking. If
something was bothering me about an action of Mom's, I just said what was on my mind and
that was fine with her. I learned all kinds of things from her from baking bread to
how to pack for a camping trip.
grandchildren----came first. She loved us all and indulged us as much as she was
able. From the time that our daughters were tiny, they had Mom wrapped around their
little fingers. But Grandma's concessions never crossed the line into out and out
spoiling. She set limits that were tempered with love and the desire for her darling
grandchildren to live up to her expectations for them. They thrived on that totally
accepting attitude. Oh how they loved to visit Grandma's house and especially stay
overnight or even for several days at a time if they could swing it with Mommy and Daddy.
Mom loved to go shopping and someplace for lunch.
When you have two little kids, it can be very hard to find someone who will go shopping
and to lunch with you to anyplace fancier than McDonalds. It didn't discourage Mom
though. We went to some really nice restaurants and had some great times, even
though it sometimes got hectic. It's interesting to observe that the girls were, on
the whole, very well behaved and seemed to enjoy the experience as much as Mom and I did.
Both of our girls were very sad when Grandma and Grandpa moved to
Montana shortly after Bryce retired in the early 70's. It was hard for me too, as we
had enjoyed so many hours in each other's company and I had always been able to count on
her for everything from baby sitting to advice on cooking, washing windows and planting
tomatoes (fertilize with sheep manure)---not to mention her loving friendship and
Over the next twenty some years, Mom was a
constant positive presence in our lives. We kept in touch by phone and saw her about
twice a year. When the Montana winter would begin, she and Dad would take the travel
trailer south and start the visiting. They would come for several weeks at a time
and we'd pick up pretty much in the same place as we left off from the previous
visit. Family is "family" is family. She was part of the
glue,keeping the family together and in touch with each other.----Her apron strings
stretching as much as need be to always be there for all of us when we needed help---(she
and Dad, too). Sometimes for help to deal with a move, an illness, a change in our life of
any kind...we knew we could always call on their assistance and support and they would be
there for us.
After Dad died, she settled slowly into a rhythm (without him)
that included a great circle of friends and relatives in Montana. She stayed busy
with Senior Citizens club and, more importantly, her Church, which was a constant
consolation through out her whole life. She didn't visit us quite so often and spent
an occasional winter at home in Montana. We still kept in touch by phone and she
wrote long and rambling letters and complained that we didn't write back very often.
When the letters didn't make as much sense as they should, we
said ( "Well, you know Mom, she is always too busy to fuss much with
details"-----"She never was much good at spelling"-----"Wow, Mom's
getting a little weird"-----"Well she is 75 years old, you know").
Then we got a disturbing letter from one of her doctors saying she needed a
conservator. We all took great offense to it, saying Mom's fine, just getting older
but probably has more on the ball than that stupid doctor does.
Her older daughter had occasion to spend several months with her
and the closer observation led us to the conclusion that Mom probably did need to give up
her house and move to a retirement community. With plenty of gentle pushing from her
kids, grand kids and sisters, that is what she did. By process of elimination, as to
where she would and would not live, she decided to move back to Missouri to be near her
sons and some of her grandchildren.
When we were planning the move, I was so
excited that after so many years, I'd have a chance to resume the friendship part of my
relationship with my MOM-in law. I anticipated shopping and lunch out like days of
old, but with no baby wipes. Being a mere 10 minutes away by car, she would probably
just pop in frequently to spend time with us,or bring over homemade bread or a pot of bean
soup and corn bread, at least until she built her net work of church friends, card playing
and dancing buddies at the retirement community. Her family really thought that this
was Mom's best solution for continuing to have her independent life and still not have as
many responsibilities on her shoulders. If, at some time in the distant future, she
no longer wanted to maintain and drive a car, there would be lots of family to drive her
to do errands and, of course, the retirement community buses ran at all times to grocery
stores, shopping malls and the church, so she really wouldn't ever feel like she had to
rely on us, if she didn't "want to burden us."
The first days we were together, when we drove up to help with
the packing and moving, Mom seemed upset most of the time, disoriented, almost angry with
us, as we tried to help her sort through 25 years of home making, linens, kitchen
equipment galore...She had been living in a three bedroom house, with garage and storage
space for too many years and the attempt to pare down to a one bedroom apartment with a
small efficiency kitchen and a storage bin about 4 ft by 3 ft by 3 ft.----Well, This move
is hard enough on her. (we thought) Just go ahead and pack what she can't stand to part
with and she will make the adjustment on he own, once she is moved in.---- It will be
better once she can settle into the apartment she had chosen, get her own furniture and
things around her again---- Why does she seems so confused? Maybe we should check with her
new doctor about why she still is experiencing so much pain in her neck from the hard bump
on her head that she suffered last spring.
Her doctor said after some extensive tests, that she had injured
a vertebra at the top of her spine. Once that is healed, the pain will subside and
otherwise her health is very good for a woman of 78, is what we were told.
I need to go ahead and let
the other shoe drop in this account and explain why I titled the piece "the way she
was". Sadly and undeniably, our MOM is a victim of Alzheimer disease. The
beautiful, cheerful, go-getter who loves God and her faith, who adores her family and
would do anything to help out her friends, who traveled many thousands of miles to
destinations as divergent as a cruise in Alaska, sight-seeing trips to Germany and France,
camping trips too numerous to count all over the U.S. and parts of Canada, who loves
purple and can't resist buying any item of clothing in that color range, is nearly
gone except in the memories of her devastated children, grandchildren, brothers and
sisters and her old friends.
I could tell all the details leading up to this diagnosis. I could tell of our
worried discussions with staff; our experiences in witnessing little signs of
decline...she forgot to eat...she didn't remember how to get home from the store...did she
take her medication...is she missing dosages or taking too many?; of one way
conversations, with little or no comprehension on Phyllis' part; of her older son taking
her car keys from her and all of us having to endure her anger and confusion regarding how
this came about; and ultimately of her family's decision to move her, without even
consulting her, from her "independent living" apartment to the Alzheimer unit
behind locked doors. I would fill pages and pages and nothing would make these last
two years any easier to understand or accept.
Rather, I want to give voice to my admiration for this
extraordinary woman. Known in the most "ordinary" circumstances of just an
everyday life. I cherish my memories of this lovely, vital, fun
lady................And I'll keep in mind, always, MOM as she used to be.