Mind Over Miller: Honoring my mother
This column originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of Veterinary Medicine.
Mother's Day is a beautiful holiday. It was established as a national holiday in 1914 and is observed in several other countries. My mother has been gone for many years now. But as I age, I find that she is on my mind more frequently, and I realize how profoundly she shaped my life.
Her parents were born in Europe in that disputed piece of territory known as the Danzig Corridor, between Poland and Germany. Her mother—my grandmother—was sold as an indentured servant to a prosperous family at the age of 12. She was freed from this virtual slavery when, at the age of 16, she married my grandfather, who owned one hectare of land, one horse, and one cow.
My grandparents had three children—a son and two daughters. Eventually, they escaped the feudal life by immigrating to the United States, where, beginning again at the age of 40, my grandmother had three more daughters—my mother was the middle one. The older sisters raised their younger siblings while my maternal grandparents worked from dawn to dark. My grandparents were unable to communicate with their three youngest children because the children spoke English only, which they learned in school.
My mother attended high school for two years before she had to quit to work full-time to help support her poverty-stricken family. She worked until her early 20s when she married my father and became a full-time stay-at-home wife and mother. Once we children had left home, she went back to work full-time.
My mother was fiercely patriotic. She revered our flag, and I was brought up to respect it and display it on national holidays. My mother was devastated when her handsome older cousin Mike was killed in France in World War I. He was a machine gunner and was hit by a German artillery shell. An arm was all they ever found of him. It must have frightened my mother terribly when I was made a machine gunner in World War II.
I had no religious upbringing, but I recall my mother repeatedly admonishing, "The Ten Commandments, that's all you need. Obey them, and you'll lead a good life. And treat other people the way you want to be treated." I heard that over and over again.
If I ever whined or complained, I was told, "Life ain't a bowl of cherries, sonny. You have to expect it to be rough." All of this, of course, was when I was a boy, during the Great Depression. Times were different then.
My most vivid memory of my mother is of her doing the week's wash on Monday mornings. With a kerchief tied around her head to keep the sweat out of her eyes, she knelt on the floor before the washtub, scrubbing clothes on a washboard—I still remember the big, brown cakes of soap. Then the laundry was hung out to dry on a clothesline while I played with the clothespins. My mother was middle-aged before she knew the luxury of a washing machine.
Another vivid childhood memory is from when I was 6 and contracted pneumonia. The family doctor came by every day (the house calls cost $3, but I remember the price dropping to $2 after a couple of visits). There were no intravenous fluids or antibiotics. One day, the doctor told my mother that the crisis that would determine if I lived or died was near. I was delirious at this time and unaware of my surroundings. Then, in the middle of the night, my fever broke, and I became conscious. In the dark, I saw a figure sitting by my bed. I remember screaming because it frightened me. Then, I heard Mom's voice. It was she, sitting vigil next to her dying son. "It's all right," I heard her say. "It's all right. You're going to be OK."
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at http://www.robertmmiller.com/ .