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All About My Mother


My mother Barbara died a year agoon April 8th, 2017. By the measure of the world, she lived a small life. She died twenty miles away from where she was born and she was unknown outside the small circle of her friends and family. But I believe (along with George Eliot, whom I quote here) that "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life." Things are not so ill with me; things are great with me, in fact, and I owe much of that to the lucky circumstance that I had one parentmy motherwho lived her whole life quietly and purposefully focused on doing a thing she did best: being a mother.

She was born in southern Colorado, the second of three girls, in the early 1930s. The Great Depression was fully underway; the family was poor but getting by. Her mother's people were Colorado pioneers, having settled in the San Luis Valley in the 1880s and survived on farming and various trades since then. Her father Fred was a recent arrival from western Kentucky. He had been raised on the myths of the American West and came to Colorado to experience them as a young man. 
As the Depression deepened, he found no work, and his dream of being a carefree cowboy was soon pretty well shattered by his being the father of two infant girls. 
He imagined that he could find a better situation for himself back in Kentucky, among his own people. So he loaded up the wife and the two girls (my mother was three years old) and headed back East.

It didn't go so well back East. Fred didn't find work, and his people were doing no better than anyone else. The family had no furniture, and little food. A third child came along, another girl, and all were hungry. The Colorado family decided that the situation in Kentucky was too precarious for three little girls. My mother's grandfather and uncles pooled their resources for a road trip to Kentucky, collected the girls and their mother, and brought them back to Colorado. That was the last that my mother saw of her father for 40 years.

Back in Colorado, everything got better. The extended family leased railroad land further up the Rio Grande to begin a major undertaking: the building of a dude ranch. My Mom spent her childhood and adolescence in this enterprise in which three generations worked together to build the Cottonwood Cove Lodge and its surrounding cabins at Wagon Wheel Gap, Colorado. The disused Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad depot, just a short walk up the tracks from the site of the lodge, became the family home for my mom, her mother, and her sisters. In the beginning it had neither plumbing nor running water, but they made improvements as they could. 

Mom was the second eldest of nine children (eight girls, one boy) in the extended family of her generation that either lived at or frequented Wagon Wheel Gap; a good part of her adolescence was spent babysitting for her youngest cousins while the adults were all busy getting Cottonwood Cove up and running. Of all the children at the Gap, she was the only redhead, and for that reason her grandfather unaccountably disfavored her. She absorbed the idea early on that she was unattractive and she never got over it, despite what everyone else thought. She always wore makeup and until very late in life, never wanted anyone outside the family to see her without her "face".

Mom graduated at the head of her class (of four) from Creede High School in 1951. She was offered a college scholarship but she turned it down because she was already married. Her wedding to my father took place in March of 1951, two months before she graduated. My father was perhaps the most eligible bachelor in town; good-looking, a decorated Army Air Corps pilot in the recent war, and the first son of Lillian Hargraves, proprietor of the Creede Hotel, which he helped her manage. Despite the age gap (he was 31, she was a week shy of 18), everyone thought it was a good match for her.

My father soon grew restless and imagined something grander for himself than being a small-town hotelier. After their first child, a boy, was born in 1952, he moved the small family to Denver, where I was born soon after. His work took the family to Chicago, where my younger brother was born in 1956. After this, we went back to Denver and settled into a house in Golden, on the edge of Lakewood.

By the end of the 1950s, the marriage was on the rocks. As a child of six, I didn't know the details; I only knew that my father was rarely home (he traveled for work and spent many evenings out), and when he was home, he made my mother cry. Theirs wasn't the only marriage on the rocks: around this time my father had begun an affair with a married woman. My parents' divorce followed soon after and Dad married the woman he had been seeing after a suicide took out the husband in that marriage. My father, now a new stepfather of five, stayed in Denver with his new wife and family. My mother, with custody of her three sons, went to the only place that had been home for her: back to Creede, where some of her extended family still lived, as well as her now ex mother- and brother-in-law.

The common wisdom is that divorce is hard on children. That was not my experience. I had tried all the ways I knew to form a bond with my father and none of them worked. He made my mother unhappy, and I did not enjoy being around him. So a life away from him and with my mother was the best world imaginable. And in many ways, that's what it became. We settled into Creede in a small rented house. My mother, using money from the divorce settlement, rented a storefront and opened up a dry goods store. We were surrounded by extended family on both sides, and very soon we became a part of the big family of 300 people that was the town of Creede in the early 1960s.

A couple of years into our life in Creede, Mom made, even by her own admission, the two biggest mistakes of her life, in quick succession. She got pregnant, and then she married the guy. The guy was Dick Robinson, who at the time could probably best be described as an exotic drifter. He kept a small menagerie of wild animals that he planned to use in films he would make: a mountain lion, a bear, a couple of deer. These took up residence in a fenced enclosure in our back yard when Mom began seeing him. One summer while us boys were visiting our father in Denver, Mom and Dick went on a road trip, and when they came back, they were married.

Mom only talked about Dick when you asked her and she didn't say much. I don't know why she got involved with him, other than from loneliness. He was charming and interesting, and appeared to be solvent: the town of Creede did not offer anything in that line that wasn't already taken. I'm sure she had misgivings from early on because Dick never really settled in Creede. He took off for Arizona, where he was going to find a place for us all to live. We met him in Albuquerque one Christmas and reunited him with his dog Sparky, who had been living with us in Creede. After that, he drove away, hauling a flatbed trailer with his caged animals behind him, and we never saw him again. Mom later divorced him on the grounds of abandonment.

Dick's son Brian was born in 1963. By this time, Creede Dry Goods had gone belly-up; there wasn't a way to make such a place profitable in a town of 300, even before the era of strip malls and Wal-Marts. So here we were, a single-parent family of five with no income. My father, overwhelmed now as the stepfather of five and father once more to a son he had with his new wife, was not paying my Mom alimony or child support. But for the help of the extended family that surrounded us, we would have been destitute. We moved into a smaller house with two bedrooms. Mom and the new baby slept in one, and we three boys in the other. We got some hand-me-down clothes from my Mom's cousin who was not much older than us. No one was ever hungry. Mom cooked simple but delicious food: ham hocks and pinto beans, mac and cheese, creamed chipped beef on toast, eggs à la goldenrod. I have all the recipes but they don't taste like they did when she made them. There was elk and venison given us by local hunters, and we took our school lunches and Sunday dinners at my grandmother's hotel. 

There were really no jobs in Creede, especially jobs for women: most of the men worked in the mines, most of the women were their mothers, housewives, or widows. For lack of other options, Mom soon went to work for her ex-in-laws, tending bar at the Creede Hotel. After a time we also moved into a bigger house that my grandmother owned, at a heavily subsidized rent. It was surely awkward and perhaps humiliating for Mom to be working for and beholden to her former in-laws, but to their credit, I don't think they ever made her feel that way.
They had an interest in our well-being too, and they were aware that my father was failing in his responsibilities to us. The new arrangement was a great deal for us all. Mom worked in the hotel by day, only a one-minute walk from our house, and we three older boys
13, 12, and 9 by thenlearned how to cook, iron, sew, clean, and babysit: skills that have served us all of our lives. In the busy summers, we also got lots of good experience washing dishes and helping at the hotel.

In 1966 Mom married the man she would be with for the rest of her life, Tom Magness. It's not accurate to say she met him around this time because she'd known him since childhood: he was a year ahead of her in school and had been a classmate of her older sister, long ago. Tom was 35 and she was 34 when they married. Until then, he had been living with his parents in Monte Vista, 50 miles downriver from Creede. He had a good job as a lineman for the co-op that supplied electricity to all of the San Luis Valley and to Creede as well. They were married quietly in Durango in a small private ceremony, with only some of Tom's family members present.

In the summer of 1967 we moved to Monte Vista. It was a challenging transition for all, perhaps most of all for Tom, who went from being a bachelor to a husband and father figure for four boys, aged four to fifteen. After a few months of renting, Tom bought a house comfortably big enough for all of us. Mom worked full-time at the Valley Gas Company as a bookkeeper; she had years of debt to dispatch from our time in Creede. But this was the beginning of the life that she had always wanted and now it didn't seem to matter that she had not found it till her third marriage.  

All of us boys fledged early, pretty much as soon as we could. The spirit of independence that Mom had instilled in each of us, as well as the skills to shift for ourselves, made us all eager to try out the world on our own. Mom finally quit working in the 1980s, with only her youngest still at home, and she took more and more time for what had always been her passion and vocation: art. Even as a child she had excelled at drawing. When she was still married to my father, she designed and created clothes for paper dolls. The whole collection of these sold for $800 on eBay in the early 2000s, after a frenzied bidding war. For years she made her own Christmas cards using construction paper and pastels, and copying the pictures from the cards she'd received the year before. She could turn her hand to any medium and she went through phases of charcoal, line drawing, and watercolor as well as pastel, but she settled on yarn in her forties and stuck with it the rest of her life.
She made pictures that she copied from photographs, drawings, or paintings. Scenes from nature inspired her the most, but she also did yarn pictures of animals, still lifes, even household objects. She found inspiration everywhere; the desert scenes in the photo above were copied from an old tapestry that Brian had dragged in from the alley; the one below she copied from a kitschy four-panel wall decoration that was already hanging in a house that she and Tom bought in Monte Vista.  She called the pictures "stitcheries" and there was always one in progress in the work basket beside her chair.
 A few times she made half-hearted attempts to sell her work, but there is not much of a market for art in a farming town of 4,000, and commercial success never interested her muchthe reward was in the work itself. Her many creations are now distributed among friends and family.

Tom retired at 62 as the operations manager of the electric co-op he had worked for all his life. He had a good retirement income and the two of them traveled widely: Mexico, Alaska, Italy, the UK, Australia, and various US destinations to visit her children, her sisters, her long-estranged father, and other family and friends. They had the means, but never the inclination, to settle in a place that offered more than Monte Vista. It had been home to both of them for the best part of their lives, and the longer they stayed, the more comfortable they were. I think Mom's only regret about it was living so far from her children, and eventually, her grandchildren. The independence and self-confidence that she had planted so successfully in all of us meant that we all chose our very different lives far away from where we grew up. On her refrigerator door, along with all of the cards, photos, articles, and drawings we sent her over the years, she put the lyrics of Emmy Lou Harris's song "Calling My Children Home." It's a beautiful song, but still hard for me to listen to.

When she was approaching her mid-70s, Mom began to show signs of dementia. It was a surprise to us all: she had a grandmother whose mind was still crystal clear at age 103 when she died, and that was the model we all expected Mom would follow, but there we were wrong. Every family who has been down this hard road knows the details and I won't recount them here. The essential facts are that it only gets worse, you know it will only get worse, and you prepare yourself as well as you can for how bad it might get. 

In 2012 I was lucky enough to find some gigs back in Colorado, and after my many years of wandering (age 16 to 58), I came home. I spent the first summer near Mom and Tom in Pagosa Springs and saw them every week. Starting in the fall of 2012 when I moved to Boulder, I spent one weekend a month with them in Monte Vista. It is one of the greatest fortunes of my life that I got to spend so much quality time with my Mom in her last years, more time than I had had with her since I was a boy. 

In 2014, Tom reached the limit of his ability to take care of Mom at home. She didn't eat properly, wouldn't bathe, kept odd hours, and was often up in the middle of the night. All of the things that had given her the greatest happinessdoing her art, keeping a clean house, cooking, staying in touch with her children via letters and telephonerequired skills that had dropped away, and her self-confidence and spirits were pretty low. We moved her into assisted living in nearby Alamosa that summer. I continued to spend a weekend a month with her, camping on the floor of her apartment. Her mind slipped more and more, sometimes noticeably from one visit to the next, but she always knew who I was and she never stopped being a Mom, and doing Mom things: asking if I had enough light to read, if I was comfortable enough on the floor, if I was still hungry and would I like some more food. 

On the Ides of March in 2017, Mom fell in her room and broke her hip. Three hellish days followed: sedation and surgery, followed by a recovery period in which she had an IV drip. Because of her dementia, she couldn't understand what had happened, where she was, and why the tubes were in her arm. After pulling them out, and trying to get up out of the bed and wander off, they had to tie her down. It was a harrowing time for her, but she was still lucid enough to know when her husband, my brother, or I was there, and we were able to offer a little comfort.

On one of those days I sat with her from morning to night, trying to keep her engaged and keep her spirits up. It was trying for both of us, but her vitals improved gradually and in the late afternoon the nurses decided they could remove the drip. With that out of the way and her restraints off, I loaded her up in the wheelchair and we went outside. It was a beautiful, warm spring afternoon, and such a relief for both of us to have a refreshing change of scenery. She sat in the chair, wrapped in a white blanket, and I sat on the curb beside her. We made some small talkthat's the only kind she could make anymorebut mostly we just sat and looked around, soaking up the good vibes of the clement weather and our love for each other. I felt acutely, for the first time, how near she was to the end of her road. Somehow the whole trajectory of our 63 years together felt present, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I had been able to share such a long journey with her, and that we could still be here together, enjoying each other's company. I looked at her often in this silence and whenever I did, she gave me the most beautiful smile. All she had been through in those three days, in the ten years of her increasing dementia, even in the 83 years of her challenging lifethat was not here now. We were here now.

When the hospital could release her, Mom needed a level of care that the assisted living facility didn't offer and she was moved to a nursing home. Something in her knew that this was her place of no return, and she transitioned to a much lower level of connecting with her surroundings. We all still went to see her, but we couldn't engage her much. She would be present for a moment or two, but then she would return to the one thing that now captivated all of her attention: a little girl baby doll, almost life-size, that one of the aides at the assisted living had given her. Of course a part of her knew that it was only a doll, but she was not playing with it; she was mothering it. 

In the late 1950s, my father compelled Mom to get two backstreet abortionsafter my younger brother was born, and before they divorced. I did not learn about this till the 1990s. It was horrifying to me, and I can understand that she never wanted to talk about it before; it was surely more horrifying for her. Learning about it enabled me to make sense of a vivid memory I had from my childhood in Golden that I had never understood. Mom and Dad were in the bathroom, with the door open only a small crack. I could see Mom sitting on the toilet and her face was very red. She was crying hysterically, inconsolably, and Dad was remonstrating with her. I didn't understand anything of what they were saying but I knew that something terrible had happened, something so terrible that we could not know about it. 

I think the devoted attention that Mom had for the baby doll at the end of her life was her last bit of unfinished businessperhaps a way for her to reconnect with the comfort and joy that her four baby boys had brought, and to ease the pain that she had not found a remedy for earlier in her life, from those two babies who didn't make it to the finish line.

One afternoon three weeks and three days after she broke her hip, Mom slipped away quietly in her bed. Tom had looked in on her that morning but finding her asleep, he did not disturb her. Nothing prepares you for the moment when you learn that your mother has died. I chastised myself for a few days for not being there, not being sensitive to the fact that she was that near the end. But before long, a new perspective prevailed, and I appreciated that she didn't need me, or anyone there with her, to die. She was finished with life and all that it had offered her. It was rich and full for her while it lasted, and it lasted as long as it needed to.

Now a year after she passed, I can't say that I think about her every day, or that I miss her every day. I miss her when something arrives at my senses that reminds me of her, and then I miss her terribly, like I did the day I learned that she was gone. But that wave passes, and in its place is the abiding memory of the beautiful life we had together, and the beautiful effect she had on everything that she touched. My gratitude and love for her are unbounded. Every good thing in my life has grown from a seed that she planted or nourished. No one will ever believe in me the way that she did and no one should. It was her gift to me, one of the many blessings I have enjoyed and still enjoy in being her son.


© 2018 by Orin Hargraves. All rights reserved.

















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