Where I Came From

My mother was descended from English and Scotch- Irish stock who bravely came to this continent early on to forge a new life. My grandparents four generations back were Scotch- Irish who married in Dublin, then got up from their wedding dinner to board a ship bound for America. After a horrendous crossing on rough seas with much illness on board,  James Bradley and his bride, Jane McField, arrived in Maryland in 1791. In 1815, James Bradley bought  400 acres in Venango Co., Pennsylvania, an area later to become known as Bradleytown.

Some of my Irish ancestors: my great-grandfather, William Bradley and family

The English ancestors date even further back, one Edward Bonpasse (later Bumpas) having arrived in 1621 on the ship Fortune. You will find him mentioned in The History of Plimouth Colony. Beyond that he lived in the Plymouth colony, I know little of him as a man.

On my father’s side, we were British (Smythe) and German (Ghering). Many Germans had immigrated to Pennsylvania and became farmers and craftsmen.

My mother Kathryn about 8 years old

My mother was a gentle person with soft blue-grey eyes and a tender heart for those in need. My mother’s mother, Leah, whom I am named after,endured a slow and terrible death from uterine cancer. My mother, Kathryn Bell, was barely 14 when she was called to the bedside to say goodbye. Her mother,  skin clammy and pale, lay under a homespun coverlet in a big brass bed. Kathryn lay beside her for a moment.

“Kathryn, always be a good girl. Promise me now. I know you will.” In her adolescent mind, Kathryn had only a vague idea of what a “bad girl” did. But she promised and then moved to let her 10-year-old brother take her place. She didn’t leave the room, but drew her knees to her chest, making her body into a compact ball that neatly fit beside the dresser. And there she sat as the women came into the room to wash the body and prepare it for the undertaker. She saw the long braid of her mother’s hair whip to one side as they turned the body over.

Suddenly one of the women espied her and shouted, “What are you doing here?” “Get out of here right now!” She leapt up and ran out of the room, down the stairs and out the back door, the screen slamming behind her. She ran even when the sharp pain pierced her side and she felt as if she couldn’t breathe.

When her father remarried just six months later, it was a marriage of convenience for a man who needed someone to cook and care for the home. He chose his wife’s elder sister, Clare Baggot, a heavy-set woman known for her fabulous pies. She was a widow with two grown daughters. Everyone applauded the union as they assumed she would care for the three motherless children.

Leah holding baby, Clare above her to the right  (Grandpa with the bow tie)

Things didn’t quite turn out that way as her main business was running a popular diner at Coefield Corners, at the foot of Bleakley Hill. This kept her  busy every day but Sunday. Kathryn’s older sister Audrey was an honors student who played the violin and studied Latin to prepare for college  so it fell to my mother to make the beds, do the laundry and look after her younger  brother.

Coefield Corners with Baggott’s DIner at far left ( sedan to left is a 1936 Plymouth, the other a 1936 Chevrolet)

Perhaps her unhappiness at home led her to  elope at seventeen with a member of the basketball team. My father had a reputation for being “fast.” Though a high school senior, he made spending money as a sparring partner in some boxing matches up in Oil City. He liked to dress snazzy and act cocky. An only child, his parents had indulged him, allowing him to do as he pleased.

Just two months before high school graduation, they  drove to the next county, Clarion PA, where no one knew them. The sleepy justice of the peace woke his sleepier wife to witness the vows. Both of them felt sorry for this all-too-young couple whom they figured needed to get married in a hurry. This was not the case however. Their first child, a healthy squalling boy, was born eleven months later.

The marriage was an unfortunate one for my mother. My father, Weston, was soon off to college, took up golf to improve a weak chest condition and began to be interested in other girls. He was popular on campus and the girls thought he looked a bit like Clark Gable with his slicked-backed, black hair and rakish moustache.

My parents were married twice. Both times to the same person. Whenever they fought, I recall my mother berating herself for “making the same mistake twice.”

When they divorced, Mother was only 26. She rented a small house on the back of someone’s property for $25 a month. It was wartime and many women were working in factories. She took a job painting fence posts. She had two little boys, the older, seven and the other not yet two and still in diapers.

Mother had been staying with her parents. Glad to have them move out, her stepmother Clare had loaned her the first month’s rent. Money was so tight that she couldn’t pay it back. In fact, she never did and in later life it galled her that she was still indebted to a long-dead stepmother.

After a few months,  a kind neighbor helped her to get an office job at the Joy Manufacturing Co. It was cleaner work and paid better. Mother’s older sister, Audrey, had been mortified that Kay was working in a factory alongside men. She was glad that Kay now had a “decent” job.

For Kay, it was good to be out of the house and working, supporting herself. Her neighbor kept the baby while she was working.  Things were lively at work. One day at lunch, the company clown entertained everyone by swallowing 2 live goldfish!

Although she was lonely, she didn’t date anyone else. it was a small town and people talked.  Being a divorced woman was enough to excite gossip in itself. One New Year’s Eve, she was invited to a party. She had bathed, fixed her hair and put on her make-up. She was all ready but her dress. But the drain in the toilet backed up. She had to go down to the basement wearing only her black lingerie and slip . When she attempted to open the drain, a pipe above her came apart and showered her with filth from the top of her head.

Raising kids alone

I don’t know what Mother did that evening but as I remember she always made the best of things. She was fun to be around, unlike Dad who would scold us if we laughed too hard. “That’s enough of that foolishness!” he’d declare, which quickly put the damper on things.

One evening,  my brother Phil and a couple friends were at the house and Mother offered them a piece of homemade chocolate. They were about seventh graders, I suppose. When they bit into the chocolate, they made awful faces as it was simply squares of Ivory soap dipped in chocolate!  “April Fools!”, she shouted. Looking back, it surprises me to think she actually did that.

Kay was always a good sport! I loved to be with her!

When we are young we don’t think of our parents as individuals having their own inner life and sexuality. We only think of them being there for us, for our own needs: cooking, nursing us through a high fever, driving us to school or occasionally making time to sit down and play a game with us. Whenever she did that, she’d say,”It’s got to be something simple if I’m going to play!” Oh, how we loved to have her play dominoes or Old Maid with us!

Steve and I with cousin Ann

One doctor had insisted she have all her teeth pulled as it was the cause of some ailment or other. So she only had a cheap pair of false teeth she’d had made over in Oil City and they hurt too much to wear.

Her own father died and left some small sum to her, but this money had to go for another immediate need. “But, Wes, what about my teeth?” she cried. “You’ll GET your teeth!” was the brusque reply. Only years later did she finally get teeth that fit.

But Mom never complained. When they argued, she’d end in tears. As a child, I’d hate Dad for making her cry, but as I got older, I resented her use of tears as a weakness and would have preferred her to fight back.

By then we had moved to New Mexico and my parents had purchased their first home, a flat-topped fake-adobe stucco home. I shared a bedroom with Steve. He was just a year older. At night as we settled in our beds, Mother would read to us from “The Five Little Peppers” or “Huckleberry Finn.”

Later, I was old enough for my own library card and rode my bike to go and borrow books, but my love of reading certainly came from these evenings of listening to her voice act out each character and accent as she read to us.

What else did I learn from my mother? I cannot dare to say…but I aspire to care for people as she did. She didn’t talk about it, just did it. Every fall she called on a woman confined to a wheelchair with MS who was also losing the use of her hands. Mother had each of her the daughters try on all their skirts as she measured and marked them to take home and let out the hems for the  new school year. In between, she’d drop in occasionally with a pie or casserole and just to chat.

She visited another woman in the convalescent home to write letters for her or visit with her. She bought school shoes for a boy who came into the shop  where she worked. He counted out the crumpled bills to buy pants but had no money to replace his ragged sneakers. She didn’t know him but later his single mother who was struggling to make ends meet, came in to thank her.

Neighbors would come in to tell her their troubles as she stood and ironed my father’s shirts. It may have been an intrusion, she may have been weary ..but she never let on.

Mother in her 70s (Florida)

All these things I was watching, but not realizing until I was much older. Perhaps even my brothers don’t know, but I saw. I remember. And somehow that is enough. “Mother, I remember,” I whisper to myself.

As daughters, we have a special bond with our mothers but also a rivalry. Is it true that most daughters don’t want to be like their mothers?  I saw her kindness and goodness, but I despised her weakness and subservience to my father. It was an example that I didn’t want to follow. I respect a life dedicated to caring for her children  and husband and giving to others. But I believed I would never  choose it for myself. How is it then that I ended up in the  same situation?

Like my mother, I married in haste… to a Japanese student I met at Berkeley in 1972. He treated me with respect while we were in the States but when we came to Japan, I ended up in much the same situation as my mother. Did she send this curse upon me for all I rebelled against her and went my own way? In anger she said many times, “I hope you marry someone who puts you in your place!”

As a child I have only fond memories of Mother but after reaching puberty, things must have shifted. When I began to wear heavy make-up and outrageous outfits, she’d say, “You scare the boys away! That’s why you don’t have any dates!” For an insecure 14 year-old who wondered if a boy would ever ask her out, that was a crippling stab.

Then we have another chance to re-evaluate our mothers when we have children of our own. It makes us much more forgiving and we look to them for support again. She was there for me, even though an ocean away. When I became ill, just the thought of her caring and praying for me was such a comfort even though I couldn’t feel her cool hand upon my forehead as when I was a child.

At the end of her life, Mother began to show signs of dementia which I believe was the onset of Alzheimer’s. I went home to be with her. One evening she became very upset with me. She said, “I didn’t ask you to come here. Why do you take over my kitchen and do as you please with everything?!”

Then becoming ever more vicious, she said, ” You act so nice in front of people, but I can see you underneath. You are just faking it all. But I see the real you!”  I know this was not her speaking to me, but sometimes those words come back to haunt me and I have to chase them away and refuse to linger on them. Did she really feel some deep hostility toward me? Perhaps.

There will come a time in my life where mental judgment lapses and then the suppressed things sunken in dark waters of my heart may surface also. Are there things there that could injure others or things I would be ashamed to express if I had full awareness? I think I must search my heart and forgive others now. And ask God to purge my heart of all that should not be hidden there.

Mother died  of breast cancer that had spread to her lungs after an 11-year battle. She was 85 years old. I held her in my arms as she fell silent and her eyes clouded. I am so thankful that I could be with her. Beyond all our differences, I loved her very much and carry part of her in me now. When I see a lily of the valley, I remember it was her favorite flower. If I bake a pie, I recall her famous Coconut Meringue pie. I remember her scent and the soft touch of her calloused hands on my skin. I will remember all that was good. And when someone says, “You have your mother’s eyes, “I will be delighted.


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