On the evening of my mom’s 79th birthday, my brother took her to meet two of her oldest friends: a cousin of my dad’s and his wife, who happens to be a childhood friend of my mom’s. The cousin is a man with a robust spirit – an accomplished businessman, a one-time horse breeder, a devoted father, grandfather and husband. He owns a great laugh, can deliver classic one-liners and has a gift for colorful and humorous story telling. A stroke many years ago cost him the use of his legs but spared his mind. And so they gathered, my mom’s walker and the cousin’s wheelchair in tow, for a birthday dinner.
The next morning, having had a delightful night of conversation, reminiscing, sharing, reflecting and just generally being family, my mom observed that if her cancer, as predicted, will take away the use of her legs and her mind, she hopes the legs go first. “I really want to stay engaged,” she said, as the morning paper lie unfolded next to her and CNN informed in the background. Of course, her real inspiration was the cousin. She was impressed by his strength of spirit, despite a body diminished by an illness, and she found herself, on the first day of her 80th year, hoping for the same kind of “luck.”
Imagining our mom no longer walking brought to mind the many miles she and her Keds have already tallied. As a child growing up in Wauwatosa, she walked to school, no doubt re-reading her literature assignment or reciting a poem aloud. On weekends, she rode a beautiful large-wheeled brown tricycle that her father altered by adding wood blocks to the pedals so she could zip back and forth along Rogers Avenue. She took riding lessons at Joy Farms and was proud to own riding boots and jodhpurs. Summers were spent at her grandparents’ home on Okauchee Lake, where her toes would dangle in the lake’s cool water for just a moment before she escaped the limitations of life on land.
Later, when our mom was a student at the University of Wisconsin, she loved the deliberate march up Bascom Hill in the center of the rolling campus as she headed home each afternoon to her freshman dorm. On warm afternoons, she would walk out to her dorm’s back patio for a spectacular view of Lake Mendota. She exuberantly attended football games at Camp Randall, climbing into the stands to crowd among all the other loyal student fans. A bit of a party-girl, she would tell us of post-game celebrations in State Street establishments where she was known to dance on top of the tables.
Before she and our dad stood before a judge to be married, our mom worked at Capitol Airlines, standing in her kitten heels behind a customer service counter. She also worked at a clothing store, Mac Neil and Moore, working her shift in penny loafers, peddling cashmere sweaters and tweed jackets. The retail experience would one day lead to a 20-year-career at Boston Store, where she walked side by side with her customers among fine china and home goods, imparting her wisdom about establishing a wedding registry -- "oh nobody every really uses saucers anymore," or "every kitchen needs a good pasta strainer" – and choosing just the right gift for a dear friend. As a young mom, she traveled by train, from Sacramento to Chicago, with three children, luggage and handbag. We often heard of her long-legged run from platform to platform trying to make a connection. Two of her children grabbed onto the back of her coat while the third was nestled safely into her arm; and rolling along side of them was the poorly latched suitcase that inevitably was knocked open, causing its content to scatter.
Those legs tirelessly walked the neighborhood with her Girl Scouts to sell cookies and to drop off political campaign literature. They traveled daily to the A & P to grocery shop for her family, and they stood at her kitchen window, watching kids play tetherball, swing on the swings, or create coffee can houses in the sandbox. More than once, they chased after our runaway black lab, and then our also wandering lab-spaniel mix. In the spring, her legs were folded up crossways as she sat near the large stone in our front garden, pulling weeds and splitting hostas. Until we were older and could take over the weekly task, she walked behind our family lawn mower, artfully, but not always successfully, attempting to avoid weeping willow branches and the lawn mower cord. Faithfully, at noon, her legs were resting upon a kitchen chair, across from the chair on which she sat, while she enjoyed a half of a liverwurst sandwich, potato chips, sweet pickles and an episode of As the World Turns.
The day before her birthday this year, she asked for a pedicure. She wanted shiny pink toenails in celebration of making it to 79. Of course we obliged. Such a small and frivolous request seemed exactly right, considering the long journey our mom and her feet had taken together.
Soon, perhaps, those feet may retire from their travels. Only time will tell. Maybe she will receive her crooked wish, and lose the use of her legs while her mind stays intact. Or, perhaps, there is one more tabletop upon which she’ll dance. If only we knew. Such is the place she and her Keds now reside.
Walked anywhere with Barbara? Pass along your travel story, and we’ll share it with her.