My mother started to drift away about 15 years before her death. I try to remember her as she was when she was my mother, but I do have some stories from her life before I came into it.
If you asked my mother what her hobbies were, the first thing she would say is that she liked to read. Most of my early memories of my mother are of her curled up in her chair with a book or of her reading to me. She liked to read mysteries and the books of her favorite author, Angela Thirkell, known to us as Angela. My mother sent Angela a Christmas card one year, and got a card back. In Angela's next book, there was a mention of someone who lived in “Seattle, Washington USA”. Unfortunately, he was named Abner, not Mrs Petersen.
My mother was born in Seattle. She lived in Madison Park with her parents and her dog, Turk. She went to McGilvra School with her cousins Art, Joey, and Ann. The one story that she told the most was about a party that she and her friend, Billy Ward, went to. Back in the 1920s, it was popular for children to have costume parties. They would wear homemade costumes or store-bought costumes – made of crepe paper. Who thought that putting little kids in paper costumes was a good idea? They could catch on fire or tear. Poor little Billy Ward with his crepe-paper costume – he spilled cocoa on it and it disintegrated. Mother was not going to be seen walking home with a boy in his underwear. She made him walk half a block behind her.
She didn't like being told what to do – and this lasted all of her life. There were incidents involving carrots which reappeared at every meal and which she steadfastly refused to eat.
When she was almost 9, along came a baby sister; and a year later, the family moved to Manila. My grandfather had a brother who had gone to the Philippine Islands and made his fortune. My grandfather didn't make his fortune, but, like most ex-pats, the family had a house boy, a cook, a driver, a guard, laundresses, and an amah (or nanny) for my mother and another for my aunt. My grandfather liked to go to the horseraces, and when he would win, he'd bring the money home in a paper bag. He would grab handfuls of money and toss them about. Hilarity would ensue.
It was while the family was living in Manila that Mother developed some interests and habits that remained a part of her life. She loved to take some of the horserace winnings and buy Asian antiques. She designed clothes that a seamstress would stitch up. And every afternoon, everyone would take a siesta. Ruth Petersen was famous in Island House (where she lived from 2001 to 2015) for her post-lunch siestas.
Late in 1939, my grandmother, aunt, and mother came back to Seattle for what was supposed to be a year. The threat of war kept them in Seattle while my grandfather waited a little too long to close up his business. He spent the war in Japanese internment camps. It was a hard time for the family. The wartime rent restriction act meant that they had to wait until the people who were renting their house voluntarily moved out. So they lived in what they called the “henhouse” with my mother's grandmother and aunt and sometimes her other aunt and various nurses. But my mother also remembered those years for all the ritzy parties in the Highlands where another aunt and uncle lived.
In 1946, my mother was introduced to a handsome man-about-town by his sister. After a few dates, Mother asked him if he'd like to marry her. He said “Well...yes!”. She said she would think about it. They did marry, and in due time, I was born.
Mother admitted that she wasn't a baby person, but said that I was surprisingly good. She added that she wouldn't have put up with anything else. My earliest memories are of her listening to Mary Margaret McBride on the radio and of her reading to me: The 101 Dalmations, The Borrowers, Madeleine, Babar, Winnie the Pooh. Later, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little, and all of the books by E Nesbit that the library had.
We used to take walks down to the lake to feed the ducks and then come back home for a cup of tea in a pretty china cup with a little silver demitasse spoon to stir the sugar. When my father would be working in the evening, we would have a soup and sandwich dinner in front of the tv which I thought was a great treat.
Mother liked finding antiques and designer clothes at “the stores” - Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village – with her sister, Mary. She liked polishing silver, refinishing furniture, and looking at decorating books and magazines. She always had long, polished fingernails and wouldn't step out of the house without her lipstick on and her jewelry. Even up to a year before her death.
After she died, many people shared with me memories of my mother's elegance and of her sense of humor. I was surprised when people mentioned her sense of humor. I think I had forgotten about that. It's not as though she told jokes, but she had a sense of the absurd. It's something we shared. We would be watching tv, and one of us would start to laugh and then the other would join in. Soon, we were gasping for breath. I miss that. Mother told me about one time when she was in her 20s. She was riding on a bus and reading a P G Wodehouse story called "Strychnine in the Soup". She started to laugh and laugh and laugh while people were looking at her in amazement.
I hope that she is somewhere where she can laugh again.
A few books about mothers:
My mama had a dancing heart by Libba Moore Gray (E GRA).
I love you, little one /Tafuri, Nancy. E TAF
In our mothers' house /Polacco, Patricia. E POL
Sarah, plain and tall /MacLachlan, Patricia. J F MAC
The barefoot book of mother and son tales /Evetts-Secker, Josephine. J 398.2 EVE