I talk a lot about my dad and often neglect to talk about my mother. This post is for her.
The picture, one I took with my phone (sorry!), shows her doing what she does every night. She reads to my dad. As visitors drop by, Dad sometimes talks about how grateful he is for what others do for him. “My wife, Julia,” he says, “reads to me every night. She serves me that way, and I love her.” This particular book, by Terryl and Fiona Givens, is a token of this season in our Blair family life, as we confront old age and separation. This quote is particularly meaningful for us now:
In the Garden story, good and evil are found on the same tree, not in separate orchards. Good and evil give meaning and definition to each other. If God, like us, is susceptible to immense pain, He is, like us, the greater in His capacity for happiness. The presence of such pain serves the larger purpose of God’s master plan, which is to maximize the capacity for joy, or in other words, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” He can no more foster those ends in the absence of suffering and evil than one could find the traction to run or the breath to sing in the vacuum of space. God does not instigate pain or suffering, but He can weave it into His purposes.
They used to knock women out before childbirth. A little ether, some forceps, and voila–you’ve got a baby and you hardly felt it. I was born that way. My brother Bobby was, the doctor said, “upside down, inside out, and backwards.” We kids had no idea of what Mom had gone through to give birth to our brother, but we liked him. It wasn’t until baby #6 that I, at least, started to realize what Mom was giving up and risking for her family.
In 1968, Mom taught French at my middle school. She also directed Shakespeare for an English class. I still remember a production of Macbeth done under my mother’s direction at the Farrer Junior High library.
That year included a night when Dad summoned us five Blair children into the bedroom. I was fourteen and my youngest sister was eight. Dad was utterly serious. We did not have gatherings like this. There was something ominous about it. “Mom and I,” he said, “have something to tell you.”
My mind raced. What was this? Divorce? Cancer? A trip to Europe?
“Mom is expecting a baby. It’s due in August.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t even contemplated the possibility that old people could or would still have children. Mom was thirty-seven! And they had finished their family–hadn’t they?
After a moment to absorb the news, we kids shouted, “We’re going to have a baby!”
And so it was. On August 25th, 1969, as Mom and I were doing some project in a bedroom, she said, “Margaret, I’m having some strange pains. I think I might be in labor. Tell Dad, but don’t tell the others yet. I’m not sure if it’s labor or not.”
Dad was reading the paper, and I whispered to him. He gasped slightly, giving me a quick smile to acknowledge our secret, and then went to her. Her water broke as they went out the door.
I was not present when she started hard labor; that happened in the hospital. I didn’t hear the nurse say, “Doctor, her blood pressure is very high. Doctor! Did you hear me? Look at her numbers!”
I did not see my brother James being born, not breathing, nor did I see the doctor administering artificial respiration to his bluing body. I did not see my mother collapse back to her bed, blind. The blindness would last for a day. She had undetected toxemia, and nearly died.
I did answer the phone when Dad called. “Is James there?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Well, he’s here!” Dad said, and wept.
Our neighbors on Cedar Avenue can testify that we Blairs performed a rare parade that day. We marched and ran around the block, singing, “We have a baby! Jimmy is here!”
The next baby–yes, number seven–was a risk, because now the doctors knew about Mom’s toxemia. Dad’s sister had died earlier that year, and we planned on naming this baby after her–Carolyn. The plan didn’t work, because the baby was a boy, who we called Troy. Well, for awhile we called him that. When Dad gave him a name and a blessing a month later, he said, “And the name we give him is Benjamin Wallace Blair.” We looked at Mom, who gave a small shrug and a smile. She had Dad had decided on this name the night before. Ben Wallace Blair–the house of Wallace Blair. Yes, red-headed Ben was named for my grandfather, who had died when Dad was eighteen.
The doctor told Mom and Dad to not have any more children--but Mom got pregnant. She had the choice to risk her life for the baby, or to abort it. She kept the pregnancy, but was on bed rest. My grandma Groberg watched us Blair kids--we, who our uncles called "Blairs, Blairs, the human terrors." Grandma wouldn't let us in to see our mom! Grandma was watching after her, preserving her life.
It was December sixteenth when Mom went to the hospital. The doctor listened for the baby's life sounds. "Mrs. Blair," he said "when was the last time you felt your baby move?"
Mom replied that she had felt life within the past couple of days. Finally, the doctor identified a weak heartbeat. Mom was taken to the O.R. for a C-section. I answered the phone when Dad called. "Carol has been born," he said.
When Mom was told that Carol was all right, all she could say was, "I am so blessed. I am so blessed."
Yes, as were we all.
I could site all sorts of my mother's accomplishments--such as her directing Shakespearean plays in Mainland China, or serving with Dad as "Mission Mom" to the Baltic States missionaries, or of teaching English as a Second language in Utah and in other places. I could mention that I've heard her pray in Russian and in Spanish, and that I've seen her embrace people from Central and South America, from China, from all of the Baltic states. I have seen her take strangers into her home and love them, and I've seen her hug her own mother tightly when it appeared they wouldn't meet again in life.
I could mention these things, but they pale in comparison to her maternal heroism. I asked Dad how they managed to sustain so many children--and to even provide Christmases. He said, "I don't know. Somehow, we did it. We didn't give you very much."
But I remember bounteous Christmases, full of multi-colored lights and dolls with their fresh-plastic smell. I remember Mom's cakes with seven-minute frosting, and all of the concoctions she managed to invent with whatever she had on hand--sometimes including walnuts and chocolate chips.
There is one Christmas that haunts me, though. I don't know how many years ago it was, but I have never gotten over it. We all opened our presents and I realized that nobody had gotten Mom anything. Not a thing. I still cringe to remember it. How could we have forgotten our mother?
I have tried to repent throughout subsequent Christmases, but I think that one will sting me forever.
Mom, if I could give you the Christmas gift, it would be this:
That you would realize how deeply you have blessed all of us, your family, by accompanying our hymns, providing our meals, urging us to study, loving Sibelius and Bach and Bizet, being willing to be a pilgrim's partner and even to learn the languages of the places where he took you, reading good books. I don't think you realize how magnificent you are, how transcendent your smile is, how valued your counsel.
Terryl and Fiona Givens say this in The God Who Weeps: “What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love.”
Thank you for exposing us to so much that is good and noble–including your own character. I enjoyed being your only child for eleven months, but I’m okay with having seven siblings who are also my dearest friends. I am in awe at what you were willing to sacrifice for each of us. You are glorious. Glorious.