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Keep loving and keep hoping
Helen Marguerite Zentner Smith Marquis (1913-2002)
This is the first post in a series about women who have shaped my life. For more posts, visit Accidental Mentors.
At the time of my birth, my mother was grieving. She had lived through the Spanish flu epidemic, two world wars, and the Great Depression. Though it was the 1950s that took the greatest toll on her. Just before the dawn of the decade, Mom’s eleven-year-old daughter, Marlee, contracted and subsequently died of polio. Following their daughter’s death, a prolonged strike at the company where he worked, and mounting financial strain from Marlee’s illness, Mom’s husband, Bob, experienced immobilizing depression.
It became so bad that, despite their Catholic faith, Mom contemplated divorcing him. Before she had decided though, her elderly father passed away, and soon after that, at the age of 40, she gave birth to a son, Jarrett. Then, just a little over a year later, Bob died of a sudden heart attack. Five months after that, May 5, 1955, I was born. The decade was only half over, and she had already lived a lifetime in it.
In a rare moment of personal disclosure, Mom said to me, “All the people I love die,” as if that was all I needed to understand her reticence to let people get too close.
I can see how she believed that and how that drove her to want me to develop the shielded skin that protected her heart from another loss. I never once saw my mother cry. When I cried, she pointed a stiff arm to my bedroom door, and commanded, “Go to your room until you can come out with a smile on your face.” She was all about smiles. Show the world how happy you are and never reveal your sorrow.
When I came out to her as a lesbian in the 1970s, she couldn’t help but believe God sent me to her as punishment for her sins, although she never told me what her sins were. Why else would God take one daughter away and then send her a deviant one who couldn’t give her grandchildren, the one thing in life she still longed for? “You have grandchildren!” I would counter. “Jarrett (my brother) has four sons.”
“But it’s not the same as when your daughter has children,” she’d say and then look away to make it clear that the conversation was over.
Despite the pain my sexuality caused her, Mom lived a life of generosity, kindness, and caring, including, to her great surprise, growing to love my partner, Anne. Mom knew how to have a good time, to laugh at herself, and care for the people around her. Her friends trusted her deeply, and she never let them down.
Mom’s favorite pastime was people-watching. “Someday I’m going to live in a downtown apartment above the drug store, so I can watch people all day long,” she’d muse in those rare, wistful moments when she let herself dream (for something other than grandchildren).
While she lusted after the apartment she’d probably never get, she fed her people-watching obsession with her passion for travel. Long before CSI and Law and Order took over the TV crime genre, Mom loved watching Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in Streets of San Francisco. She yearned to see this iconic city for herself. When she turned 75, Anne and I took her there.
I knew that above all else she wanted to ride the cable cars. I also knew she got seasick just watching Sea Hunt on TV, so the thought of her hanging onto the outside of the car up and down those hills terrified me. On our first outing, I wanted her to feel safe, so I guided her to an inside seat for the journey over Nob Hill and down to Fisherman's Wharf.
I didn’t take my eyes off her as she took in the sights and sounds of San Francisco. When we arrived at the turntable at Fisherman’s Wharf and disembarked, I asked, “So how’d you like it?”
“It was great!” she replied with a smile as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge, her eyes gleaming like the sun reflecting off it, “but next time, can we ride on the outside?”
I’m sure I took a step back and shook my head a little to make sure I heard her correctly. “You... want to ride...on the outside?”
“Yes,” she exclaimed. “I want to see everything and everyone!”
For the next five days, we rode the cable cars up and down “The Streets of San Francisco” with Mom hanging on with one hand and waving with the other, laughing all the way.
Mom taught me that no matter what, you keep going, you keep loving, and you keep hoping. She never found a way to accept what she called my “lesbian lifestyle,” but she never failed to love me in the best way she knew how. It doesn’t help to wish for more.
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