- Historic Sites
Mother And Son
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
She died in the Wallace Building, three stories of grimy yellow brick in the commercial center of the district known as East Liberty. Even late at night streetcars grumbled past two sides of the building. It had shops on the ground floor, some of them expensive, though even these had taken to changing owners. The upper stories contained a few cramped apartments, like ours, but were mostly occupied by music teachers—voice, piano, violin—and by a few unprosperous physicians who lived next to their offices. Every two or three years there was a fire in the building, but it was always brought under control. During one fire Mother stood shivering in the street beside my father and watched firemen playing their hoses on the roof.“Oh, doctor,” she said, “I forgot to empty the pan under the icebox. ” She emptied the pan next morning when they went back to the apartment and found it not much damaged except by smoke.
She had lived in the Wallace Building since it was spanking new and she was a bride. She died there in a little room lined ceiling-high with my father’s books, which she never opened, and dimly lighted by an air shaft. She died of a heart illness that had lasted, in its acute form, a little more than three weeks, although it went back to another attack two years before when, as always, she was spending the summer in the country. That first attack would have killed an ordinary woman, but Mother had brought herself through it by a pure determination to live. In her extreme pain she had sometimes moaned, “Mamma, Mamma,” as if begging forsolace from arms that had seldom embraced her. She asked to see a Catholic priest, for the first time in forty years. My father, who was a devoted Swedenborgian, nevertheless summoned a priest, and I think she was given absolution. From that day she slowly began to mend.
Though the nurture she offered him was haphazard, this distinguished writer recalls his mother and the frustrations of her life with loving generosity
Back in Pittsburgh she tried in vain to resume her usual life. She had always been a restless, energetic woman, bigboned, full-bosomed, and confident of the strength in her arms, but that strength couldn’t be restored. Her chief task in those last two years had been taking care of my father. Popsie, as I always called him, was a little round Santa Claus who by then was severely crippled with arthritis. Unable to make house calls, he had lost much of his practice as a homeopathic physician. Mother worried about food for the winter and kept herself too busy canning and preserving. In her last October she bought a bushel of late tomatoes at a special bargain and decided to make ketchup. Her final heart attack occurred while she was stirring the ketchup in a big kettle boiling on the gas range. Somehow she got it into jars before collapsing on her bed. Popsie had faith that she would recover and phoned to us in Connecticut reassuringly.
Meanwhile she tossed in her bed and worried about money. She quarreled with the nurses, partly, I think, because she didn’t know where the money was coming from to pay their wages. She was short of breath and insisted that the window be left open in my father’s waiting room. Popsie complained that his patients went away. Though never before a demanding person, Mother was a lot of trouble to others when she was dying—until the last three days, that is; then she became peaceful, breathed without pain, and slept all night. “I have good news for you,” Popsie told me in a letter that arrived the day before Thanksgiving. “Mother is getting better.” I think now that she had suddenly felt at ease because her body had resigned itself to death. This time she hadn’t moaned for her iron Mamma or asked for a priest. But neither had she sent me a last message, though I think she loved me better—after a long intermittence—than anyone else in the world. Even in those last years she would try to snatch a suitcase out of my hand when we were climbing stairs together. “You mustn’t strain yourself,” she would say. And now, for fear of causing me expense, of interfering with my work, she wouldn’t call me to her deathbed. When I arrived a day too late, Popsie told me that her face in death was calm and smooth, almost like that of a girl.