Mother And Son


WHEN THINKING back on Mother’s last years, and Popsie’s, I have a guilty feeling of nonfeasance. They were in straits and I should have done more for them. Long afterward I reread the letters they wrote to me and Muriel during the 1930s, and the experience was moving as well as painful. The letters reassured me on one point: I had not been a wholly undutiful son; I had merely been imperceptive and short of funds and busy with my own affairs. There were some items on the credit side. I wrote them at intervals, and Muriel was a better correspondent. Each summer we made a visit to the farmhouse, later taking our son Robbie along, to Mother’s delight. We had them come to see us in New York and Connecticut and introduced them to our friends, those visits being the high moments of their year. They were grateful for each little gift we sent them, but there were not enough of these in retrospect and never enough messages of concern. Mother was still starved for . affection. “Yesterday Ruth would have been twenty-one,” she wrote me sorrowingly. In a letter to Muriel she told about hearing a little boy in the street call, “Mother”—“just like Malcolm used to call me,” she said; “it seemed if he could just only touch my neck or feel he was near me the comfort was so soothing—how I wish I could live it over again.”


She now worried about the future, and with good reason. Once she wrote me: “Father is sitting opposite me reading the Bible—yesterday he was so wobbly on his feet and coughing so much and weak constitutionally as well as his knees. I shiver with fear how will we get through life now that he is breaking down. … This letter is just for you a heart to heart talk.” Early in 1931 Popsie had fainted and fallen; he never recovered full use of his legs and could no longer visit patients. Many of those who came to his office didn’t pay their bills, for Pittsburgh had been hit hard by the Depression. He wrote me, “I get tired of sending out bills with no returns.” Mother scrimped on food, and they struggled along.

A curious feature of those years is that my parents had rather more social life than before, especially in the little Swedenborgian community where their oddities had been accepted as lovabilities. Once or twice a week they went out to play contract bridge, and Mother was surprisingly good at it; she had a memory for cards. But their friends, once prosperous, had lost their money too; everyone in Pittsburgh had lost money. Popsie’s Uncle John, the only rich Cowley, was in the hospital at age eighty-four. “Uncle John lost heavily, $8000, in a building-and-loan failure—money tied up in closed banks. No sale for real estate. He says he never thought that in his old days he would be poor.… Our church here is in financial straits. We may have to close the day school as there is no money to pay teachers. The Lechners and Schoenbergers can hardly keep going. S. S. Lindsay,” once a millionaire, “lost heavily as he was a stockholder in the failed Bank of Pittsburgh and liable as such.” Nobody remained who could offer help.

THERE WAS one period when Mother hadn’t enough to eat. It was during the summer of 1935, when she was recovering slowly from her first heart attack. She was in the Belsano farmhouse, most of the time alone with my Aunt Margaret—“Tannie” we called her—still a spinster and still resenting Mother for having married an adored brother. Popsie was in Pittsburgh working to support them. He had never learned to drive a car but he had found unemployed drivers who charged very little, and he always arrived on weekends, bearing groceries. During the week Mother had to depend on Tannie. I’m sure that Tannie didn’t intend to starve her but she didn’t give her much food, and besides she had special notions of what should or shouldn’t be eaten. When Muriel and I arrived in August, we found the icebox almost full of little pots and jars containing potlikker, which she was saving for herself, and empty of anything else. Mother was upstairs in bed, looking gaunt but trying to put a brave face on her troubles. We drove at once to Nanty GIo, the nearest big mining town, and came back with a week’s supply of meat and vegetables; then Popsie arrived with still more. Tannie retired to her room and sucked an orange. She had a little hoard of oranges there and had never told Mother about it.

Years later I realized I had not been a wholly undutiful son; I had merely been imperceptive and short of funds and busy with my own affairs.

After a few weeks of better food, Mother went back to Pittsburgh, much restored in health but not in strength. She never again trusted herself to drive the car. Popsie had grown increasingly feeble, and she had to give him his daily bath, since he couldn’t climb out of the tub. In some ways he had become her child. Once he fell in a hallway of the Wallace Building. When she tried to raise him to his feet, she fell in turn and cracked a collarbone; it was an episode they didn’t tell me about for months. The bone healed and Mother began thinking again about new schemes for making or saving money; preserving food was almost the only one she still had energy to carry out. Afterward I found her engagement ring with the stone missing; it must have been sold to pay the grocer. That was almost her last sacrifice. Of course, the very last was not calling me to her deathbed.