Friday, December 28, 2012

100th Birthday Musings

If my mother -- Ethel (aka Caron) Curtis McCoy -- were alive today, she would be celebrating her 100th birthday.

How different her world -- and ours -- would be had she lived to see this day, or even come close, instead of leaving this life when she was the age I am now.

How very much she missed: the adventures she dreamed of having after our father's death, when she had, at last, some hard-won freedom; seeing the professional successes we were to have -- my books, Michael's stellar medical career, Tai fulfilling Mother's dream for her to become a nurse.

But, even more, she died years before any grandchildren arrived. How she had longed for grandchildren! She even imagined that one of them might be a redhead. Her mother had red hair and she had always dreamed of having at least one ginger child. It didn't happen. But Nick, my sister's child, has beautiful red hair. How Mother would have loved and enjoyed her -- and what a difference it might have made to this child whose paternal grandparents were so rejecting of her because she was a girl and not the grandson they wanted. And how she would have cherished Maggie and Henry!

                                             The Grandchildren She Never Knew

                                        Nick, Tai's daughter, born in 1990

                                       Maggie, Mike's daughter, born in 2009
                               Henry, Mike's son, born 2012, with his loving Dad                                                              

She was a wonderfully warm person whose early career success -- as a psychiatric nurse and then as one of American Airlines' first flight attendants -- was evidence of her intelligence, her independence and her lovely spirit that could make others feel so good about themselves and life in general. Because of her delightful personality and social skills, she often represented American in major publicity events -- in ads and in public events, like giving an aviation award to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt -- and she had a scrapbook bulging with news clippings and photos from these wonderful years.

As children we looked through her scrapbook with wonder. When we were older, we felt sadness that her years thereafter had been so unrelentingly harsh. After she was gone, we rejoiced that she had known such happiness in her early adult years and, with time, we understood, with new clarity, what she had always told us: that she had also greatly enjoyed being a mother. And she never felt sorry for herself. She felt she had been blessed, as well as challenged, in every phase of her life.

                                            FROM OUR MOTHER'S SCRAPBOOK

                         Caron Curtis in publicity shot for American Airlines 

                           A photo op with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

                                     To Hawaii on behalf of American Airlines   

                                Her life story appeared in newspapers nationwide


                                         She modeled in a number of advertisements

              And made gossip columns, on the town with long-forgotten suitors        
When she married, life quickly took a downward slide: the bright, funny, charismatic man she married turned out to be an abusive, mentally ill, alcoholic husband who dimmed her joyous spirit, crushed her sense of independence. Her life was filled with stress and depression. But never despair.

Like the sun peaking out behind clouds, she always had a wonderful sense of optimism, whether it was dreaming of moving to a new house where we would all have our own space and life would be better or of Father getting sober and back on track with his life or of us finding our own life paths, our own successes, our own happiness. "I just want you to be happy," she would say. "I want you to have the career you want and to love your work as I did and to find true love and live a full and contented life." No matter how terrible her own life was, day to day, she never stopped dreaming of better times for all of us.

And she had one great pleasure in life that we all shared: swimming. Her daily swims at the Pasadena Athletic Club over the years were soothing and energizing. And some of the sweetest times we all shared with her were the times we swam by her side, enjoying the warmth of the water and her presence.

When she died in 1980, our adult lives were just unfolding: Mike was in his last year of medical school at Stanford; Simon & Schuster had just published my first book and Bob and I had been married for three years; Tai, still so young, was nevertheless independent.

She missed so much. And we've missed her.  For the first few years after her sudden death from a heart attack, I suffered from a prolonged, complicated grief. Her loss was too painful to bear initially, so I avoided dealing with it by keeping busy -- Bob and I, joined by Mike after he finished medical school, cleaned out her home of many years; I dealt with the lawyer for both our parents' estates (our father had passed away four months before our mother); and I obsessed with keeping on my writing schedule, meeting the deadlines for the two books I was writing when my parents died. The grief only hit when life calmed down and then it was profound. My grief and depression was immobilizing.


Then, one night, I had a dream.  I was swimming in the ocean off New Jersey, a place I had never been. My mother had always told me how she loved swimming in the warmer Atlantic rather than the cooler Pacific. And Gene Brissie, who was my editor at Simon & Schuster and who had offered warm and constant emotional support after my parents' deaths, was from New Jersey. So, perhaps because of my mother's talk about the Atlantic or the warm presence of Gene at a time when I so needed a caring friend, the New Jersey waters felt wonderfully soothing. Suddenly, my mother appeared, swimming at my side. I was filled with joy and relief. She wasn't dead! She was right here! "Oh, I've missed you so much!" I said. "Where have you been?"  She smiled, unusually taciturn. "Oh, around," she finally said, vaguely. "Never very far away."

We swam together, quietly content, warmly connected, for a few minutes. Then she began to sink under the water. "Please don't go! Please don't die! I can't lose you again!" I cried, diving down to catch her and swim with her to shore where I let her rest on the wet sand. "I love you so much!" I whispered, kissing her cool cheek. Her eyes opened and she smiled, looking into my eyes with great love. "If you love me, truly love me, you'll let me go," she said softly. "Do you love me enough to let me go?"

I closed my eyes, pained at the thought, as tears slid down my cheeks. "Yes, " I said at last, my eyes still squeezed shut. "Yes, I love you enough to let you go." I opened my eyes and she was gone, without leaving even the faintest impression on the sand. And I woke up then, my face wet with tears.

And from that moment, I felt a sense of peace and warmth and a comfort that had eluded me for so long. And, while I've missed my mother in so many ways, at so many times as the years have raced on, my debilitating grief was gone forever after that dream.

I got an email today from my brother Mike, now back working in Thailand and living in a beautiful condo in Bangkok with a great swimming pool he enjoys on a daily basis. "I was floating in the pool tonight, watching the full moon rise and thinking about Mother and that it would be her 100th birthday today" he wrote. "The last thing we ever did together was to go swimming, so I felt so connected, as I floated, to that time. How I wish she had lived to see her grandchildren. She would have been crazy about them."

He went on to tell me about going back up to the condo, where his wife Amp was playing with their children. Before he could tell her that he had been thinking about Mother or that it would have been her 100th birthday today, Amp rushed to tell him that something unusual had happened. She said that, sitting there, playing with the children, she had suddenly felt the odd, but positive presence of a spirit. An unusual light came into the room through the window and fell on Maggie and Henry. When Mike mentioned his feeling of connection to Mother and that this would have been her 100th birthday, Amp smiled, certain that it was Mother's spirit coming to take a look, drawn to those grandchildren we were certain she would never know. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if that were so?" he asked me in his email.


Through the years, through all our lives, through all the pain and peace of loving, losing and letting go, that connection remains with those we've loved and lost.

Perhaps they're never really lost.

Perhaps, as my mother assured me in that long-ago dream, they're always around, never very far away.


  1. I am so touched by this beautiful piece. Your mother was a beautiful and accomplished woman excelling in a field that was not really open to women at the time. She was a ground breaker. She provided you with such an inspiration example of being a role model. I have no doubt that your ability to excel in your field and in other fields are a direct result of her early years and the example she set for you. You were very fortunate to have such a model. You were also fortunate to have a loving, nurturing mother. Some of us did not have the role model or the nurturing.

    Continue to keep her close to your heart. She lives on there.

  2. What a beautiful, thoughtful post....exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  3. What a wonderful story and I so agree. They are never far away.
    I also had a dream my Dad called and said Hi! and then the phone cut off. It was like he was naughty and doing something he wasnt supposed to do but it gave me great joy and peace knowing that he was ok, happy, and was in a great place.
    I believe in the afterlife and your Mom looks like she really deserved a good place to go to, so you must be at peace and enjoy her memories. :)

  4. Hi Kathy, Your post tonight was very true and I enjoyed reading it. It made me think about my parents and how our life can change sometimes it seems almost like the drop of a hat. You paid your mother a wonderful tribute. Have a great weekend. Hugs and Prayers from Your Missouri Friend.

  5. A lovely post, Kathy. We never really know, do we?

  6. Your mother was a very beautiful lady! I love how you have her scrapbook full of wonderful pictures to document her life like that. She sounds like she was a great mother. I do believe that she came down from Heaven in spirit to see those grandbabies of hers. I also believe that she came to you in a dream like you said. When I was 12 my grandfather passed away and I seen him in a dream and was told not to worry about him anymore.

  7. Oh my goodness your Beautiful Tribute and Visit with your Dear Mom brought tears to my eyes. Surely she came to spend time with you all briefly through the Veil. I often feel my Dad's presence and the Knowing that he HAS seen and met each of the Gt-Grandchildren that came Fresh from the Father after his Passing. They often talk about him as if they have known and seen him in more than just my Pictures... and I am certain they have... as they came into this World they were of coarse leaving his, where he now Happily resides.

    Blessings and a Happy New Year from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

  8. This was just lovely and touched me very much. Thank you.

  9. such a beautiful post and a lovely peek into your mother's beautiful life. I too lost both my parents much too soon and often think of all they missed out on. You've got me thinking that maybe they haven't missed out on the best of my life...they are always around. I like that idea. Very touching indeed.

  10. Such a warm and loving tribute to your beautiful and beloved mother brought a lump to my throat as I read, Kathy. Yes, we always grieve for the things our departed ones have missed, especially the joy and fulfilment of grandchildren. I still want to pick up the phone and tell my mother some items of news, though she died 30 years ago. In many ways I feel she is still with me, even without dreams or any outward signs.

  11. I think Amp was right. I think you are right. They are never far away. And letting go does more than let the person go, the one to whom we have so tightly held. It is letting ourselves go, too. To be free to remember without pain. Neither of my parents know my life now from experience; my dad was closer to seeing the adult I had become, but still, he died nearly 20 years ago. And yet I have to believe they know. And that makes me smile. So do you.