My mother was really something. Everybody said so. She knew how to fix everything and there was nothing on wheels she couldn’t drive. And I was her favorite.
My sisters gave me this last bit of information long after I could have exploited it. To me, she treated us all the same and, like most good mothers, always put herself last. Then again, she did that with everyone, especially my father. We got to keep her for over 93 years so I should probably consider myself lucky, but for the nearly 2 years that she’s been gone it’s felt like I’m being cheated. Today I would have called her to wish her a happy 95th birthday.
As she neared the end of her life, Mum told us her life wouldn’t have been worth anything if it hadn’t been for my sisters and I but we know that’s nonsense. She had worked for 5 or 6 years at Gimbel’s department store in downtown Pittsburgh then, during WW II, got a job at Gulf Oil’s Research and Development Center in Harmarville, a few miles from where we grew up. Mum’s job at “The Lab” was to keep bench mounted automobile and truck engines used in fuel testing tuned up and running right so she knew more about cars than my father, but he'd never have admitted that. She was still working there when she married him and that was the end of that, just like most women her age.
Six months after my father died in 1998, my mother had a stroke and 6 months after that she went to assisted living for good. While cleaning out her house in preparation for selling it, we found all of her and my grandmother's old photos, including some that I had never seen before. It sounds stupid to say this but that's when I realized she had a life before us. The person in these pictures, while definitely Mum, is a person I never knew although we got glimpses of her from time to time. This was Martha Kapteina and she was young, single and having good time. She just has a look about her that doesn't exactly mean she was a party girl but that she and her friends enjoyed each other. A lot of this got packed away, I think, when she became Martha Gunia and took a back seat to all of us.
|Mum on right.|
|Mum,right. Aunt Jane with sign. Grandma between them.|
This was the role Mum had taken on for herself and it came naturally. Her mother, the only grandparent that lived long enough for us to know, lived with us and while we loved her and she us, there's no denying that she was pretty self-centered. My grandfather had died when the shotgun he was cleaning went off and killed him, or at least that's what we were always told. Mum was 7 and she and Grandma were the only ones home when it happened. Even at the age of 90 she could describe pretty clearly what she had seen. This was in 1925 and she, Aunt Jane, Uncle Jim and my grandmother had to move into a small apartment where she was still living in 1950 when she married my father. Grandma came with her.
My father was a frustrated actor who'd become a civil servant. He craved and sought being the center of attention so when he and Grandma ended up under the same roof, well, it probably doesn't need much explaining.
Mum loved me like she did because of what I was like as a little boy. I'm not sure exactly how that was but I can tell you that at the age of 4 or 5, I worried an awful lot about 2 old ladies on our street who lived by themselves. Whatever he'd been, that little boy gradually disappeared, helped along the way by his father, schoolyard bullies and a career for which he was completely unsuited - but he was always there to Mum. On one of the last trips to see me that she made before her stroke, after witnessing yet another tirade brought on by some forgotten but doubtless trivial outrage, she looked at me and said, "What happened to you? You were such a gentle soul."
I don't know, Mum, but he turns up from time to time. Anyway, Happy Birthday. I miss you.
|At "The Lab"|