When my mother became a widow, I was 12 years old, living in Tallahassee, Florida. The morning of April 20, 1960, I walked into the kitchen just as my mother was hanging up the phone. “Daddy’s had a heart attack,” she said. I assumed she meant her father, Clough. No, it was my father who’d had the heart attack.
The day before, my father had gone to a conference in Chicago. Mother told me she’d be flying to Chicago to be with Dad while our elderly and rather taciturn neighbor, Mr. Yant, would take me and my 16-year-old brother Chuck to school.
Mid-morning, Mr. Yant appeared at the door of my classroom. We drove home in silence, and I arrived home to be greeted by three anxious neighbor ladies, one of whom still had on pin curls. I said hi to them and walked into the living room to sit by myself.
Within 15 minutes, Alex brought Chuck home who stormed into the foyer and immediately asked the women, “What happened?” They told us that Dad had already died by the time Mother got to Atlanta on her way to Chicago and that now she was reversing course to come home to be with us.
Chuck and I moved to the living room where he sat on the couch sobbing. I sat completely still near him, unable for some reason to cry as yet. Some kind soul decided to invite my best friend Bo over to be with me that afternoon. She was not able to comfort me nor could I let her. We walked around outside for a while talking about trivial things, and then she left.
My father was 53 when he died; my mother was 48. After Daddy died, my mother knew she had to get a job. She found one in the neighborhood of Chicago – Hyde Park – where I’d grown up. That fall, I started high school at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School which I’d attended all my life except the three years in Tallahassee. I was happy to be with familiar classmates but uncomfortable with my new role as a child without a father. One day a kid asked me, “What does your father do?” and I couldn’t think of how to tell him that Dad was dead, so I said, “Nothing.”
Mother and I lived with my oldest brother Bob (age 20) and our cousin Robert (age 26), both attending the University of Chicago’s English Department.
One of the hard parts of those years occurred in the evenings. Mother would take her bath and get ready to go to bed. She would ask me to “put her to bed.” I realized even at the time that this was a reverse of order in a family, but I conceded because I always knew that her suffering was much greater than mine. I would kiss her and talk to her and then often I’d be hit with what seemed to me the smell of grief.
One of the worst events in “taking care of Mother” occurred one night when Chuck was home visiting from the prep school he attended. All of us were eating dinner when cousin Robert said something cutting to Mother, and she ran out of the room crying. I thought Bob or Chuck would go to her since they were older, but they let me know, without saying anything, that it was my job to comfort Mother since I was a “girl”. I deeply resented this but did was I was “told”. I guess I did an okay job at it.
By the time I was a senior in high school, both Bob and Robert had moved out—it was just Mother and me. I never skipped school or was late to class, probably because I felt so overprotective of Mother—I had to be good. I had a small group of friends, mostly nerdy guys. We would often play basketball and then go to one of our apartments and play trivia games. Usually, we played the Christians against the Jews; the Jews almost always won.
When it came time to apply for college, Mother never ONCE encouraged me to apply to the University of Chicago so I could remain close by her. Her decision not to pressure me stands out as one of the bravest and kindest things I’ve ever known someone to do. I left her in the Fall of 1964 knowing that she’d be completely alone for the first time since Dad had died four years earlier.
When I got to college, it was time for me to rebel. As soon as I got off the plane in Rochester, NY, I bought a pack of cigarettes. And I wore all black, including my black fuzzy slippers, and liked to walk around saying, “Fuck!” My resident advisor asked me once, “How would you feel if you saw Alice in Wonderland walking down the hall smoking a cigarette?” I said I’d be horrified; she said that was just how she felt when she saw me.
Naturally, I continued to worry about Mother, especially when I learned over the years that she had never really accepted that Dad had died. She slept with a large pillow substituting for him as well has keeping a large portrait of him over her bed.
Finally, during my senior year of college, Mother went into therapy and was able to successfully mourn Dad’s death. Six months later she married a lovely man and spent the next 22 years with him until his death.
Several years after that, Mother met Wayne, a widower who lived near her. She and Wayne had several years together before he also died.
After his death, Mother, who had once been a devout Christian, said, “How can I believe in heaven when I’ve got three amazing men waiting for me up there? How could I choose which one to go to?”
Anne Strozier, Ph.D., MSW, is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of South Florida. She served as a full-time faculty member for 22 years, retiring in May 2014. She served as MSW Chair for many years; also as Associate Director and Interim Director. While at USF Anne created the Florida Kinship Center to provide resources, research, and government liaison for grandparents and other relatives responsible for raising children. Anne is an active fundraiser for local and international charities as well.