My Mother’s 80th Birthday: The Meaning of Decades and of Days

I have mentioned before that my mother has Alzheimer’s. The last few years have been hard on our family, as we have watched her abilities decline. We recently moved her into an assisted living facility.

Today, March 4, 2013, is her 80th birthday. We celebrate the milestone, while we reflect on what has been and mourn what is and what will be.

My mother was born on the day Franklin Roosevelt was first inaugurated. Her mother gave her the middle name “Frances” in honor of the new president. (I don’t know how her staunchly Republican father felt about that choice.)

Her first two decades were ordinary. She grew up in the small town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, through the late years of the Depression, through World War II, and into the 1950s. She went to college. Like many women of her generation, she married immediately after her college graduation.

My parents’ first few years as a married couple were not easy by today’s standards. They had two children quickly. My father went to graduate school to earn M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, while working a variety of jobs so my mother could focus on the children.

My family, Easter 1963

My family, Easter 1963

By the spring of 1963 – fifty years ago – my parents’ prospects were on the upswing. My mother had just turned thirty.  My parents had been married almost eight years. My brother and I were in grade school. My father was a manager at the company where he worked.

This picture of our family was taken on Easter 1963, a few months after my parents bought their first house in Richland, Washington (the brick house behind us in the photo – notice how new the landscaping is).

My family, Easter 1973 (or maybe '72)

My family, Easter 1973 (or maybe ’72). My father was taking the picture.

Ten years later, at Easter 1973, my parents had two more children (notice the landscaping has grown, and my younger sister is wearing the same navy blue jacket I wore ten years earlier). My brother and I were in high school, and I was about to leave for college. We lived in the same brick house. My father had received promotions and was well-established in his field. My mother’s father had died in this decade, and her mother had married again. My mother was forty – half her lifetime ago.

And so it went through the decades. Each decade brought my mother and the rest of us joy and pain. Graduations. Marriages. Births. Moves. Jobs. Illnesses. Deaths.

We mark our passage through life with milestones, like major birthdays and monumental changes. But it is the daily living that makes us who we are. The milestones are easy to remember; the days in between get lost in a blur.

I’ve been keeping a journal for more than a decade now. It helps me remember the days between milestones.

I frequently flip through old volumes of my journal, and find myself right back in the emotions of a forgotten moment. Moments of love, of parenting, of career crisis, of angst, of boredom. Often, the perspective of the years lets me see the meaning of what I felt in those little, forgotten moments of days past.

Sometimes, the moments cause me to reflect on questions that are bigger than decades, bigger than life. Recently, I had such a moment of reflection about my mother’s life and the meaning it has now.

In John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, which I read recently, author Peggy Noonan wrote that Pope John Paul II, as he aged, was a reminder that “it is crucial to see the beauty in the old, the infirm, the imperfect. They have a place in life, a purpose, a deep legitimacy and due.”

When I read this, I thought of my mother as she ages. I wrote in my journal that day:

Do I think of her place in life, her purpose, her legitimacy? . . . What is her purpose now in my life? . . . Is she there to help me confront her mortality and my own? To help me slow down and see the beauty of the simple? To show a value to life and to compassion and care?

These are questions I will return to in my days and decades ahead. I will remember my mother and her place in my life at this moment, on this her 80th birthday. There is joy and pain in the moment, as there is and will be in the decades.

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  1. A sweet story, Theresa. Bitter-sweet, really. It takes me back to my own mother’s 80th birthday. Her plight with dementia and the eleven years until her 91st birthday were the years we were closer than ever. It truly is a privilege to care for them, isn’t it? Thanks.

  2. Hi Teresa,
    Very will captured and expressed. I also often thought of what I was to learn from my mother’s years with Alzheimer’s. I knew that she was still teaching me life lessons, even though she was not aware. Happy Birthday to your Mom!

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