Three writers, three mothers

In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked Island writers to share stories of their moms.

By The Martha's Vineyard Times - 

Janet Wainwright, in Redding, Jamaica, feeding a bird with a bottle. – Courtesy Laura Wainwright

Mother’s Day, 2000
By Laura Wainwright
Laura Wainwright is the author of “Home Bird, Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” published by Vineyard Stories. 

“I don’t want to waste away in a nursing home,” Mom said. She lit a True, inhaled deeply, and pushed a piece of paper across the kitchen table toward me. “This is what I want.” 

I was used to Mom’s lists, penned in her round schoolgirl’s handwriting, but this one, written neatly on embossed stationery looked formal, solemn. It was. “In the event of an emergency I want NO aspirin, NO antibiotics, NO IV’s, NO resuscitation …” She even said no to water. I skimmed her words and shook my head. She took this for affirmation. “Good,” she said. “I don’t want to be a vegetable.”

"Nan" Wainwright with her husband Stuyvesent, and son.
“Nan” Wainwright with her husband Stuyvesent, and son.

And then she was. In May, a few days after celebrating her 80th birthday, Mom didn’t get up to make toast and pour a glass of skim milk. She’d disappeared into a coma. When the Russian caregiver found Mom unresponsive, she dialed 911. An ambulance came and sped my mother to the nearby Southampton Hospital. By the time I arrived from Martha’s Vineyard, a neurologist had done an EKG. He took my two older brothers and me aside and said, “Even if by some miracle they wake her, nobody will be home. Your mother has no brain function. I’m sorry.” 

Nan Wainwright with her two sons, John and Stuyvesant. – Courtesy Laura Wainwright
Nan Wainwright with her two sons, John and Stuyvesant. – Courtesy Laura Wainwright

I took Mom’s hand in mine. “Mom, squeeze my hand so I know you’re here.” Nothing. No matter how many times I begged, she was unable to. Instead she lay curled on her side with her eyes clamped shut, mouth open like a baby bird. 

When a nurse came in with an order to start intravenous antibiotics, I remembered Mom’s list and jumped up, shouting, “No! She doesn’t want them. Look at her chart.” A copy of her list was there. The familiar handwriting made me brave.

“You’ll have to speak to the doctor,” the nurse said over her shoulder as she huffed out. 

In the preceding years, Mom’s primary care doctor had nudged her back to life from a variety of alcohol-related ailments. Sure he could do it again — he kept suggesting interventions. “This is what our mother wants,” I pointed to her words. Finally he listened.

With each wire or tube that came undone, more of Mom’s spirit seemed present. 

That afternoon, she was moved from the noisy ICU to a clean white room in an empty part of the hospital. A nurse helped me remove the hospital gown and dress her in a soft cotton nightie embroidered across the chest. I rubbed lotion on Mom’s dry skin and brushed her still-brown hair. In the evening quiet I described the cherry tree in full bloom that rubbed against the window. The gaps between her breaths lengthened until it was all gap. 

Somehow I stumbled out to my car and climbed in. The windshield was covered with a blanket of white. Snow? I turned on the wipers, and thousands of cherry blossoms smudged the sapphire dusk. As I drove down the Montauk Highway, people were buying vegetables, stopping for gas, talking with friends. They inhabited a world I recognized but no longer belonged to. 

“It was hard to get a reservation on Mother’s Day,” my father said without getting up from his red leather chair. “And people still need to eat.” I shook my head and touched my mouth. The taste and touch of Mom’s dry cheek still stuck to my lips, and I wanted her there. My father and his girlfriend pushed their arms into their jackets and tromped out the door like this was any May evening.

Alone I fed the fire with scrub oak. I sat at Dad’s wide leather-topped desk and put loose pens into a silver trophy cup, sorted rubber bands, thumbtacks, and matchbooks into brass ornaments shaped like crabs. Riffling through a pile of papers, I pushed my foot against a basket of toys and something crumpled. I moved the toys, climbed under the desk, and pulled out a paper shopping bag covered with dust. 

I pulled out an envelope addressed in my mother’s round hand. It was addressed to my father c/o the First Army. The one-cent stamp had been postmarked in Maryland in May of 1944. I reached back in the bag. In it were the scores of letters my parents had exchanged during the Second World War. My hands trembled as I pulled the parchment pages from the thin envelope. I felt Mom’s small body next to me on the couch, but when I looked up no one was there. Still, as I read, “Dearest Darling, I miss you,” her familiar voice filled the room. The letter was practical, no surprise. Mom fussed about money, plans, Dad. Her words were breezy, but under them I heard unspoken fear and loneliness. She was 24 years old, living far from family, with the daunting responsibility of raising two babies alone. Her letter ended with a flourish of x’s and o’s and the smiley cartoon face I knew well. As always, she’d added a P.S. “After I put the boys to bed I go across the street for cocktails. They sleep well and never seem to cry.” So it was true she’d left my older brothers in their cribs and gone drinking. 

The next letter was one of Dad’s. “Our family motto,” he announced, “will be ‘Forward Unafraid.’” His tone was heroic and tough, but throbbed with a boy’s excitement. Clearly he’d never felt so alive. After a stint in London that he declared “dull,” he’d parachuted into German-controlled Belgium and gone undercover in a Belgian castle. I knew where the future would take my parents, but for now they were in their early 20s, full of hope and very much in love. 

The mantel clock chimed eight. Dad and Deirdre would be back soon. The coffee table was littered with letters. I wanted to keep Mom’s young voice to myself. Working quickly, I scooped up the letters and stuffed them back into the bag. 


Mother: Experience preferred

By Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of “Writing from the Heart,” and runs the Chilmark Writing Workshop

Nancy Slonim Aronie, left, with her mother Hennie and Nancy's sister, Frances Margaret Barnhart. – Courtesy Gerald Blake Storrow
Nancy Slonim Aronie, left, with her mother Hennie and Nancy’s sister, Frances Margaret Barnhart. – Courtesy Gerald Blake Storrow

It’s the job you wouldn’t have gotten if you had applied, had an interview and handed over your résumé. Because at the top, it would have said “have never done this before.” Under “experience” you might have put either “none” or “babysitting for 50 cents an hour.” Loved the kids loved the money loved the food in their fridge hated the last few hours when I was so tired and they still weren’t home. And then that ad came on that showed Castro convertible beds, and then to illustrate how easy their product was to use they showed a young girl about 11 (my exact age) making the bed in the most inviting sparkling white clean sheets and the coziest blankets I had ever seen. She was in her nightgown and ready for sleep. I was in my dungarees and trying to stay awake. And then right before the station went off the air, they showed the 10 most wanted list: pictures of hardened criminals who were still missing, men who had escaped Somers prison, just up the road. Every noise was my end, every creak my torture, every tock of the clock my own private terror. Finally the grownups came home. Most of the ice cream was gone, the kids were sound asleep, and I had pushed the upholstered chair into the corner so I could see every window and keep an eye on every door.

Henrietta "Hennie" Wachtel Slonim with a teddy bear. –Courtesy Josh Aronie
Henrietta “Hennie” Wachtel Slonim with a teddy bear. –Courtesy Josh Aronie

Still, I couldn’t wait for the next Saturday so I could see the kids again and play tic-tac-toe and red light green light and bingo. I loved them. I pretended I was the mother, and sometimes when the little one would call me Mama by mistake I wouldn’t correct her. I just couldn’t wait for my turn.

I read “Cheaper by the Dozen” and I planned for the day that I would have 12 noisy bundles of chaotic joy of my own.

My mother worked three jobs, came home exhausted and had migraines. She carried a purse that snapped shut and wore a hat and cut her hair short because she said at a certain age women shouldn’t have long hair. She told us not to wear white after Labor Day and to write thank you notes within a week of receiving a gift. I swore I would not be like her.

But she also danced with our father in the kitchen while he sang “She gets too weary, women do get weary wearing the same shabby dress … and when she’s weary, try a little tenderness.” She only had shabby dresses and she did have a tender heart. And the woman never complained.

I still swore I wouldn’t be like her.

I know for me, being a mother was the hardest job I ever had. I had more training as a waitress. There was no manual on how to keep your kids safe, how to listen and not fix, how to follow and not lead.

My mother was at her best when we were sick. She would pull down the dark green shades, fluff our pillows, buy us new comic books, bring us warm Coca-Cola (to settle our tummies) and feel our foreheads with the back of her hand. Satisfied that our temperatures had gone down sufficiently, she let us play Go Fish on the back porch in our pajamas.

After my own kids were grown and gone, I remember reading Haim Ginott. Instead of hyperbolically exclaiming to my kids, “Oh my god you are a brilliant artist,” I should have looked and found one detail, and said, “Ooh that chimney looks just like the one that was next door.”

Buckminster Fuller said raising a child was not like filling a vessel; it was more like assisting a flower to grow. Looking back, I think I was filling more than I was assisting.

In spite of my many grievous mistakes, my kids turned out to be amazing men.

Nancy Slonim Aronie hugs her mother Hennie.
Nancy Slonim Aronie hugs her mother Hennie.

It took my having my own family for me to realize what my mother’s mothering must have entailed, being tired and broke … and never complaining. My mother laughed at my jokes, teared up at my poems, and saved every card I made her.

She died at 92, five years ago, and I shudder to think how determined I was to not be like her. Now the biggest compliment you could give me would be to say how much alike we are.

The woman knew being a mother wasn’t a job; somehow — and she must have passed this on from the grave — she knew being a mother was actually a privilege.


Safe on third

By Alex Palmer

Alex Palmer is a frequent contributor to the MV Times.


Alex Palmer's mother, Elise Hope Winsor, in about 1940, before her marriage.
Alex Palmer’s mother, Elise Hope Winsor, in about 1940, before her marriage.

I grew up in the 50s in a small town outside Boston. My parents were natural athletes who played sports for the sheer fun of it. Most weekends would feature a marathon game of one kind or another involving Mom and Dad, my sisters and I, and some neighborhood kids. Everyone was included. 

By the mid ’90s, that was all in the distant past. Our family home, where my mother still lived, had been sold. On a warm spring day, her four children, along with some nephews and nieces, gathered at the house for one last day to move some boxes, and to remember.

It was only natural that we’d play a little baseball on the small field that had seen a century’s worth of games. We had an old wooden bat and a lopsided softball. I pitched, Mom led off. On my first lob, Mom knocked the ball past me and was on base. She made it to third — a designated tree branch — with one out. I watched her take a short lead and, when she took her eye off me, I ran toward her with a shout, my arm extended ready to tag her. A pickoff attempt! My mother — 76 years old and on a track to dementia — squealed like a little girl, whirled and jumped back to grab the branch, an enormous grin on her face. 

Safe! Almost got ya, Mom.