Now that we can see the whole of her life, we know that like everyone, young Eleanor had big plans for her future, exciting new adventure, travel, a nice home, a good man… a wonderful life.
She enjoyed a number of years of the good life she imagined. Eleanor was smart and did well in school. She was athletic, enjoying basketball and running and carefree skating on the plaza. She loved the maid in her large home in Kansas City.
During the depression they lost the maid and nearly the family barrel manufacturing business. When her enterprising father, believing he could save the commercial use of barrels, struck out on his own to modernize, his brothers isolated his family in a painful shunning. Eleanor’s world changed as quickly and dramatically as wooden barrels were replaced by cardboard. Family, honor, integrity, home and heart didn’t seem to be securely packaged like they used to be.
Eleanor met her wonderful, gentle man who she said had, “dove-soft eyes, like his father’s.” Bill was a thinker, a reader and a teacher, getting home late each evening. Making sure things got done and on time became her responsibility. She was more the one to be concerned about bills, and clothes for the kids, getting teeth straightened, making school lunches and resoling worn shoes.
Our small house needed constant repair and its small army of workers to get things done. The oldest scraped and painted, varnished and mowed and cut bushes and planted trees and more than the rest of us know. Our sister learned to sew and made her own clothes and washed dishes and cleaned and babysat. The boys shoveled and mowed and cleaned attics and garages. Our huge garden needed constant weeding while the driveway, that was never paved, needed weeding as if it were a garden. We burned the trash in a metal drum in the back yard because the service was too expensive.
There were no vacations, no travel or adventure, money or new cars. With precious few dollars, mom and dad somehow managed to produce a cake and ice cream for birthdays and humble gifts for Christmas. We barely knew we lived on the edge. There were no frills, no theater, no burgers and fries. It was not exactly the world Eleanor expected, and it was shrinking. But she had a good man.
Together and under mountains of pressure, mother and father did their best to trust that we would be alright. We attended church every Sunday and lived by the rules of God and country. Our simple house was a wonderful home. On the side of the garage were her flowers and we collected the tiny seeds and saved them in bably food jars so we could plant more. No roses. Roses were too expensive and too fancy. Her private, real love was for wild flowers. There was something about how they grew “willy nilly”, and simply opened up to the sun without any purpose other than to delight anyone who happened to notice. They lived by the mercy of God, whisper thin and swaying whatever way the wind blew. Later, when we would go for a drive just to see what was out there, it was the soft color of Indian Paintbrush in the meadows that drew her comment more than any big beautiful house or mountain stream.
Getting father off to work and us kids to school was another of her chores that still amazes me. School lunches had to be made and breakfast readied each day. How many times did she cry out when the bacon spit on her hands? When there were no takers for burnt toast, mother often claimed it and taking a knife to scape the black off, she noted that, “a little carbon is good for you.”
The cure for any illness in these days meant drinking lots of water. No matter what was wrong, the answer was water. So much water that it drove us back to school the next day. Staying home sick meant a day in mother’s silent world of chores, laundry and doing the floors on her little black knee pad. The beautiful moments though were when, knowing just what we needed to take our mind off our discomfort, she would refresh a cold cloth or again read out loud the story of Peter Rabbit.
Whether our wish of the week was to become explorer, pirate or poet, she supported every dream. “Yes, I can see you doing that,” she would say, and she absolutely meant it. She encouraged us to discover, to invent, and genuinely loved to hear us speak of our accomplishments, travel and successes. Our dreams became her dreams. Still, in her heart, she possessed her own genuine zest for life and a strong faith in God’s enduring goodness. She loved the simple and pure. When grandchildren came along, her hands would press together at the sight of innocent new life and we knew the next thing she would say would be, “Oh, you sweet thing.”
But her dearest was her good man and husband Bill. No matter what the circumstances, Eleanor was grateful for a genuinely good and kind man. In the early years dad rode the bus twenty miles to downtown. It was dinner time when he triumphantly returned at the stop around the corner where we waited and walked him home. Eleanor was ready with his favorites – Lorna Doon cookies and a quarter glass of beer. She respected his Sunday morning devotion to church and then reading the paper, uninterrupted, right into a nap. It was quiet time.
Dad’s school was bought again and again by bigger and bigger fish, each time bringing him along. Over the years, mother gently eased and we enjoyed her genuine loving nature, always encouraging us to do what we really wished to do. As we left for school or an apartment or adventure, she would bless our independence with, “We don’t know exactly what you’re doing, but we love you.”
In retirement, the Taos sun seemed to bake away the worries and all was good. Eleanor made her new desert house a beautiful home and the neighbors and the many friends they made at church were welcome. Dad watered Eleanor’s flowers each day to make up for the lack of rain. For years the flowers flourished but they gradually got less and less water.
As years weakend their confidence to live alone they moved back closer to family. Dad was now aging rapidly and finding it difficult to manage his affairs and himself. Eleanor became watchful and checked that his clothes were buttoned, hair was washed, teeth were brushed and breath was fresh. As dad needed more attention she even concerned herself with protecting his public appearance. She was now making sure he proudly stool as tall as he could. And we were witnessing Eleanor becoming Ellie.
Ellie had been wife, friend, companion, trusted confidant and now was caregiver and protector of dad’s unpredictable emotions and public relations. Dad knew he had someone caring for him so special that she knew his needs and simple wishes before having to ask. She realized there were now serious limitations to his ability to interact with others and found tactful ways to represent him when his speech failed to make sense. She knew he still needed the respect he was used to. She knew she could provide most of what he needed but also when to ask for support.
Eventually she sought help and advise and turned to family and friends more to help with his physical daily care. When Ellie could do no more she relied on her faith that they would somehow be alright. That family and friends and care professionals would provide the lift they needed to see their lives through. Ellie had become our model of devotion and understanding, of caring for another as only family would know how to do. Ellie is our mother and so much more. She is a treasured inheritance, our example of personal integrity, honesty and faith in the goodness of our creator and of his creation, carbon and all. We want to pass her on.