Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Mother and Her Sister -- Mostly, Her Sister

The older population--persons 65 years or older--numbered 39.6 million in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 12.9% of the U.S. population, about one in every eight Americans. By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030. 

-- Department of Health and Hospitals Administration on Aging

We all understand that there are changes in the hormone system. There is decreased sex hormone secretion and, for those married for many years, decreased sex. Perhaps not for the same reason. The atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that occurs as an aging change in the brain, produces decreased circulation, thus low oxygenation. Such people have temporary loss of memory, some hallucinations, and still their memory for events many years prior becomes lessened. Some of our older national politicians may give speeches that substitute fact with "recollections" from their younger lives -- which we call confabulations. This is true for all of us, but we don't get press coverage. As we age, our mental alertness is not quite as bouncy. 

I am sure you know of a loved one who has experienced or is experiencing such a life event. I do.

My mother is going to be 77 years old this May (or is it 78, see my memory is shot already). She has had an interesting life -- much of which I cannot write about yet. However, as I grew more spiritually mature and aware of my own humanness, I learned to accept her for who she is, not how I had hoped she would be. 

Let's start with her mother...Dorothy Kleinhans Harper. She was a fascinating woman. She was strong, independent, and brilliant. She was considered quite attractive although not beautiful. She was a woman of great privilege, as she and her Thaddeus owned a chain of hardware stores in Kansas. They were a very formal couple. My mother used to tell me stories of how she and her sister had to eat in the kitchen with the help at 5:00 PM and the adults would dine and entertain other guests in the formal dining room at 7:00 PM. They would dress in their finest for dinner when they had guests. 

The children were to be seen and not heard and once paraded about, they were escorted out -- and put to bed. Dorothy was never known for exuding motherly love. I believe children simply impeded her progress. I am not sure what her goals in life were but she was quite successful -- in her career. She had been a true-blue flapper in the 20s and had worked for Chevron long before it was the lady-like thing to do. (I'm not sure it is even lady-like today to be a woman in a powerful company, much less a powerful woman in any company.) I do know the pictures I have seen paint a life of controlled chaos. Her breasts were bound to make her flat-chested and she had sparkly bands about her head and yes, even the long cigarette holder, opera-length pearls -- and gloves. 

She was always very open, honest, and direct -- with an attitude. She never liked children much, as they encumbered her fast living. She took risks and lived a high life. It was the 1920s when she divorced Thaddeus Harper. Divorce was not very popular back then, especially when young children were involved. However, divorce they did. 

Dorothy and Thaddeus had two girls, one was five-years older than the other. They couldn't have been more different. Joan Lou (Joanie) was a sassy, skinny, precocious beauty with a wit and wisdom far beyond her years. She was absolutely brilliant. So brilliant, she really struggled with her boredom of the regular Joes -- and grown-ups alike. The younger was Janet Sue (just Janet), and she was the sweet, shy, compliant, obedient, good girl whose self-esteem was as low as Joanie's was high. Joanie was confident, cocky, assertive, even aggressive -- and she loved boys. She loved boys mostly because she could experiment with them. They were just so easy, so simple. When she saw one she liked, she had to have him, and have him she did -- until she got bored, that is. I am certain she broke quite a few hearts. She was a "lot to handle," as they say. I believe her brilliant mind was her greatest gift but biggest enemy. Her younger sister, Janet adored her and wanted to be with her always, if only to embarrass Joanie in the company of boys.

Dorothy had moved with the girls to New Orleans after the divorce yet she was still at a loss as to what to do with them; how to care for them and still get her head above water, and herself on her feet -- alone. She decided to put both the girls in Holy Angels Academy, an all-girls Catholic boarding school in New Orleans, Louisiana. The girls were none to pleased by this. Especially Joanie. As a ten year old, she struggled to understand why her mother would do such a thing. She had difficulty relating with "normal" people; how was she to relate with nuns?! This just wasn't going to do. Nope, Joanie would have none of it. Just as Janet was such a good girl and followed every sometimes mundane, often senseless, and always arduous rules to the tee, Joanie rebelled. She was even caught sneaking out of the convent many a night -- some nights with a boy on a motocycle awaiting her. The Marianite nuns were sure they could break Joanie of her wild streak. Joanie was healthy and vibrant, full of vim and vigor. Joanie: 1; nuns: 0. 

Janet, however, was a sickly child. I recall her talk of the wine akin to grape juice the nuns would give her to stave of her anemia. She would tell me it was worse than the Mogen David, they serve at communion. But being the obedient little school girl she was, she drank up. She's been drinking since she was five years old -- literally. My mother embraced the way of the nuns and at a very young age she experienced the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and her heart. She attributed this to her knowing how to pray; because of this, the nuns trusted her her knowing what to do with God's call. Yep, God called and my mom answered. She felt blessed to be in the care of the nuns and she felt, safe, loved, secure, wanted, needed, and special -- a TRUE child of God. 

While Joanie kicked, scratched and screamed on the inside, she was supremely charming, entrancingly beautiful, unbelievably brilliant, and delightfully funny on the outside. She had embraced her dark side; she learned how to manage it, just like she managed boys and later, men. She had what they call a "wild hair" and being restrained, contained, controlled, and told were simply not her cup of tea. When she was younger and could tell her stories of fact, though many might have thought them confabulations

Needless to say, Joanie sought refuge in the escape of men and married at a very, very young age. She went on to divorce and re-marry again -- and again, many, many times. In the end, she reunited with her very first husband, until his dying day. She then lived alone, whilst her sister (by then a widow herself) and she delighted in reliving their pasts through stories, and pictures, wine "slightly" better than Mogen David, and a deep and resounding respect for their mother, Dorothy. I'll never forget the day I heard my mother proclaim that she wants nothing more than to be just like her mother. It was a beautiful moment. (Although, I guarantee those words will never come from betwixt these lips -- sorry, mom).

Joanie died just two weeks ago, April 2, 2013. The irony is such that in her life, she detested being in the confined care of others yet in her end of days, she passed away in a small town nursing home, having outlived all the men in her life.  

May God keep her in the palms of his mighty hands, and may she be as happy -- or happier -- in her next life as she was in this one. God bless you, Auntie Joanie. Thank you for being a strong, yet soft fiber in the fabric of my life. 

(For more on the Academy:
For more on my mother, and how she, a nun had me...tune in later. Maybe much, much, later.