AN AMERICAN LIFE by Michael S. Malone
As my mother lay dying, 4th of July fireworks were exploding beyond her hospital window. That seemed appropriate, as hers was a quintessential American life, the likes of which, in our very different world, we are unlikely to ever see again.
My mother was born on November 15th, 1920, on her grandfather Collin’s farm, near Marshall, Oklahoma. But her heart always lived at the adjoining farm, owned by grandfather Hasbrook, where she and her three sisters and brother spent many happy summers playing in the creek, sleeping under the firefly-lit night, and hiding in the dugout cave that had been her mother’s first home during the Oklahoma Land Rush.
My mother grew up in the nearby city of Enid. A child of the Great Depression, she learned to do without, especially when her father was seriously injured, and the family might have starved had it not been for food brought in from the farm. My mother vividly remembered being sent home from school one day as the horizon darkened and one of the great Dust Bowl storms poured over their community, leaving piles of talcum-fine dust in the corner of every sealed window.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my mother was already out of high school and working. The nearby Army Air Corps base was soon filled with young men heading off to war. It didn’t take them long to notice my mother.
One of the traits that most defined my mother all of her life was her beauty. It was always there. When my mother was 80, she sat in a doctor’s waiting room for an hour because the nurse kept looking for an old lady, and walked right past what she thought was a 60 year-old woman. Last week, as my mother slept in the hospital bed, with hardly a wrinkle on her face, a nurse confided to me that “none of the staff here really believes your mom is 90-years-old.”
Needless to say, for three years, beginning in 1942, my mother’s Friday and Saturday nights were booked. The boys arrived, stayed a few months, and then left for the war, some never returning. Those who did come home were ready to settle down and start families. But, even as her younger sisters and brother married, my mother stayed aloof, awaiting the right man.
He appeared in 1945, when my mother was 25, long after mom’s family and friends had conceded that she might become a spinster. My father, a cocky, troubled young captain, had finished his 30 missions in a B-17 and had now found himself stuck in the Mid-West waiting out his enlistment, and anxious to get home to California. His had been a tough childhood – passed around from family to family, he had ridden the rails, been a lumberjack, and even a razor-blade swallower in the circus. His only goal at that moment was to have a better future than his past.
They met on a blind date that each only accepted as a favor to a friend. My mother heard the car pull up, but when the doorbell never rang, she went outside — to find her father and her date down in a drainage ditch looking for a raccoon. My mother looked down to see a young man in uniform with a crooked grin; my father looked up to see a stunning young woman illuminated by the headlights of his car.
My father wasn’t dazzled by good looks – he’d dated Hollywood starlets before the war – but what did impress him was how casually my mother carried her beauty; as if it was an afterthought, even a subject of amusement. But ultimately, what won his heart was the realization that behind her gentle manner was a will of iron. Unconsciously, he knew he would need that will to save him. And it did: though she never quite tamed him, my mother civilized my father — as she did two more generations of Malone boys.
My mother’s family quickly went from worrying that mother would never marry, to worrying that she would. My father drank too much, drove too fast, and was way too clever and reckless for his own good. Each of my mother’s sisters in turn tried to talk her out of it.
But my mother ignored them — and was gone. Off to the film colony in Southern California . . . and from there, the world.
My father chose to stay in the U.S. Air Force, in intelligence, and his work soon took the young couple to Baltimore, Minnesota, and then on to Europe and North Africa. It was an exciting life. In Wiesbaden and Munich, my mother would make sure that my father had a good dinner and a loaded gun before he went off a mission. One night, when half of another couple came to dinner, my mother studiously pretended that she didn’t know the other’s husband was still crawling through high grass on the other side of the wire in Czechoslovakia. In Morocco, my mother drove my father to clandestine meetings with revolutionaries, flashing her lights outside of walled compounds and circling until the gates furtively opened.
When the French caught my father and gave him 72 hours to leave the country or be arrested as a spy, my mother still managed to write out holiday cards before they packed and dashed for Gibraltar. They celebrated Christmas that year with a tiny tree in a Madrid hotel room.
It was also a very romantic life. Every free minute my parents had they explored Europe, making friends from Nice to Rotterdam with whom they would correspond for decades after. As family lore has it, I was probably conceived in a tiny inn, high in a pass of the Italian Alps.
My parents even managed to be the scandal of the 1953 Oktoberfest — my mother, by violating the then-taboo of appearing in public pregnant with me; my father by getting crazy drunk, stealing a bunch of beer steins and then looping their handles through his belt like a pistolero. Anyone who was there long remembered the sight of a crowd of thousands of people parting for my wobbly father, clanking away and held under each arm by a Munich policeman (who also happened to be workmates of my dad) who led him out through the festival gates, followed by my very pregnant mother, chin high, looking neither left nor right.
Through all of this, my mother was transformed. Gone was the small town, mid-Western girl. She cut her hair fashionably short, wore tailored Italian wools, and could bargain for a deal anywhere from a Munich butcher shop to the Kasbah in Casablanca. But in other ways, she was still the same: a half-century later, my father’s German translator would confess to me that everyone in the office was secretly in love with my mother. When Mark Clark gave her a birthday kiss in a restaurant, she assumed that’s what four-star generals always did.
My father finished his Air Force career in Washington, D.C. It was the late 1950s now, and my mother’s world swung back and forth between motherhood by day — Little League and swimming classes and bundling me up to play in the snow; and the life of an officer’s wife — elegant cocktail parties and embassy soirees — at night. It was the climax of the second act of her life.
The third act began in 1963, when my father retired from the military, took a job with NASA and we moved to California, first briefly to Mountain View, then for the rest of my mother’s life, to Sunnyvale. Soon, with the arrival of my sister Edie, we were four, and settled down into the heart of Sixties Silicon Valley suburbia.
For the next quarter century, my mother, in many ways, seemed to slowly vanish, sublimating her own life and desires for that of her husband and children. Ballet and Boy Scouts, yard work and real estate investments, washing and patching clothes, and twenty five years of weekly trips to the commissary. She nursed my father back to health after his heart attacks, and dealt with having a caged lion in her home when he retired.
Thankfully, in time, with my sister and me at last of age, the old wanderlust returned with vengeance. This time, with the clock ticking down for my father, the two of them decided to take on the entire world. My father’s last years with my mother were filled with stays in London, Salisbury, Paris, Carcassonne, Rome, the Greek Isles, New Zealand, Sweden, Indonesia and India — often for months at a time. In the Himalayas, they even survived an earthquake that cracked their hotel in two.
After my father’s death in 1988, it would have been understandable if my mother had stepped out of her busy life and enjoyed her own long retirement. Instead, she embarked on the last great act of her life, one that astonished everyone who knew her and which in the end made everything that came before it seem like a rehearsal.
My father’s death broke my mother’s heart, but it also set her free. Never again would she have to compromise her freedom and will to anyone else. She began by joining, or increasing her involvement in, a myriad of social and service groups — Widow & Widowers, Chat ‘n Sew, Newcomers, Community Services, the Sunnyvale Historical Society, to name a few, and volunteered for leadership positions in each of them. Soon, she had the social life of someone half her age.
Each afternoon, she walked with her neighbor and good friend Mildred, until the sight of the two of them, strolling arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, became something of a Sunnyvale institution. And on the weekends, her happy dates with her thoughtful gentleman companion, Bob, gave her a reason to dress up and stay young.
My mother also established a series of goals that she wanted to achieve before she died. The first of these, a goal she’d had since she was a little girl, was to see the new century. She met that one easily – and, indeed, the turn of the new millennium and the occasion of her 80th birthday seemed to set my mother off on a quest for ever-greater and more difficult accomplishments. In the end, she achieved every one of them — and gave everyone who knew her a lesson on what can be done even in one’s ninth decade.
It had been my father’s dream to rebuild Sunnyvale’s founding Murphy House as one of Silicon Valley’s signature museums – and my mother had helped him for two decades to fulfill that dream. Now, more than a decade after his death, the new museum at last seemed a possibility. And when the moment came, my mother stepped up and made the first, and still the largest, private donation to the museum’s capital fund – an amount so big that it literally took my breath away when I announced it. Her donation proved to be the catalyst for others – and my father’s dream became my mother’s reality: her memorial was held in the new museum, just above the room named for her, and in the hall that will hold the first permanent, dedicated Silicon Valley exhibition.
There was another, equally large goal. My mother’s beloved Hasbook farm had been lost during the Depression. And as a seventeen-year-old girl, my mother had stood watching as her grandfather’s farm equipment had been auctioned away, and swore that one day she would win the farm back for the family. It took her more than sixty years. By then the farm house had been abandoned, the cave left to the rain and snow, and the barn had all-but collapsed. But, she re-bought the farm, and as the local papers reported with amazement, soon a bright red barn with a shiny new cupola rose again over the prairie. Someday, the Hasbrook homestead will likely be an Oklahoma state park.
My mother had fulfilled her promise to her grandparents. Now it was time to do the same for her grandchildren.
At the beginning of this year, my mother began to fade. My wife Carol took over her correspondence and finances – something that had always been my mother’s forte. In the end, it was only through the superhuman efforts of my sister Edie and her partner Tony, cooking endless meals and dropping by twice each day to check on her, that my mother was able to spend her final days at home. No mother ever had a more caring daughter.
My mother’s last two goals were smaller, but no less important – and ultimately no less ambitious. She had always been the perfect grandmother, a part of almost every day of her grandsons’ lives. The woman who had once counted her husband’s bullets, now counted cookies for his descendants. In the end, all that my mother wanted was to live to see her oldest grandson, Tad’s, high school, and her youngest grandson, Tim’s, junior high school, graduations. She attended them both, the latter with just three weeks to spare. In the end, through sheer force of will, she stayed alive long enough for Tad to return from England to see her. My mother was able at the very end to tell us all that she loved us.
She saved her last laugh for one of her grandsons; her last tear for the other. And she departed this world with fireworks.