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Janet Sheridan: We’ll hear Mom’s voice

In the end, my mother died as she lived, with resolution and strength. After all, you do what you have to do.

As a teenager in the ‘50s, I discovered many things I didn’t want to do, things potentially embarrassing or difficult. I whined about these distasteful tasks, badgering my mother to excuse me, rescue me.

I couldn’t ride the ancient, rusted, family bike to band practice. It had only one pedal and jungle rot. Everyone would laugh.



Why did I have to pick tomatoes to pay for the Jantzen sweater I wanted? Did Mom understand the humiliation of crawling along those endless, muddy rows? Of dodging tomatoes the seriously sick Fillmore boys launched at my prominent butt?

“I know I’m the one who told Bucky Clayson I would go to the dance with him. But he has huge red freckles, even on his lips, and smells like a barnyard. Couldn’t you call and say I’ve come down with polio?”

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Mom would suffer my harassment only so long before turning from her ever-present task: “Janet, you know what you need to do. Now quit wasting time and do it.”

Those oft-used words signaled the end of her patience and the discussion. With varying degrees of speed and grace, I did as she said, because I knew she practiced what she preached.

When I was 12, fire destroy-

ed our family home and many of our belongings. The piano burned; few toys survived. Jars of fruit representing hours of sticky labor exploded. Bedding used to fight the fire was ruined. Clothing suffered smoke damage and nice china shattered.

Mom had seven children, no home, essentials to replace, a meager budget and a husband made angry by his inability to “keep a roof over the heads of my kids.”

When I picture Mom during the fire’s aftermath, I recall unending work, a resolute look, a head held high and a don’t-you-dare expression when any of us complained about missing toys or clothing.

When I was 30, I stood next to my mother in an overgrown cemetery near Grass Valley, Calif., amidst a whirling of insects and emotions. We had driven from my home in Nevada to visit the gravesite of Mom’s second child, Alan, of the perfectly shaped eyebrows and happy demeanor, who died at 2 from whooping cough. “Mom,” I asked, “How did you keep going after such a loss?”

“I did what I had to do,” she replied. “But I mourn him to this day. I still dream I’m walking through sunshine in a vast meadow of flowers. I hear Alan calling me, but I can’t see him. I search with my heart in my throat, but never find him. When he died, I couldn’t give in to my sorrow. I was a young wife trying to make a home from a tarpaper shack in a mining town. A husband working long, dangerous hours and another child depended on me. I had no nearby family to help. I kept going.”

At 77, this practical woman, who dreaded becoming a burden to her family, talked happily with the children who called or dropped by her house on Sunday. She died three days later in the hospital. My brother JL, who was with her, described her demeanor in the moments before she died. He told us that in the darkness of a long night he saw the determined “Mom look” we knew so well creep over her face, and watched her bring all the power of her considerable will to her last task, clamping down hard on his hand. Our mother died as she lived, with determination and dispatch.

And so I believe that when her children face the lonely act of dying, we’ll hear her voice again: “You know what you have to do. Now, my child, it’s time to do it.”

This column was first published in the Denver Post on May 8, 2009.


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