A World Less Certain | Mother Mary

The pandemic has caged my mother, but not her bubbly spirit and passion for life


My mother’s birthday is Monday. She suffers from the advance stages of emphysema. Sometimes she reminds me of a goldfish, mouth opening wide, trying to breathe air as dense as water. Since March, she lives in a fishbowl-like quarantine at home. If she inhales the tiniest droplet of COVID-19, the pandemic will take her life as it has so many others.

Mom faces her medical condition with grace and a smile. Like The Beatles’ song “Let It Be,” my mother Mary speaks to me during times of trouble. She always has.

Mother Mary

Mary is kind. She is giving and loving to everyone she meets. My mother is always upbeat (sometimes laughing a little while talking). She’s 77 years old, and strangers still come up to her, saying she’s gorgeous. Something about “her look.” She ages well.

Talking, though – OMG – she loves to hear herself think out loud. Mom wears her heart on her sleeve, filtering nothing that leaves her lively thin lips.

Rocks

My parents collect antique music machines and player pianos. Large, rare, and sometimes odd items from the past. Vintage stuff. They built a collection hall on their Mad Dog Ranch to house all the crazy shit in their vast collections. Mom was asked recently during an on-camera interview, “What is your favorite thing to collect?” She replied, “rocks.”

When Mary was a little girl, her father informed the family he planned to leave them (4-year-old Mary, 6-year-old David, and his wife, Willa). Her mother sped off in the family automobile. She veered from the road, plunging off a cliff in Palos Verdes. The horrific accident – believed to be a suicide attempt – left my grandmother paralyzed from the waist down for the last 23 years of her life. My mother grew up catering to her mother’s whims. Particularly troublesome was dealing with ceaseless suspicions that her father was cheating on her while she was bedridden and wheelchair bound.

As the interview continues, my mother reveals why she likes to collect rocks, “As a child, my mom was an invalid, and we’d go to the desert. We’d just kind of set her up in the cabin and I started hiking all by myself. I loved it because it was my adventure.” Then she explains why she likes rocks so much. “I think because they’re so substantial, they’re very grounded. Very big and they’re forever. I like that. So since the time I was a little kid, that’s what I’d do.”

Whenever I see an interesting rock, I’ll pick it up and think of her.

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Mother Mary is my rock. She is down-to-earth. Solid. Always there. Caring and loving. Yes, she talks A LOT, and sometimes, I listen. All this I would never know about this lovely sweet woman, my mother, had it not been for a decision she made over a half-century ago.

Kids Having Kids

My mother was 15. My father was 19. Dr. John Meschuck, the family doctor, informed his young patient Mary Elizabeth of a place that performed safe abortions. He offered to help her make the appointment.

Abortions were illegal in 1958. In California, they were only legal in cases involving danger to a woman’s health, rape, incest, or a likely damaged fetus. Mary was a freshman in high school. She could easily make the claim she was raped by having sex with a much older young man. Statutory rape laws in the 1950s were no joke. In California, the crime was punishable by six months in prison and a $500 fine. In most states, the consequences were more severe, typically carrying a two-year prison term.

My parents lived in a small city that stretched alongside the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Pacific Ocean. The close-knit coastal community of El Segundo is a Standard Oil town – the refinery on its southern border. My great grandfather Elmer strapped his lunch pail to his bicycle rack and peddled off to work at the local oil refinery nearly his entire adult life. Churches, schools, corner markets, post office, park with a bandstand, small theater, and bowling alley were popular community gathering places. Everyone knew everyone’s business. So when Mary crawled out of her bedroom window at night to hang out with the dope-smoking hot-rodders at the Imperial Bowl, her reputation was immediately suspect. And matters could get a whole lot worse. During the 1950s, becoming pregnant at age 15 was like wearing a scarlet letter in a small conservative city. The simplest remedy would be to have an abortion (no one would ever know), and Mary could remain in school. Instead, the young woman, barely 90 pounds, stubbornly wanted the child (me).

In front of a judge, the Thomas and Armour families gave their legal consent. The young couple married, averting a scandal and sparing my unborn life. My mother dropped out of school to raise a family. Years later, about the time I left for college, she went back to take the GED test, and received her high school diploma. My father ditched his hot-rod buddies and got busy providing for his family. He worked his way from digging ditches, diesel engine mechanic, college professor, to the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. My parents were growing up themselves while raising my sister and me – making for some rather interesting stories (I will save that for another day).

My parents recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

My mother, to this day, is against abortion. It is probably self-serving for me on to agree with her decision. Whether or not to carry a child to term is a personal choice. I have two daughters, and they alone have the right to choose. But I am fortunate the decision to abort me was made by a 15-year-old girl named Mary. If for no other reason, I can write about her gift of gab, love of family and rocks.

 

 


Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.