And the memory of her silent courage
My mother nearly died when she was 18 years old.
Gloria Warren had tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium. It was likely she would not come home. That’s what the doctor’s told her. Her parents visited. Her fiancee visited, the man who would be my father. It was only a matter of time, the medical experts said.
Once a week, she hosted a radio show on the sanatorium’s closed-circuit station. She played music and talked about books. And now and then, she would read the names of those who had recently died at the facility, each name a memorial to the fight against a terrible disease.
There were days when she struggled to breath, when she couldn’t get out of bed. She lost weight and became frighteningly thin, and then she would gain excessive weight from the medication, wreaking havoc with her body, her heart, and, of course, her already compromised lungs.
But she defied the odds.
In a year, she was breathing better, had found a healthy weight, and had renewed strength. Doctors were astonished. In time, she waved goodbye to the sanatorium and the remaining friends she had made there, some of whom would not leave alive.
She rarely talked about those days. It wasn’t polite to do so. She wondered why she lived while so many others did not.
Not long after being released, Gloria Warren married my father over a Memorial Day weekend while he was on leave from the Army, the only time he would be permitted to be off the base at the Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland.
In a couple of years, she would give birth to a baby boy. Mom wanted to name him Timothy, but when she saw him, she knew he was no Timothy. It didn’t fit him. He was christened David, a stronger name, she believed.
Six years later, my mother almost died again giving birth to my sister. My mother was bedridden for months. Diane was born prematurely and underweight. But in time, she, too, beat the odds, just like her mother had.
In time, Gloria would take her children to the municipal pool, filling the car with kids from the neighborhood, not one buckled in. There were no seatbelts in those days. She would allow us to spend the entire summer day swimming and when we were exhausted, would drive us all to Eat n’ Park, Pittsburgh’s hamburger palace before McDonald’s became ubiquitous.
Gloria was a PTA president. She coached girl’s softball. She attended all of my drama and band performances in high school. And she and my father allowed my friends and me to populate the basement of their small Cape Cod home for nearly a decade with guitar amps and a full drum set to practice our garage-band dreams.
She was a wonderful mother. But what impressed me more than anything else was the stand she took against the Vietnam War. She didn’t march or demonstrate in dramatic fashion, wave signs, or work for the candidates who had been against the conflict, but she protested, nonetheless, a personal moment of defiance.
Each week, my mother gathered for neighborhood card club. Her friends, women from homes nearby, came together to play gin rummy and to eat cake and drink coffee, and to talk about most everything. It was my mother’s turn to host. During one hand of cards, someone mentioned the news coverage of the war, a subject that previously had been taboo. Still, my mother did not hesitate.
“I don’t think we should be there,” she said aloud.
Years later, she told me that there had been an audible gasp in the room when she said that, and then an awkward and prolonged silence.
“It’s wrong. It’s criminal. Our boys should come home,” my mother remembered saying. “Do you want your son there? For what?”
A few more hands of cards were dealt that night. The women ate cake and drank coffee as usual. But the following week, when another neighborhood club member was scheduled to host, my mother was not invited. She was never invited again.
“At some point, they came around,” my mother told me years later. “But we were never quite the same. I have no regrets.”
My mother grew up in a working-class, go-to-church, love-your-country-no-matter-what kind of family. For her to say aloud that she was against the Vietnam War, especially among friends in a rather conservative community on what was meant to be a fun and recreational Wednesday evening in suburbia, took more courage than most could imagine. It was not what housewives and mothers did in suburban America in 1967.
Many years later, as my mother rested in her bed at a nursing home, her mind slowly slipping away, I asked if she could recall that time with the neighborhood card club and the controversy she had stirred. For a moment she looked beyond me into nothing, her temples scrunched, and for a moment her eyes brightened.
“Hmm,” she whispered. “Did we have a card club?”
She was well beyond her memories by then. Much of the past was vanishing in the diminishing synapses of her aging mind. But I would like to think that at an earlier time in her life when she remembered that long ago evening, she was half as proud of her words as her son was and always would be.