Today I am faced with the difficult task of writing an obituary for our mother. I find it easier to write a eulogy than a prescribed set of facts, because our mom is so much more than what is possible to describe in your standard funeral announcement. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure what she would want revealed about her life. She is a complex person with a complicated history. She is, and has been a survivor her entire life. But even the most experienced survivors can’t escape the end of life.
I’ve heard others use the word “stubborn” when talking about our mom. I’ve used it, too. Too often we are taught that being “stubborn” is a negative behavior – especially when applied to females. However accurate the word might be in sometimes describing Earlene, I also know she possessed a tenacity to hold her ground on things that challenged society and even bordered on dangerous. She was a risk taker, a gambler, an entrepreneur. She was also a victim. And many of us know that victims hide secrets behind facades of stubbornness. Our mother’s secret is that she was sexually molested by her father at the tender age of five.
Although my Mom carried the secret of being sexual abused until her late sixties, but she was often public about having been abandoned by her parents. I knew the story too well – the disappearance of her mother came first, followed shortly by her father, an alcoholic. She and her four siblings resorted to a life of street survival before being discovered by social workers. Once it was verified that the children were living alone, only she and one older brother were placed jointly in the home of the Blomberg’s for foster care. It was a story she shared frequently at times when my childhood antics didn’t meet with her approval. In my younger years I heard this story as a subtle threat of what can happen when parents are displeased with us. As an adult reflecting on my mother’s life, I wonder if her repetition of such a litany wasn’t actually her way of processing whether she might have done something that had caused her parents to leave. Regardless, I didn’t know about the sexual abuse until she was in her late sixties. In an instant, some of the mysteries surrounding our tumultuous relationship during my adolescence came into sharp focus. I have no idea if my father knew this detail of her life because she started the revelation with, “I’ve never told anyone this before…”. I could never verify with my dad whether he knew or not, and I think it’s possible that she planned it that way. The day she told me, Dad was only a few days from his own end of life journey. Is carrying a secret a form of stubbornness or a form of self-protection?
The woman who would become known as Earlene L. Mora was born on April 17, 1932. That middle initial “L” is a significant piece of her identity. As I mentioned earlier, Earlene became a foster child at the age of five when she was placed in the home of a Swedish family, the Blomberg’s. Albert, a previously widowed Methodist minister; Beulah, his second wife and a former missionary to India; and Eleanor, Albert’s daughter from his first marriage.
When the Blomberg’s enrolled Earlene in school, Albert insisted that her middle name be changed from Louise to Lucille (Louise wasn’t a “proper” name in his opinion). Funny that a “proper” seldom-used middle name was more important to him than her being teased by schoolmates for having a last name different from her “parents.” Bear in mind that until the late 1990’s, being a child with a last name different than your family’s was something to be ashamed of. Mom retained her birth name of Smith until adulthood. Lest this paint the image of a child who would always see herself as a victim, let me assure you she could be incredibly strong-willed even then. In the case of this mysterious middle initial, stubbornness was the only way she could preserve her identity. She once told me that from the moment Albert forbid her to use the name Earlene Louise any longer, she made it a point to only use her middle initial when signing her name. Since both names started with “L”, this became a silent and undetectable protest against a name change that was forced on her as a child during an already confusing and difficult life transition.
The Blomberg’s did not legally adopt our mom until she was in her early forties. Ironically, by the time the adoption was finalized, she had no desire to change her last name. By then she had been Earlene L. Mora for twenty years, having married our father, David D. Mora, on June 14, 1952. By some strange coincidence, David wasn’t my dad’s given name. His name had been changed from Dario to David at a time when schools changed names that didn’t “sound American.” It never occurred to me until now that perhaps this commonality may have sparked the bond that would connect our parents for 54 years of marriage.
I have long romanticized our parent’s 54-year marriage. I see their marriage as indicative of how stubbornness can be a testament to the power of love. Mom and dad met in the 1950’s. A time when marrying someone of a different religion, much less of a different language, ethnicity, and skin color challenged the standards of acceptability. Today their marriage might only be unusual because of its longevity, which begs the question of whether longevity and stubbornness might only be different by a matter of degree. To what degree is stubbornness required to honor life-long commitments of love and relationship?
Stubbornness can also compel us to do things we previously thought impossible, whether the difficulty is imposed on us or created by us. One day while our father was at work, mom decided she was not going to stay home one more minute with my brothers while the car sat in the driveway. Placing David and Bob in the car, she was off! I was told, she was undeterred by not having a drivers’ license nor by the fact that she had never driven a car before. You might also recall that child safety seats were unknown in the 1950’s. Although no one was hurt and the car remained unscathed, she enrolled in a driving course soon after. And she carried her driver’s license with immense pride once she received it. Where does the line blur between stubbornness and determination?
Having a car represented independence to her. She and my dad always had their own vehicles. Sadly, that independence was compromised later in life, when her failing eyesight prevented the renewal of her license. Our dad became her driver and her eyes during his retirement. She loved working, bowling, and gambling trips to Las Vegas, and didn’t stop any of it until his cancer care required her daily presence.
This desire for independence was what also prompted our mom to once start her own business in an industry dominated by men. Imagine – a suburban mom opening a record store during the height of vinyl and eight tracks! No genre was absent from her inventory because she was an avid follower of Bill Board Magazine, the music industry authority on much more than Dick Clark’s Top 40. Everyone I knew respected her recommendations and many emulated her inventory choices – wholesalers, her customers, even her competitors for whom she would occasionally place orders. When video became the rage, she added Beta which eventually became VHS. That led to electronics and video rentals. That is, until the big players – Block Buster and Hollywood Video — came to town. But even the Big Boys couldn’t survive the innovations that have led to our current consumption of digital media. There are times when no amount of stubbornness ensures survival.
The most famous example of mom’s stubbornness was driven by a passion for helping. The front page of “The Mining Journal” – the local paper of Marquette, Michigan, once sported a half-page photo of Earlene at the scene of a bank robbery. She was not the suspect, she was not a victim, but she was a heroine. Mom (sixty-two at the time, no less) was having breakfast in a small diner with two other sixty-something girlfriends the morning of August 2, 1994. She overheard other customers saying, “Look! Someone is going to rob the bank!” Mom was watching through the diner’s window, and when she saw the person emerge from the bank carrying a shotgun she jumped out of her seat and raced out the door. She chased the robber on foot for several blocks and kept up with him all the way to a street corner where he jumped into a car and sped away. Moments later she described the car to local police and the reporter. The reporter quotes mom as saying “I don’t know [why I did it]. I’m sixty-two years old… if I had any brains, I probably wouldn’t have…I hate to see anything like that happen and hate to see people get by with it.” Stubborn or relentless?
On June 25, I visited mom as she began to decline. She slept, I cried. I cried for all the hardships she had faced, I cried for the injustices she had experienced, I cried for the times she and I had misunderstood each other. I’m ashamed to admit I also cried with some relief that her spirit, if not her body, would soon reclaim the independence she had fought for but lost again later in life due to deteriorating vision and increasing dementia. If there was one thing mom was absolutely stubborn about, it was in refusing to ask for and accept help. She was fiercely independent, and the fact that she had to rely so heavily on my brother, David, and his wife, Lora, weighed heavily on her conscience while she could still express it. But the stubbornness gene is most certainly inherited by David as evidenced by the daily care giving he so meticulously and selflessly provided for her.
Katie Meier is the Head Coach for women’s basketball at University of Miami, and if she had known our mom she might just have easily been referring to her instead of a basketball player in the following quote, “She is so stubborn – in a way that is the highest compliment I can give a player. She wasn’t going to let anyone take this game away from her because she wanted it that much.”
Stubborn. Relentless. Determined. Survivor. Mother.