With Mother’s Day a few days off, I spent a good part of this early morning giving thought to my mother and her influence on my life. Over the years I’ve come to see that she did a really good job with the hand she’d been dealt.
Susie Park was born in McIvers, a small fishing village nestled in a cove about forty miles north of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. She was the youngest of Reuben and Fanny Park’s ten children. Her mother was a gentle soul. Her father was a stern man. I’ve seen a picture of him. To this day, when I think about that picture, I project a mental image to myself of what Ahab must have looked like chasing that white whale.
Everyone in McIvers loved my mother. They called her the “Flower of McIvers.” Her older brothers sometimes referred to her as “our little Susie.” I met them when I was stationed in Newfoundland from 1963 to 1965. They would recount stories of my mother and grandmother’s gentleness juxtaposed against Reuben’s stern ways. The most vivid of those tales was about a time when Susie was about fourteen. There was going to be a big dance in McIvers. She wanted to go. Her mother thought it was alright, but Reuben didn’t. She pleaded with him several times – “Please let me go.” He became enraged and beat her. She crawled up behind the wood stove and laid there all night, sobbing uncontrollably. My uncle Fye would shake his head every time he told the story. He’d sigh and whisper, “That Reuben Park were a mean, mean man”
She made her escape from Reuben in the early thirties by following her sisters, Annie and Frances, to America. She had no money and little in the way of education. She could barely read or write. Calculating the sum of six plus five was an enormous undertaking for her. But she was determined to make her way in life.
She met my father a few years after she arrived in Boston. He was the epitome of the dashing Irishman. He was strong, handsome, and had a full head of curly hair. Little did she know that he had the Irish proclivity for drink that was to be their undoing.
By 1942, passion had given way to constant conflict. The relationship ended in 1948 when my father died. By that time Susie was a bundle of raw nerves. She had a complete nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. My brother, sister, and I became wards of the state. Over the next few years the Reuben Parks of the medical community inflicted as much cruel and unusual punishment on her as they could, including shock treatments. By the time she was released from the hospital she weighed about 80 pounds. She looked like death warmed over.
I don’t know how she did it, but she survived it all. She fought with everything that was in her to gather her family back together. She always stayed one step ahead of welfare and immigration officials (she never became a U.S. citizen), somehow sensing when they were hot on her trail. She connived with politicians to get the crumbs that would keep us afloat for another month or so. She never did get an education or have material resources, but she kept clawing and scratching her way toward the light. She refused to give up.
I remember the last time I saw my mother alive. She was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. As she had ever since she’d been in the nursing home, she just sat and smiled a half smile. The nursing staff loved her for her gentle manner. My wife, Nancy, asked me to say something to her. “God, Coach,” I said. “There’s no one there. What am I going to say?” Nancy went over to her and whispered in her ear. “You’re upset with him, Susie, aren’t you? He didn’t come to visit you last week.” Medical professionals would tell me it was my imagination, but I know better. Her eyes flashed. She was still there, fighting her way through the shadows.
At her funeral I was able to muster a few words of thanks – “You done good, Ma. You done good.”
If you’re thinking this piece was meant to evoke sympathy, you’d be dead wrong. My mother taught us to fight life’s headwinds and never give up. She parlayed brokenness into a family that includes children who are college graduates and successful professionals, a grandson who graduated from Harvard, and a granddaughter who is an author commanding huge literary advances.
Susie Park was indeed the gentle flower who never broke. She was, as poet Janet Brennan observed, a “flower held sturdy by its rust.” A man can’t get a better lesson in life than that.