Seventeen years ago today, my mother, Helen Waugh Leatherwood, died. To say I loved her would be an understatement. I adored her.
She was a complicated woman. Married to my father for 32 years until he died of cancer, she then lived with a woman, her beloved Dorothy, for 29 years more.
She had seven kids, one of whom she lost at birth, then she returned to college in her mid-thirties to earn a Master’s degree in Sociology and later a Doctorate in Counseling. She received her Ph.D. at age 53, the same year I graduated from high school. 1971. She went on to have almost a thirty year career as a psychologist until just before she died in 2000.
Mom was educated, opinionated, smart and an ardent feminist. She taught me not to settle for less than I wanted in life, to speak up for myself and others and to always question authority, particularly when the authority was suggesting I shouldn’t question.
She was also deeply religious. A lifelong Episcopalian, Mom read incessantly about church history, theology and faith. She loved C.S.Lewis so much that she gave my little brother the same initials, CSL. We attended church every Sunday during my youth and Ray, the girls and I met her almost every Sunday at church when we lived near each other in Texas. “The Eucharist is a weekly obligation,” she’d say and she lived that belief. She served on endless committees, the altar guild, the vestry, had lifelong friendships with several priests and was a strong supporter for women in the priesthood.
Mom had a love-hate relationship with lots of things, ignorance being primary. She also couldn’t stand weakness or sentimentality and she set high standards that were sometimes hard to meet. She also was not one for traditional women’s roles. I don’t ever remember her making breakfast, lunch or dinner when I was growing up and she only cooked a pot roast on Sundays because our housekeeper/cook was off that day. She was a tidier, but not a cleaner. I don’t remember ever seeing her vacuum or dust. She was clear that as long as she had the money, she was happy to pay someone else to do that. Instead, the clickety-clack of her typewriter was the primary sound I remember. She typed her Master’s thesis and dissertation on her electric typewriter and read, read, read every book that was in her very large library.
My mother lost two sons to AIDS in the 1990’s. These were two of the saddest times of her life. She made scrapbooks for both of my brothers filled with their photos, letters, and mementos. She also included the bereavement cards from friends and family sent after they died. These books seem to help her process her loss.
She gave up smoking when my brother George was diagnosed with jaw cancer and had to have his jaw removed. No more smoking for him or her. Cold turkey. Ironically, she died twenty years later of oat cell carcinoma in her lungs. No doubt, she would have died much sooner had she not stopped smoking when she did.
Mom loved me deeply. She called me, “My beauty,” and she beamed with pride when I walked across the stage with my Master’s degree in Counseling. “Always be able to earn your own money,” she said. “A woman who can support herself helps equalize a marriage.” She was not as happy when I decided to begin buying and selling antiques with Ray. “You have decided to become a merchant?” she asked. “But what about your education?” She was mad at Ray for luring me away from counseling, but she loved him all the same. “He’s the smartest student I’ve ever had,” she said. (Ray had taken courses under her in college.) “But remember that he’s a rebel. He will question every belief. I watched him do it in my Sociology class. ‘But why does it have to be that way?’ he would say.'” True enough and, ironically, not so very different from herself.
Before she died, our family travelled to Texas from California and I spent time with Mom in her hospital room. “I want you to know that you and Ray have one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen,” she said. “And such sweet girls. You two have really made it.” This was quite a compliment coming from the woman who was horrified when we started selling antiques out of the back of my VW station wagon at Canton Trades Day.
My mother “got” me. She understood me in a way that few people have and I loved her for that. She said one day after I was talking about a book that I was reading, “You’re going to be a wonderful writer one of these days. You have such a deep affection for the written word.” That was long before I started writing seriously. I hold those words close to my heart.
I am lucky to have had a woman who was such a strong role model for me. She was a lifelong learner, a fiery women’s advocate and a devout believer in “Our Lord.” When I asked her once how she could be so sure that Christianity was true, she just shook her head and said, “I don’t think it’s true, I know.”
Much love to you, Mom. I am proud to have your name – Helen Leatherwood – and to be your daughter. You were far from perfect, but far more perfect than most. If what you “know” is true, we’ll be seeing each other again one of these days. I must admit, I believe we will indeed.
Patricia (my best friend), Me and Mom in 1978