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A Tribute to Mom

October 21, 2018

Carolyn Patterson

June 13, 1934 – August 21, 2018

Mom 03 swing

A gentle smile

“People call and they don’t really know what’s going on.” This is what my mom told me, not long before she died, in describing an old friend of hers whom she’d spoken with by phone. In the background, Mom said she could hear her friend’s husband ranting about something and questioning why her friend was on the phone.

Hidden truths. Mom was talking about her friend, but she was also talking about her own life. So much of Mom’s life was hidden from view. I suspect she and all of us had some shame about our family situation. I know that I grew up ashamed of my family—ashamed of our father because of his alcoholism and ashamed of our mother because she stuck with him even though he mistreated her, and he was difficult for all of us to love. Mom’s death is an opportunity for me to take another look at her life and their life together, and my relationship with her. I want to shine light on those hidden parts of her experience, the parts that few people knew about, and I also want to remember the parts of her that she could not hide—music, laughter, movement, silliness, and jewelry—lots of jewelry.

When Dad died over four years ago (January 19, 2014), he died without friends, so the only people he had were Mom, my brother Gene, his wife Sheila, David (who was very new on the scene at that time), and me. I wrote in this post (here) about his best qualities as he suffered through cancer and also shared the post to Facebook when he died.

But the difficult things that would have had to be said in any true remembrance of him would only have embarrassed Mom. She never talked about having a memorial either. So a memorial—the kind where we remember all the great things about someone, and chuckle about a person’s foibles—did not make sense. It would not have felt right or authentic, and full exposure of the truth would not have been respectful to Mom.

I stopped being ashamed of my family, in my heart of hearts, a long time ago. But the habit of mind from childhood dies hard, and in reflecting on Mom and the life of our family, and what to say in the wake of her death, I also realize that I did not talk about her during her life as much as I might have, partly out of that residue of shame, and partly out of a desire to protect her from scrutiny. So I helped to keep some important truths hidden from view. Now I feel compelled to share her story, which of course is also our story—mine, my brother’s, and our father’s—from my point of view. If not now, then when?

Former Davis family home, Olean, NY

My grandparents raised the three girls in a home that remains very modest to this day with just two bedrooms (the girls in one and the parents in the other) and one bathroom. At about 1,000 square feet, it’s now priced in 2018 on Zillow at $69,000. Stories from Mom and my aunts, Doreen (Hornburg, deceased) and Marion (Swartz), as well as family photos, tell of a lot of love and happy times.

 

03 Mom 01

Her vulnerability is palpable here.

The Davis sisters

I love this relaxed and happy photo of the sisters Doreen, Mom, and Marion, July 1949

Mom’s life story is one of love, heartbreak, loyalty, and grit. A “eulogy” means “good word” or “praise,” but an authentic account that truly does justice to Mom’s life requires telling both the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows. Only by appreciating the full context and truth of Mom’s life can the many good words in this tribute to her achieve their full depth of meaning. Our mother was an “ordinary” person in the sense that she wasn’t rich, famous, or powerful like Aretha Franklin and John McCain (whom she so admired), whose deaths, the occasions of national remembrance, bookended hers. But when we consider the struggles Mom endured, the spirit she embodied, and the sheer triumph of her daily resilience and survival to age 84, Mom was an extraordinary woman. And I’m sure her story also shares a great deal in common with the stories of many other women of her time.

Carolyn June (Davis) Patterson—I am her namesake—was born June 13, 1934, in the small western New York town of Olean, third daughter of Walter C. Davis and Marion (Montie) Davis.

On graduating from high school or thereabouts, Mom worked for the Exchange National Bank in Olean as a bookkeeper. She earned and saved enough money to buy a Chevy sedan. She also owned a sailboat with my uncle Art (Arthur) Hornburg, her brother-in-law (married to Doreen), which they sailed at nearby Cuba Lake.

06 Mom 05 car and hat Easter 1955

Mom and her Chevy, Easter 1955

Our father, Richard David Patterson (known as “Dick” and by some as “Pat,” born June 12, 1933), was a year ahead of Mom in school, and she had her eye on him then, but they didn’t date until after high school. Dad was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and sent to Korea, writing letters to Mom that showed his offbeat (perhaps awkward?) sense of humor.

07 Dad - army

 

 

 

 

 

 

They married three years after his return, on December 15, 1956, and moved to Rochester, New York, where he was able to attend Rochester Institute of Technology on the GI Bill and nearly complete his engineering degree (but for the required speech class that he opted not to take out of painful shyness).

08 Mom 06 wedding 1956

Dad and Mom, wedding day (?), 1956

Mom and Dad had a son, my brother Gene, in early 1958. The Jet Age was dawning that same year on Seattle and the world with the launch of the Boeing 707, the first commercially successful jetliner, and Dad no doubt had heard that engineering jobs were available in the Seattle area. That summer, our parents drove with their baby across the country to Seattle.

09 Drive to Seattle

Driving from New York to Seattle, Mom and baby Gene, 1958

Dad had previously been stationed briefly at Ft. Lawton in Seattle (now Discovery Park in the Magnolia neighborhood) on his way to Korea, and most of his family of origin had moved to Washington state when my grandfather was relocated to work (I think) in the aluminum industry in the Bellingham area. Dad liked this area and had made the decision unilaterally; though Mom said it “broke her heart” to leave the rest of her family behind in New York, she went along to keep her new family intact. That wouldn’t be the last time she stood by him when she might have taken another path.

10 Mom 07 and Dad Gene 1958

Gene, Dad, Mom, Christmas 1958

Those early years of our family story were largely shaped by the history of aviation in the 1960s and early 1970s and the fateful successes and failures of the Boeing Company during that time. Dad was a Boeing engineer, and the first two houses we lived in were close to an expanding Sea-Tac Airport and not far from the Boeing Company offices where Dad worked. I was born in 1963 and as a very young kid I remember going with Dad to watch the enormous, thundering jet airplanes land and take off as we stood behind a chain link fence that separated us from the runway.

11 Mom 08 and Glenn 1963-64

Mom and I, Seattle 1964?

 

Mom was a full-time homemaker throughout that time, and as the photos reveal, she loved being a mother to us.

12-mom-10-and-gene-glenn.jpg

Gene, Mom, and I, Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, 1965?

But a difficult combination of events marked a turning point that changed her role and our family life forever. Dad lost his job as an engineer at Boeing in the painful waves of mass layoffs in 1969 and 1970 that devastated the region’s economy (a local billboard at the time: “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?”). At about the same time we lost our home, somewhat ironically, as our entire neighborhood was condemned to make way for the expansion of Sea-Tac Airport with the construction of a second runway.

13 Our house before

Our house – before

14 Our house after 1

Our neighborhood and house – after

 

My parents made the most of it, building a fire pit on the barricaded street next to our home out of chunks of concrete from a demolished home’s foundation nearby.

14 Our house fire pit

Our fire pit on the street: Dad, Gene, Glenn (now Davis), Mom, 1969

 

That was the last time my parents would own a home.

The love of Mom’s life, Dad was a complicated, difficult, and troubled soul. This portrait of his dark sides is necessary to appreciate both Mom’s struggles and some of her greatest qualities. Dad was cruelly teased for some kind of dyslexia as a young child (given the nickname “Dopey Dick,” and though he later excelled in intellectual pursuits, never gained full confidence in his abilities). Dad’s alcoholic father abused him in multiple ways while growing up. Dad was captured in an attack during the Korean War that left all his Army buddies dead. He was tortured while in captivity. I’m fairly sure that Mom married this handsome, smart, and shy but charming man without knowing much of the darkness that was inside of him. She certainly had no inkling of the difficulties that lay ahead.

By the time Dad lost his Boeing job and we lost our home, he was well on his way to a lifetime of alcoholism himself, including a couple of attempts at suicide. Alcohol allowed him to open up about childhood and war trauma that he had kept bottled up for years. We didn’t have the language then of “PTSD” as a bonified mental health condition, and we didn’t know about treatment for it, but we probably couldn’t have afforded it, and Dad would not have wanted it anyway. He was mostly unemployed through the 1970s, resorting to failed stock investments, betting on the horses at Longacres Racetrack, and even engaging in criminal activity (ask me if you want to know more) to get money, but these pursuits were mostly unsuccessful. He did not get a stable job again until after three months at an inpatient rehab facility in 1979 (all at no cost, the only way it would have been possible for our family living on the edge), after which he stayed sober for a time but eventually succumbed to the drinking culture at his new job. Despite how irresponsible, reckless, and even abusive he was, there were, still, many parts of him to love, including parts of him that I’m certain only she knew.

Mom became the main breadwinner, barely making ends meet through telemarketing for a portrait photographer and then for an insurance broker (Snapp and Sons), jobs that allowed her to work at home, from a card table set up in my parents’ bedroom, while being a full-time mom. Dad was eventually laid off when his company went bankrupt, the last job he ever had, many years before reaching retirement age when he could finally receive Social Security and Medicare coverage. He had no savings or pension. Mom earned money the rest of her working life to support herself and Dad. She eventually found jobs in retail, working for Goodwill, a grocery store, and finally retiring from many years at Lamont’s clothing store in Federal Way.

Yet despite supporting the entire family for so long, she never saw herself as the breadwinner, and never gained the confidence that she could actually make it without Dad. She limited herself in this way—always thinking she needed our father, for potential earnings, and for companionship. Though Dad would not admit it—quite to the contrary—he needed her. And perhaps that need, above all else, made her stay, not give up on him, when many would have. Gene and I counseled her many times to divorce him, and I think other close confidantes did as well. It wasn’t until after she went to live for a short time with her sister Marion in Tampa and returned to live with Dad again that she finally did divorce him and move into a small one-bedroom apartment. But it didn’t last. When Dad lost his job and couldn’t afford the rent on what had been our family home for nearly 20 years, where he had stayed, Mom let him move into her tiny apartment, just months after she had left him. They never separated again.

Thinking about Mom’s relationship with Dad, I have to acknowledge her loyalty, faith, and courage, tested over and over again by Dad, as she stuck with him to the very end of his life. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that he would have ended up homeless and lived a much shorter life without her, tragedies that have befallen many veterans and many with PTSD. Instead, he lived to age 80—remarkable considering all of his unhealthy habits, and a testament to her devotion and care.

And now—time to pause, and breathe deeply. Here is where this sad tale turns.

Because, despite all the profound disappointments, sadness, and difficulties of Mom’s life with Dad, she had real gusto for living. She worked extremely hard her entire life to earn money to support her family, run the household, raise her two sons (who turned out pretty well, I think), and take care of her husband, who was mostly incapacitated for a large part of their life together. And yet, she had energy to spare.

Mom was a saver, a coupon-clipper, a bargain hunter. It was the only way to survive and provide for the family on her wages. She counted every penny, often on little scraps of paper that seemed to multiply everywhere like the dust bunnies that she battled ferociously in her ultra-clean house. She used to scour Lamont’s where she worked to find clothes for me on sale, on top of which she received her employee discount, and then when I visited home, she would lay her bargains out on her bed for me to choose what I wanted. She once got me a beautiful leather jacket for $3.

Besides being frugal and thrifty, many other words come to mind about what I loved about Mom—she was adventurous, funloving, resilient, tough, devoted, full of gusto—but perhaps more than anything, I would say she was “game.” According to Merriam-Webster, “game” means “having or showing a resolute unyielding spirit” and being “willing or ready to proceed.” Sometimes it seemed she truly was game for anything.

15 Mom 12 Tampa Zoo 1988

Riding an elephant at Busch Gardens in Tampa, c. 1987

Sports and recreation. I already mentioned that she owned and sailed a boat with her brother-in-law, but Mom was also athletic:

She played softball.

She golfed.

She was an excellent swimmer (note her confident pose).

Grandpa, Mom, Grandma, Aunt Marion, early 1950s

She did Royal Canadian Airforce exercises (in the living room at home when I was growing up—as did Dad).

She ran.

She played soccer (breaking her leg, which healed fully).

She did aerobics.

She rafted.

17 Mom 14 and Gloria 1993

Friend Gloria and Mom, whitewater rafting, Wenatchee River, early 1990s

 

She hiked trails (Mt. Rainier was a favorite place).

18 Mom 18 and Dad 1995-96

Dad and Mom at Mt. Rainier, early(?) 1990s

 

She lifted weights.

She built her way up from being pushed in a wheelchair around Green Lake to walking the whole way, starting from the Hearthstone rehab facility—3 miles!—in late October last year at age 83, after a serious bout of pneumonia that had nearly killed her. And David was there, literally and figuratively, every step of the way on our journey with Mom at the end of her life.

19 Mom 34 and David Davis walking 2017 Sept

Getting ready for a 2.5-mile walk at Green Lake, recovering after pneumonia, September 28, 2017

 

She danced. I remember dancing with her and Gene to Caribbean music in a crowded disco in Belize City, Belize, when they visited me there in about 1987.

20 Mom 13 and Gene Glenn Belize 1988

Gene, Davis and Mom in Corozal, Belize, drinking cashew wine, c. 1987

31 Mom 16 and Davis dancing 1993

Mom and I dancing at a wedding, 1993

 

And she danced with David and me just two years ago, when she was 82 years old, at the wedding of my first cousin once removed, Sara Shipherd. She had had several falls that year and generally declining health, but we could not keep her down!

21 Mom 28 wedding dancing 2016

Dancing at age 82, Tampa, FL, 2016

 

Gusto for music, food, cats…. Mom loved many kinds of music, from old standards to the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and Gloria Estefan, to “smooth jazz,” and of course, Christmas music. She sang in the First United Methodist Church choir when she lived in Federal Way (attending for the fellowship and enjoyment even though she had not considered herself a Christian).

Mom also loved to eat. Just about every Sunday as I was growing up, she made four 13” pizzas for dinner (one for each of us) completely from scratch—the dough and sauce—from a recipe that she and Dad had adapted. She liked Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese pho, and she was ready to try many foods that were foreign and unfamiliar, including Indian food for Christmas dinner one year. Most of all, she loved desserts.

22 Mom 29 Hiroki 2016

With David and me at Hiroki, our favorite bakery, Seattle, WA, August 2016

23 Mom 19 Mexican restaurant 1999

65th birthday: Mexican food with dear friend Gloria, 1999

Mom enjoyed her diet 7-Up but also beer and rosé (white Zinfandel), not to mention a mixed drink or two. She generally denied herself alcohol around Dad (whether he was drinking or not), and relished the opportunity to have wine on the patio with her sister Marion on visits to Tampa.

24 Mom 21 and Petie 2006-07

Mom and sister Marion, 2006-2007

25 Mom 27 Petie wedding 2016

Mom and Marion, 2016

During her last days, after over a year of being on a feeding tube and not eating or drinking anything by mouth, we encouraged her to try anything she might enjoy, because we knew the end was coming. She wanted a beer, and she called me later, leaving a message to make sure we didn’t forget: “Dave, are you going to bring me that beer?” Gene brought a beer to the nursing home, but sadly it was too bitter for her taste buds that had become overly sensitive by then.

Mom loved cats—as our whole family did—taking in strays, giving away kittens in front of the supermarket, and filling her home with cat calendars and knick-knacks when she no longer had cats of her own.

26 Mom 11 Halloween

In a cat costume, probably for work at Goodwill, late 1980s?

Mom also drove a car until she was 82, and she did not want to give it up. She enjoyed driving. She was no “little old lady” about it either. Once just a couple of years ago while I was driving behind her (and she knew I was trying to follow her), she sped off leaving me behind at a stoplight (and I’m no slow-poke like many Seattle drivers!).

Mom stood by me my whole life. When I told her I was gay, though she was in shock (unlike nearly everyone else) and trying to comprehend all the implications, she immediately said to me, “I love you,” without hesitation, without question. She went to New York City for the first time to see me and my friends perform with the Seattle Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall, and she marched in the pride parade commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

27 Mom 17 Carnegie Hall 1994

Mom and I at Carnegie Hall, New York City, June 1994

Mom was ready to incorporate my partner into the family, not once but three times, and love each one like a son. After growing very attached first to one partner, then another, and grieving the end of each relationship, she didn’t hesitate to welcome David into the family and was extremely pleased to safeguard and hand me his ring during our wedding ceremony.

 

 

 

 

Davis and David get married

Gene supports Mom giving me David’s ring, September 10, 2016

Davis and David get married

With our mothers: Mom, Davis, David, and Ann, September 10, 2016

Mom enjoyed travel, with yearly trips to Tampa to see her sister Marion and family, and Pullman to visit Gene and Sheila, and discovering new places, such as New York City, Washington, DC, and foreign countries, visiting me in Belize and Costa Rica, and Mexico with Gene and me, not to mention Canada.

32 Mom 25 DC 2015 May

Mom does DC: at the White House with David and me, May 2015

Mom was a joiner and an extravert at heart. She made lasting friends through church, at work, where she lived, and elsewhere. After Dad died, she got more involved in her apartment building as the treasurer for the tenants’ association, a member of the activities committee, and a volunteer at the food bank operated on the ground floor.

She diligently kept track of her friends’ and family members’ addresses and phone numbers in a confusing (to me) array of address books and myriad scraps of paper, which showed how important they all were to her. When she was in the nursing home and in declining health, her friends showed their love and support with cards, calls, and visits. David and I are forever grateful to her friends—Gloria, Pat, Carolyn, and others—and to our friends—Scott, Eric, and Isaac, and Holly and John, who also visited her while we were on vacation—and so many other friends who supported us just by listening or pointing us to resources. Mom also made an impact on the staff of Queen Anne Healthcare, whose care of her she and we greatly appreciated.

33 Mom 26 and Gloria 2015-11-07

Mom and Gloria, Federal Way United Methodist Church Holiday Fair, November 2015

Mom trusted me and others to show her a good time, and to take care of her. She was consistently vulnerable that way. And where I led, or Gene led, or David led, or her sister Marion led, or Gloria or another friend led her, she was usually only too happy to follow, particularly as she became older and in poorer health. She spent the last 15 months of her life fighting back against bouts of aspiration pneumonia. Though she retained most of her mental capabilities, she had mysteriously lost the ability to swallow properly. This meant many walks at Green Lake last fall and again early this year to build her strength, and when walking was no longer possible, to wheel her around so she could enjoy the views.

It’s only during this time, after seeing Mom work so hard to live, and live as well as she could, to be active, to enjoy what she could, that I’ve come to appreciate fully what she has to teach me. When I was younger, I hardly ever thought of her as a strong person. I thought she was weak for staying with Dad rather than striking out on her own. But nothing is so simple. And now I’ve seen just how gritty and resilient she was. And I’m truly, deeply inspired by her, perhaps for the first time.

34 Mom 35 ice pack 2018-08-20

The day before she died, Mom jokes on seeing the ice pack on her head that looks like a fancy hat: “Meghan Markle,” August 20, 2018

Others saw her grit and resilience, but I didn’t, not completely, and not without lots of qualification. Gloria—aerobics instructor, church companion, birthday buddy, and close friend—called Mom her “ox.” Julie, the hospice nurse, told us she was “blown away” by Mom’s resilience the day before she died, because she had gone 5 days without taking any substantial comfort measures, and she had enjoyed herself so much with almost no fluid or nutrition.

As she was approaching death, I had several conversations with her about the end of her life, including the morning of the day she died. I asked her if she had any unfinished business, and she said, “I don’t have anything to apologize for.” She had had a good weekend visiting with Gene and Sheila and talking on the phone with her sister Marion and Marion’s family as well as friends, including the one with the angry husband. No Mom, you had nothing to apologize for, and in the end, I think little to regret. And now that people really know what was going on all those years, it’s time to recognize and appreciate just how strong, vulnerable, courageous, tender, devoted, and loving a mother you were. You made us a family against the odds.

 

35 Mom 22 and Gene Davis 2007

Gene, Mom, and I on a boat, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, 2007

36 Mom 23 Sheila Gene and Davis 2007-09

Sheila, Gene, Mom, Davis, Oregon, mid-2000s

37 Mom 24 and Davis 2009-10

Mom and I, c. 2009-10

38 Mom 09 and Gene Glenn

Being a mother, with Glenn (Davis) and Gene, 1965

Determination! One of three 3-mile walks Mom did with David and me in October 2017.

 

Willed Body Program

Mom donated her body for research and education to the Willed Body Program at the University of Washington, as did our dad.

Donations

Donations in Mom’s honor may be made to these organizations (all highly rated, listed in alpha order):

Crisis Connections (formerly Crisis Clinic) one of the oldest crisis lines in the nation, is home to five programs focused on serving the emotional and physical needs of individuals across Washington State, including crisis intervention and chemical dependency services: www.crisisconnections.org

Girls on the Run inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running: www.girlsontherun.org

Habitat for Humanity helps families to build and improve places to call home: www.habitat.org

Seattle Area Feline Rescue (SAFER) saves the lives of homeless, neglected and at-risk cats and kittens by spaying and neutering, by providing safe refuge and rehabilitation, and by finding felines permanent, stable homes: www.seattleareafelinerescue.org

The Washington State Parks Foundation protects and improves all of Washington’s State Parks through advocacy, educational programs, project funding, and building a network of park supporters: waparks.org

The Wounded Warrior Project offers a variety of services and advocacy for veteran transitions to civilian life and challenges, both visible and invisible: www.woundedwarriorproject.org

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5 Comments
  1. Mark Anderson permalink

    Thank you for this history of my sweet Aunt Carolyn!! So many gaps in her life are filled here for me. Sadly enough I learn more about my Mom each time I ask her questions. “Thelma and Louis” had many good times. They were loving and stubborn to each other like siblings are but unconditional love was the underlying factor. And both very funny! Never knew your Dad. Your Mom had so much love and support from her sons and spouses. My Mom is lonely without your Mom to call but is thankful she is not suffering anymore. Hard to outlive your sisters. Thanks again for this! Made me think of whats important on this Monday morning. Love you all.

  2. Davis – What a powerful, poignant and moving tribute to your Mom! Thank you! Putting that together and expressing it must have been powerful for you, too! It would be great to get together with you and David soon – as soon as the dust clears a bit for Ann, and I get back on my feet again after my second hip replacement in December. In the meantime, I hope life is treating you both well. Best wishes, Peter

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Peter, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It has been quite powerful for me to write and share this. Thank you for taking the time to read it! Hope you’re healing well from your first hip replacement and that the next one goes well. We would love to get together with you and Ann when you’re up to it!

  3. Zemo Trevathan permalink

    Davis, as you share how inspired you are by your mom, I am once again inspired by you (definitively NOT for the first time!). Yes to what Mark and Peter already reflected back to you — powerful, poignant, moving, revealing, sweet… Thank you for pouring your beautiful soul into this, for being the kind of person who knows when the time is right for sharing, and for allowing all of us to join you in the larger truths and paradoxes of your mom’s “game” life. This gave me all kinds of thoughts about what I might want to write, now that my very “game” mom has passed on, as well as my alcoholic, but-in-many-ways admirable father… but I’ll give it some more time before I decide. (For one thing, my mom’s second husband is still alive, and I don’t think the time is right…). Nonetheless, this is a work of beauty, a gift to her spirit and to me, and I thank you for the craft and compassion with which you compiled it. And, of course, the part that sent me over the edge into sobs (and again now as I write this) was the part where she unhesitatingly said to you “I love you.” As do I!

  4. Zemo, thank you, thank you, thank you! One of the best parts of sharing this story of my mom’s life and our lives has been realizing that it is more than just a way for me to process all of this, but that it has been meaningful to others, including my dearest old friends like you, and our relatives, but also people who I’ve known in more limited ways. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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