The reception so far given “My Mother’s Lover,” my story at The Atavist of my mother’s WWII romance, has been immensely gratifying. Published late yesterday at Amazon, it shot by this afternoon to the #1 spot among Amazon’s Kindle Singles and 61st among all Kindle sales. “In uncovering and unraveling his family’s secrets, Dobbs draws out a heartrending narrative arc without sentimentality,” the Kindle reviewer says, and if that’s so, I’ve partly hit my target. If you’re among those who’ve bought the book or spread the word, many thanks. (And if you’re inclined, feel free to write a review at the site; I’m told it makes a big difference.)
The kind review, however, erred in saying that “for decades … [my mother] moved on with ersatz lovers and spouses,” apparently mixing up my grandmother’s serial marriage patterns with my mother’s one postwar marriage — an understandable error, but one my mother would be quick to forcefully correct.
She’s not here, so to correct that record, and to give both readers and potential readers a sense of the woman, I’m posting below a lightly condensed version of the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s memorial services soon after her death in November 2001. As I noted in the story, it’s slightly possible (as the review error above suggests) to read “My Mother’s Lover” and not fully appreciate how ferociously my mother maintained a sense of morality and good conduct, or how strong she was — traits that probably rose partly in reaction to her WWII adventures that in turn look anomalous by comparison. She was, as I put it in a paragraph that ended up on the cutting room floor, a woman who
woke most days at five to read and swim (a neighbor with a pool let her do her quiet laps in those wee hours); rouse 3 or 4 or 5 children with a cheerful “Rise and shine!”; and then smile or cut her way, as needed, through another day. She taught us bridge and table manners and etiquette and to treat everyone, and especially women, with respect; to open doors for people not as strong as you were, and for her too; to help small children and hate Richard Nixon; and to always conduct yourself in a way that you would never have to apologize for or hide from.
This comes out a bit more clearly in my eulogy for her. I gave this twice, on the day and the day after what would have been her 81st birthday, in Presbyterian churches in Houston and Austin that she was long active in. Some context drawn on in a couple places: This was two months after 9/11; and we were in church.
Eulogy for Jane Preston
b. Nov 21, 1920, died Nov 7, 2001
Nov 20, 2001, Houston, and Nov 21, 2001, Austin
Thanks to all of you who have assembled here to help us celebrate and remember our mother, Evelyn Jane Preston.
My mother tended to make strong impressions on people. When I was very young, my friends would often be so charmed by her that they wanted to trade mothers with me. I never took them up on the offer. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized she could make a whole variety of impressions on others. This came clear when I was 16, when the friend of a friend of mine reacted with shock that my mother and I were kin. He was a psychologist who worked at a large Houston mental health facility, and in the course of small talk he asked me what my parents did. When I told him my mother was a psychiatrist, he asked her name, and I told him.
“Jane Preston?” he said.
I said, “Yeah, why?”
Decorum prevents me from repeating exactly what he said next. But it translates as “Expletive deleted – that’s your mother?”
I said, “Yeah, why?”
“Well expletive deleted,” he said. “Everybody I work with is scared to death of that woman.”
“Scared of my mom?” I said — forgetting for a moment that there were times when I too was scared of her. My mother could lacerate those who defied her or stood in her way. Yet she was also one of the warmest, most generous of people. She was tremendously complicated, and you can comprehend her only by fully facing her contradictions. She thought nothing was impossible, but was often impossible herself. She was immensely tough, yet vulnerable and loving. And while she loved intensely and was loved by many, it never seemed entirely clear that she loved herself.
She insisted on a ferocious sense of morality and ethics that, if you were her child, could turn around on you – and sometimes her. During some of our most heated arguments — arguments in which I was quite certain, still am certain, actually, that she was wrong — I also recognized that it was from her that I had learned not just my sense of what was right, but the importance of defending it. I remember thinking too, in the midst of those battles, that no matter what I said or how mad she got, I would never have to doubt her love for me or my own for her. She was not changeable that way.
My wife, who could not come down with us from Vermont this week, as she is 8 months pregnant, told me last week, “You know, your mom always told you how lucky she was to have you.” And what a thing to convey to someone – to tell them with conviction, all your life, that it was a good day when you were born; that you are a gift to the world, and the world a gift to you. That was, I think, Evelyn Jane’s real message to the entire world: Come what may, it is a fine thing to live.
She herself was a gift to many, though her own earliest days might have told her otherwise.
She was born in Dallas, in 1920, to a mother not ready for motherhood. When my mother was two, her care was passed to her maternal grandmother, a woman named Ivy, and her husband Gene. They took her in wholly and lovingly, and she was befriended as well by her cousin Betty Lou, whose dedication and friendship never faltered, despite many tests.
Yet my mother suffered, in the small Texas towns in which she grew up, for having a mother who lived a bit fast and loose. She was stung horribly by those who held her mother’s behavior against her, and she would never forget it. All her life she held the highest standards of conduct for herself and her children, teaching us that our actions reflect on our families and that we must take responsibility for that. If you did something that threatened moral embarrassment, she would lay into you with trembling jaw and firey eyes.
At the same time, she never forgot the many in her own family and in those towns – teachers, church members, storekeepers — who recognized that she was her own person, and that she should be judged by her own behavior and not her mother’s. So she always carried and taught, along with a high standard of behavior, a standard of fair judgment to individuals regardless of their upbringing. You were to be judged on your own merits – and to judge others likewise, without prejudice.
My mother was not lucky in love. She was suited, however, to work, to community, and to raising children. As a child, you didn’t necessarily get an easy ride, but the journey seldom bored, and she took you a long way. As to work, she was a wonder. Despite her tough beginnings, she finished college and went through medical school as a single working mom; bore three children during her internship and residency, sometimes returning to 24-hour shifts only 48 hours after delivering; and bore two more children as she built a thriving medical practice. All this — and played a pretty good piano.
She specialized in psychiatry, perhaps because she knew so much already what it was to have self-doubt pressed upon you by circumstance and temperament. She helped thousands, and her colleagues recognized her as one of the sharpest and most effective doctors of her generation. Neighbors and church members, too, knew they could come to her to seek confidential advice from a compassionate healer and helper.
She also became an energetic community leader, fighting hare-brained development schemes, and held scores of leadership offices in the medical community, constantly urging her peers to bring better care to more people. In her later years she helped pioneer telemedicine, which uses interactive video to deliver medical services to remote populations. This work put her in contact with the great leaders of American medicine, people like C. Everett Koop and Michael DeBakey. I would be lying if I said Mother took no vain pleasure in keeping such company; she loved it, and delighted in dropping names. But she never lost sight of the real mission, which was bringing needed care to those who couldn’t get it otherwise. She was always first and foremost a healer: aware of her power, determined to use it to help. And this was all, mind you, while raising six kids and being a constant presence in their lives. She taught us to be kind. She taught us to help those less fortunate. She taught us to try hard. She taught us to love our families. She taught us to laugh. She taught us to love music.
In her later years, my mother would sometimes be what we called “a bit difficult.” Illness and medication dulled her once peerless mind, and she sometimes grew confused and angry. She forgot things. She sometimes could not think well. She was a hammer that could not smash a bubble. It frustrated, frightened, and infuriated her. Occasionally she took this out on those around her. She alienated a few friends and tested the fortitude of others.
Yet on she fought, trying to continue her work — insisting on being there. She would not ignore life, and she would not have life ignore her.This speaks of her frustration. But it also speaks of one of her most essential qualities: She had an immense drive to live, to do, to be. I have never seen anyone so strong, so determined, so capable of prevailing in virtually any situation.
I used to think my mother as like a rocket — propelled powerfully, at unbelievable velocity, unstoppable. More recently I’ve realized she was actually like a whole rocket program — one spectacular launch after another, each ripping a huge streak through the sky. Some launches bellowed a fearsome noise and power; others traced graceful arcs of beauty; a few exploded, scattering hopes and debris, causing the entire operation to regroup for a while … before launching another that caused the same sharp intake of breath, the same apprehension, the same awed admiration.
I was never sure, of course, if it was just myself that saw my mom that way. Was she as strong as I thought?
This question was answered by another older friend of mine, another psychologist, as it happens, a fellow named Mike. I knew Mike in my twenties; he was a man of wide experience who in a previous career as a journalist had met and interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Anwar Sadat and other Mideast leaders, and who had interviewed closely, as both journalist and psychologist, thousands of smart, high-powered men and women. Mike was one of the most astute quick judges of character I have ever known. He could talk to someone for five minutes and tell you their most essential dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses. He met my mother at a wedding once – shook her hand, made small talk for a couple minutes. Afterwards he came to me and said: “David, you weren’t exaggerating. That’s the strongest woman I have ever met.”
Yet now she lies scattered — surrendered to the weakness that eventually claims us all.
We have seen, of late, that sometimes even the biggest, most imposing structures in our lives can fall. Struck unexpectedly, they collapse. In the aftermath we stand stunned. We hardly know what to do. Where once rose a beacon, now stands nothing. The world, we say, will never be the same.
And that is true. It will not be the same: We must find a way to go on, to lead our lives well, bravely, intelligently, charitably, with dignity.
It’s tempting to say also, when we lose someone the stature of Jane Preston, that the world is now a smaller place. And that makes a certain sense – that the world should be made lesser when we lose the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
Yet this is not so. The world is not left smaller by the passing of such a person. Rather, it’s that for a time, lowered to the ground, standing with our heads bowed, we cannot see as much of the world as we did before. And for a brief time, our heads lowered in sadness, we lose sight of all she has left.
But then, lifting our heads, we begin to see just that – all that she has left us: the thousands whose wounds she has salved; the streets, neighborhoods, schools, and churches she has made stronger; the colleagues she has inspired to ambitions and heights they had before ignored; and the six children she has raised, imperfect but brave and good, and the fine open faces of five impossibly beautiful grandchildren.
If we only take her example – if we stand tall no matter what our height — we can see all this, and we can find pleasure and strength in seeing how much greater a place she has left the world. Looking up in thankfulness and wonder and sadness, we can see that even though all that remains of Evelyn Jane Preston is the fading trail of her course across the sky, even that trace of her leaves the world bigger and brighter.
To read more about Evelyn Jane, pick up a copy of My Mother’s Lover, either iPad or Kindle, at The Atavist.