April 29, 2000
A SPECIAL 81ST BIRTHDAY WISH FOR MY MOTHER
This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in 1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior; you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a devoted father—somehow you knew.
You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son without him. Your parents lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and died in your home. In the post-war era you gave birth to three more children, all of whom you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs, always putting others before yourself.
Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home at an early age for college, and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly third child you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.
With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being “weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from youthful vigor alone.
As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes that is who you still were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home, after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years. But be assured that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.
For living this well lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong. You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.
With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,
With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard
(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005. She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)