Mother. Snapshots of Lives Outside the Limelight #1

Author’s note: this was written on April 14, and is the first in an occasional series profiling ordinary people whose lives touched mine one way or another, sometimes in a big way, helping shape who I am and the views I presently hold. It is something of an experiment. If people like it, I will continue with it. I post it here for Mother’s Day. Incidentally, obviously, we’ve not yet moved as I’ve not been satisfied with any of the alternative sites I’ve looked at as a possible new home for Lost Generation Philosopher.

As I write, this week is the tenth anniversary of the passing of my mother, Alice Mae Belles Yates (Nov 14, 1923 – Apr 14, 2011). As much as I miss her, part of me is grateful she did not live to see the world as it is now.

Both my parents were Depression children and then teenagers. They were fortunate in having fathers who remained employed during those years. One of my grandfathers was a baker; the other, a railroad engineer. As pre-teens, they knew what scarcity was. They saw plenty of it, and doubtless it shaped both their mindsets for life.

They did not grow up with the sense of entitlement that dominates the mindsets of whole generations today.

Both were 18 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Both enlisted. The man who became my dad served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Cuttlefish (Pacific Theater), and the woman who became my mom trained to become an Army Nurse serving on the Island of Guam. The irony is that at time my parents were only a few miles apart, though they would not meet until they were both back in the U.S., well after the war’s end.

They married in 1952, and I popped out four and a half years later.

When I was 5, Mom took me to a public library and checked out a book on the planets. I was hooked — especially on science. Both parents believed education was the key to success in life. At the time, that was more right than not. They also believed education begins at home. I would argue, this is still right.

I grew up surrounded by encyclopedias, textbooks, treatises. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica, the World Book Encyclopedia, and a series called Childcraft. Dad (the first in his family to go to college) had a BS and an MS in chemistry, and his chemistry, physics, and biology texts lined bookshelves. Mom had earned an RN, and her medical texts were also around. Dad also loved military history, so there were plenty of books on WWII, U.S. history, one or two on the ancient world, and more.  

I’m more than aware that not every kid grows up surrounded by books and encouraged to read. I consider this a shame. Not enough has been done to encourage respect for education — the real thing, as opposed to glorified job training. This is one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.

As an adult, of course, I became convinced that powerful people do not want a population of readers and well-educated critical thinkers.

I was 6 when JFK was assassinated. It was the first time I saw my mom cry. I wanted to know why she was crying, and I distinctly remember, “Somebody shot the president of the United States.” My child’s mind wanted to know, Didn’t they know he was the president? 

She had liked JFK, voted for him, and would have voted for his brother in ’68 had he not also been assassinated. My dad, a staunch conservative Republican in the big business mode, didn’t care for the Kennedys. Neither cared for Ted, by any measure the black sheep whose policies, starting with 1965’s immigration law, were divisive and destructive.

Mom was the first person in my life to plant seeds of doubt about the official narrative of JFK’s assassination. It probably began two days later, when we returned home from church to learn that one Jack Ruby had gotten past two or three dozen police officers with a loaded gun and into Lee Harvey Oswald’s heavily-guarded cell where he shot him to death.

“How does something like that happen?!” she asked my father, who shrugged.

The truth is, something like that won’t happen unless someone wants things to play out that way. Unless the Dallas Police were utterly incompetent. I doubt this.

As we watched the gloomy funeral procession on our small, black-and-white television, I recall a sense that something terrible had happened to the country.

The 1960s saw those other political assassinations: Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr. In both cases, there were things that did not add up. One of my South Carolina friends (who’d had a relative with the LAPD in the case of the former) later presented me with decisive reasons to believe that with Bobby at least, the real killer got away.

Bobby wanted to end the war in Vietnam. Powerful people wanted that war to continue. We all figured this out later. Bobby had America’s youth in his pocket. I’m of the view that he would have defeated Nixon in one of history’s biggest landslides. The entire history of the country might have been different. Or not, since those with real power always have a Plan B. And of course, there are no ways to devise tests for what might have happened but didn’t. 

My feelings about such ideas as civil rights which flourished under LBJ’s administration and later were mostly positive. Treat people fairly. As a kid who was different because he wore glasses, was lousy at team sports, and read too many books, I knew what it was to be an outsider. I could only imagine an entire race of people treated as second class citizens. I remember reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy and being moved by it. Thus when I learned more about nondiscrimination laws in high school, I felt that they were right.

My impression of the black kids themselves, though, is that (with rare exceptions) they wanted nothing to do with us. No intelligent effort was ever made at my high school to “integrate” them. We didn’t “hate” them. We did not understand them, and they did not understand us. Most people vaguely fear what they don’t understand, and that was my white friends and I in high school.

Mom counseled being decent to them. “Most of the time if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you,” were her words on one occasion.

As she grew older, her primary political villain became Lyndon Baines Johnson (on this, she and my dad were on the same page). She was convinced that LBJ had been involved in JFK’s assassination. The older I became, the more convinced I was that even if this was false, he certainly knew the inside story. I had the impression he did what the power elite of the day wanted him to do out of fear for his own life.

He thus screwed up royally in Vietnam, and positioned the civil rights movement for its hijacking with his “Shackled Runner” argument (I’ve no idea if he read a certain essay called “Repressive Tolerance” by a Marxist professor, Herbert Marcuse). 

My mom believed LBJ committed suicide, and it was covered up. Again I don’t know if this is true or not. I do know she gave such matters thought. She’d read several of the available books on the assassinations of that era, and did not reach her conclusions lightly.

The strength of that era, the 1960s, was its optimism and openness to new narratives. Some of that strength survived into the 1970s, during which I learned the value of setting aside what “everybody knows” and snooping around on my own. I read everything from Biblical archeology to books like T.S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, 1970) which sold me on studying the philosophy of science professionally.

The weakness of 1960s idealism was its ghastly inattention to the communist element, utterly unprincipled and willing to use legitimate causes to further its goals. Even Dr. King, whom I never believed was himself a communist, was blind to the communists orbiting him like hawks.

Both my parents knew I would end up a writer. My mother saw the rise and part of the fall of my academic career. She always encouraged me to write what I believed was true to the best I could. Unlike my father, who with age grew increasingly cynical. He spoke of my “big mouth” and told me it would only get me into trouble (on more than one occasion he was right).

My mother had two life-threatening health crises. When she was in her teens she had an attack of acute appendicitis. For over a week it went undiagnosed as anything worse than a really bad intestinal cramp. The other, when I was in the fifth grade, was a cervical cancer diagnosis. Emergency surgery was successful, but she had to be checked every six weeks for months afterward in case the cancer had metastasized. It had not. By God’s grace, the surgeon had got it all. 

On April 15, 1999, she suffered a massive, disabling stroke. My dad found her on the bedroom floor. When she was clearly struggling to say, “My feet went out from under me,” he knew what had happened and immediately called 911.

The remainder of my mother’s life would be a struggle. She would prove to be the greatest fighter I ever saw.

After months of physical therapy and over two years of hard work she reached the point of being able to get around the house on her own using a cane. But in May of 2002, my parents had an automobile accident. A girl pulled from a side street in their woodsy neighborhood without looking. My dad could not stop in time. Mom suffered a painful back injury, also had bone fragments lodged in her hip that had to be surgically removed. She never fully recovered from this setback. Never again was she able to walk unassisted, cane or otherwise.

My parents won a six-figure settlement from BMW, as the girl had been driving a company car as an uninsured driver. Lawyers took more than a third of it. Naturally.

My dad had received a nasty bump on the head which he would not allow anyone to examine. A few years later, he began exhibiting early signs of dementia, initially forgetting how to do easy computer tasks like empty his email trash folder. He lost passwords and made buying decisions that made no sense (in 2005 he bought a van, which Mom could not climb into without a lot of assistance).

The dementia progressed until it showed up in his bookkeeping, which by early 2008 was a shambles.

This was someone once complimented by an IRS agent on his bookkeeping skills (he was audited when I was a graduate student).

To make a long story short, Dad did not have a caretaker’s personality, but was not trusting enough to allow anyone else to care for my mom unsupervised. This was very unfortunate. Nor was he a patient person, and I will never know how much stress my mother was under because of his impatience with her worsening physical incapacities.

Then, on June 8, 2008, both had a bad fall in front of a local restaurant. Dad lost his balance, and as he’d been assisting my mom, she went down with him.

It was downhill from there on out. I had to put both parents in assisted living, but repeated falls sent them into nursing care. Both needed round-the-clock care by this time, and since I had two teaching jobs, that seemed the only option. Mom and I found a good facility. I fell into the pattern of visiting my parents every Thursday afternoon/evening and every Saturday.

My dad’s dementia worsened. Abrupt changes of venue were probably a contributing factor. He would forget where he was, even what city he was in. Not remembering how he’d gotten there, he’d ask, “How long is this vacation for?” On more lucid days he’d obsess over whether the bills were being paid, and had trouble accepting my assurance that they were. He never learned how much it was costing to keep them there; suffice it to say, the BMW settlement was a godsend! Also the fact that he’d owned stock which could be sold. He would badger my mom, and she’d tell him, “Ask Steve.” He never did.

There were days when he’d confuse me with his younger brother. Such days increased with time. Eventually he was struggling to speak coherently. Word salad came out.

One reason I can say with reasonable certainty that Joe Biden is in the early stages of dementia is that I’ve seen it up close. I know what it looks like. I take no pleasure in this. I would not wish Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia on my worst enemy. I can barely stand to watch Biden struggle to get words out when he speaks, and I understand why there was no State of the Union Address this year. What astounds me is the collective blind spot of liberals who can’t see it. I question the collective sanity of a nation that allows someone in that condition to be instilled in the White House, whatever his party affiliation or ideological beliefs.

Obtaining Veterans Administration benefits for my parents exemplified how stupid many federal employees really are. Applications kept coming back, “Marital status unclear.” Both were WWII Veterans, remember. The paper shufflers seemed unable to discern, they were processing applications from two Veterans married to each other. (Maybe the VA should hire a few white men? Ya think?)  

Dad passed away two days before Christmas in 2009 from vascular dementia related complications. He was 86. My mom grieved and then kept fighting, lucid as could be (everyone was watching). We had many good conversations. Still a current events junkie, she would watch CNN in her nursing home room (“Can’t you find something better than the Clinton News Network?” I would ask with a skewed smile, but she had no computer access and there were no televised equivalents of NewsWithViews.com). She cross-stitched when I was not around, and with only one-usable hand, her products (which I still have) were truly heroic.  

Then, in late 2010, her health began to fail. Something was going on in her blood, and neither the resident doctor nor a specialist could diagnose it (she had two transfusions). By mid-March, 2011, she was having trouble keeping food down. Her weight dropped precipitously.

At some point, she told me of a dream she had. She’d been looking at a napkin, and on it, in Dad’s distinctive handwriting, was, “I love you and I’ll see you soon.”

The fight went out of her, bit by bit. Soon she was weak as a kitten, and barely able to speak. Late afternoon, April 13, I got the call, which went something like, “You better get down here.” I stayed with my mother the entire evening holding her hand as she gradually and quietly went to sleep. She stopped breathing at 1:35 am the following morning. She was 87.

Just a few months previous — I don’t recall what prompted the remark — she’d noted something that had escaped me.

“Do you realize, there haven’t been any political assassinations since the attempt on Reagan’s life?”

All I could say was, “You’re right. Isn’t that interesting?”

Isn’t it, though? Since the early 1990s we’ve had four presidents who were hated by significant fractions of the population. Although there was abundant gun violence during those years, there were no “lone gunmen.” That we know of.

Could it be because however powerful the elites became, in the Internet age they understood: they’d never get away with what they got away with back in the 1960s? Almost no one would believe another “lone gunman” narrative these days.

I find this just a little bit encouraging. A little bit.

Steven Yates’s new book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory should be published by Wipf and Stock later this year.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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