116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The last conversation I had with my mother was not profound.
She was in the hospital in Belmond, my hometown. Her heart was failing and she was set to be transported to Mason City. It was a random weekday afternoon in April 2010.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said from my desk at The Gazette.
“OK,” she said.
Turns out she was being transferred by helicopter and coded on the flight. She was revived, but was heavily sedated when I got to Mason City and would stay that way until she underwent surgery several days later.
As we sat in the waiting room, a surgical nurse came to tell us they were having trouble getting her heart restarted after surgery. A little while later, they told us she was gone.
So we wandered, stunned, into the parking lot on a beautiful spring evening. My dad, ever practical, was on his phone talking with a friend who owns a funeral home in Belmond. My wife and I got in the car and headed back south.
It was supremely ironic that it was my mother’s heart that did her in, given how big and generous it was. Generosity was her trademark, whether you were one of her kids or grandkids or stray animals.
When we visited, she’d sneak me a check before we left, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She served us deserts bigger than our heads and filled giant gift bags at Christmas bigger than the grandkids that received them. With generosity came fairness. Every bag had the same amount of gifts down to the penny.
She taught kindergarten for years and then ran a nursery school, as the called it then, for many years with a dear friend.
In many ways she still lives. Sometimes through my keyboard.
She threw in with underdogs and cats. Taking them in, feeding them, taking them to the vet and providing heat and shelter in the winter.
Maybe that’s why I feel the need cry foul when politicians dump on the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Maybe it’s the indignation she felt in the face of cruelty that helps pound my keystrokes.
She once plopped down in the middle of a patch of violets in our front yard to keep my dad from mowing over them. Maybe that’s the spirit that causes me to spit nails when the politically powerful seek to defile our environment for profit.
She taught kids because she loved them and saw education as important, not to make a lot of money. So when Statehouse types start busting on public education, my mom and dad, who also spent his life in education, taught me to know better. They taught school before unions, and remembered what it was like to work through the whims of capricious administrators.
She wasn’t overly political. Although there is a good story about her staying up all night to see her candidate, John Kennedy, win in 1960, before waking up my dad to inform him his candidate, Richard Nixon, lost. But, in the interest of bipartisanship, she also once shared a piece of wedding cake with Chuck Grassley.
She was never convinced that journalism was my best bet. She saw the small paychecks and crappy apartments I lived in, and heard my complaints during phone calls. She always reminded me that it’s never too late to go to law school.
And yet after she died we found piles of newspapers and clippings she kept of stuff I wrote. She was always good at being simultaneously proud and worried.
She also lives in my kids. My daughter, Ella, in particular, shows regular flashes of grandma. Ella loves music and performing, just like my mother did as a child, even appearing in an old Hal Roach movie filmed in Mason City. Ella’s angry stare can shoot fire, like Mom’s.
Ella also has my mom’s penchant for getting names, song lyrics and pronunciations wrong. The kid who called bikinis zucchinis and ordered a “Charlie Niblet” instead of a Shirley Temple definitely has some Grandma Lee flowing in her veins.
My dad, who is now 89 and in memory care, asks about her often. I usually tell him she’s in a good place. And by that I mean still here with us.
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