Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Centennial Remembrance

My mother, Katherine Pié Fleming, was born this day in 1915.  She was the fourth of eight children born to Charles and Nora Pié and grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during the depression.  She wanted to become a librarian but college was out of the question and she ended up going to nursing school at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC where she worked as a psychiatric nurse in the late 30's and during the war years.  She met my father, Frank Fleming, in Washington when he was stationed there before going overseas.  They married after his return and began a family.  In 1949 my father accepted a pharmacist job with Peoples Drug Stores in Danville, Virginia where they lived the rest of their lives.

Mother was not your typical neighborhood housewife in Danville.  Compared to my friend's mothers, she was not especially good at keeping house and her cooking was adequate but not especially inspired.  I'm sure that having picky eaters for husband and son (me) didn't lend itself to creative cooking.  Her creativity was channeled into her writing.  She wrote two novels and lots of poetry.  She had a good sense of humor and, like my father, was an avid reader.  My most enduring memory of both parents is them sitting on the two sofas in our living room with drinks beside them and books in hand.  She was also an excellent seamstress.

Her life fell apart when my father died in in 1962.  She was highly dependent on him and never fully recovered from the loss.  She suffered numerous breakdowns and hospitalizations in a town with absolutely no psychiatric services whatsoever.  Not that she did not try--in 1964 she went back to work as a nurse but one mistake cost her the job and she spiraled downward for the next 15 years before dying of complications from emphysema in 1979.  Her last years were spent in an adult home in Richmond.  I lived nearby and did errands and laundry for her.  Even took her to two operas.   

With that history in mind, it's no surprise that my memories are mixed.  I can't say that I ever really knew my mother.  We were not a close family--my brother describes us as four individuals sharing the same house--and after my father's death I was too self-absorbed as a teenager and pre-occupied with my own pursuits.  What I remember most is the encouragement she gave to my reading.  One of her most enduring "gifts" to me was introducing me to the works of Gore Vidal.  

After her death, I found a "journal" of sorts that she kept from about 1938 to 1948.  The entries are typed letters to a friend, maybe one a month, describing her life in Washington.  I don't know if she ever actually mailed those letters but I am glad to have found them.  They tell me more about her than I ever learned from living with her.  In the journal she is independent, active and engaged, making do on a limited salary, coping with rationing, and impatient for my father to return from overseas.  She wants nothing more than to be married and having babies.  Once married with two children, she found it overwhelming.  I think that's one reason the journal ended in 1948.

Aside from losing her husband after only 17 years, I think her greatest disappointment in life was not being  published.  She never forgave Bennett Cerf for rejecting her novels.  If she had dreams beyond becoming a published author, I don't know about them.  What I do know is that she gave me my start in life, literally and figuratively.  For that I am eternally grateful.

(The photo is from 1942.  She sent it to my father in Africa during the war.  The backside is stamped Passed by the Base 204 Examiner.  She also included a cleverly self-deprecating poem about her looks.)