Thomas Wictor

They could not box her in

They could not box her in

It wasn’t possible to classify Mom. I know how she voted, but voting is secret in our republic. She and I discussed politics daily during the last two years of her life. Still, I won’t reveal her political views.

What I can say is that regardless of how she voted, she couldn’t be placed in a neat little box and labeled. Somebody gave her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Mom read it, annotated it, and gave it back. The person who gave it to her wasn’t pleased.

“That book doesn’t represent my life,” she told me.

By 1935—when this photo was taken—she was an expert shot with a .22 rifle.

Her father George Levi Lower taught her all about guns. Mom learned to shoot, learned how to handle guns safely, and then went on to never own a gun in her life. To her a gun was simply a tool. She found the gun debate ridiculous, based entirely on emotion. Mom hated the fallacious debating technique of Appealing to the People, using loaded words to influence sentiments instead of the intellect. She found it insulting.

The surest way to anger my mother was to denigrate her intelligence. She and my father were easily the most intelligent people I’ve ever known. For some reason the staff at the nursing home and hospital would ask me in front of Mom, “Can she walk? Can she feed herself?”

I answered politely, but after the nurses left, I’d make Mom laugh by doing the dialog from this Monty Python sketch. Mom adored the Pythons and Fawlty Towers. Her sense of humor veered between zany and macabre. Very few people appreciated how wacky Mom was in her own secret way. She was a true subversive, in that outwardly she appeared to be the epitome of conventionality, but her hobby was making sacred cows into delicious hamburgers.

Much of what Mom told me must remain confidential, since these were private conversations. However, she had the unerring ability to precisely articulate what made certain public figures so repellant. She hated unctuousness, smarm, pomposity, and sanctimony. Some of the things she said about beloved icons were truly savage in their accuracy. And they were funny. I always fantasized about what it would be like for my eighty-five-year-old mother to go on a cable news show and tell them what she thought about the state of the world.

The thing Mom hated the most was movies with foul-mouthed elderly women. She thought it was coarse and condescending, a way of treating people her age like children or pets. She also hated the terms “senior” or “seasoned citizen.” In her own words, she was an “old lady.”

I now understand that Mom was profoundly conflicted about religion. She was a devout Catholic, but her death showed me that her faith wasn’t as strong as I thought. In life, she devoured books on religion, annotating them all. She read the Book of Mormon, The Watchtower, the Vedas, Buddhist texts, and the Koran. In her copy of the Koran, I found a slip of paper with some notes she wrote.

A former teacher, Mom retained her curiosity about everything—except the Internet. She refused to learn how to use it. I think her husband’s experience with it intimidated her. I taught Dad to use the computer when he was seventy-seven. It was unbelievably hard.

In Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, one of my all-time favorite actors Gert Fröbe plays Colonel Manfred von Holstein of the Prussian army. When the German pilot can’t fly in the race, von Holstein—a non-pilot—simply climbs into the aircraft with a manual, turns on the engine, and takes off. Dad’s inner German expected that learning how to use the computer would be just as easy.

“You shtart ze motah und you lift into ze sky! Hold shtill while I strafe you!”

The problem was that he felt embarrassed that he didn’t understand, and this made him frustrated and sometimes combative. He didn’t appreciate the great courage it took for a man his age to dive into a world that was inconceivably foreign. And after several grueling weeks, he mastered it.

Though Mom had always said she didn’t want to learn how to use the computer, she told me the last time we saw each other that when she got home, she wanted me to teach her.

It was not to be, but at least she’d changed her mind.

Mom was the embodiment of Stan Ridgway’s “Don’t Box Me In.”

One day I’ll show them
Just what I’m made of
There’ll be a time
When I won’t remember what I was afraid of
And I’ll be swimming in the sea
No banging on this glass for me
My eyes saw red when my life turned blue
So I’m leaving everything, that’s true
And I’ll jump into
A brand new skin

No reason to be afraid anymore. No glass to bang on anymore. And a brand-new skin that fits like a glove, I’m sure.

They could not box her in. Not in 1958; not ever.

But Confidential Detective, Mom? Really, now.

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