News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

April 3, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Happy 80th Birthday? And just what do you mean by that?

TERRE HAUTE — To her utter bewilderment (and not without a smidge of irritation), my mother marks her 80th birthday today.

A woman typical of her generation — the Americans Tom Brokaw dubbed our “greatest” — Mom has spent most of her life calling the shots, being in control, directing traffic, laying down the law, making the plans and being The Fixer for everyone, from her husband, kids and grandkids to her neighbors, coworkers and the lost souls who made their way to her door or crossed her path in a supermarket parking lot.

If Mom ever stopped long enough over the decades to picture herself at 80, it sure as hell was not with a cane, a bent spine, a shoe box full of medications, 24/7 aches and pains, and an infuriating gulf between what she wants to do and what she can do with the gas in her reserve tank.

She would not have seen herself as a widow, either. My dad enjoyed near-perfect health until the last year of his life, when a virulent and concealed cancer finally showed up on a bronchoscopy. He was gone five months later. Mother, on the other hand, has been attacked by and survived just about everything but a sniper’s bullet and leprosy.

Cancer. COPD. Osteoporosis. A clogged artery. Arthritis. Elevated blood sugar. Low thyroid. You name it, she’s wrestled it three falls out of five. Obviously, she was the one who was supposed to go first. Except she didn’t. (God, again, with that famous sense of humor.)

So what to do with the unlikely, illogical, disorienting phenomenon of an 80th birthday?

Celebrate?

Ehhhh. Well, maybe … a little. But let’s not get carried away.

I look at my mother’s high school graduation photo and I can sense her ambivalence, understand why it’s so weird to wrap her mind around the notion of turning 80.

That beautiful, serious girl with the cascade of dark, wavy hair, the deep red lipstick and the pale pearls borrowed from her Aunt Onis has never ceased to exist. She’s just been eclipsed — time and again — by the wife, the mother, the Girl Scout leader, the party-thrower, the cook, the seamstress, the counselor and heart-mender, the working mom pulling down a paycheck, the businessman’s lifelong helpmate, the grandma and aunt, the laid-off Columbia Records employee, the empty-nester, the home health care worker, the retiree, the cancer survivor, the 50th wedding anniversary celebrant, the widow.

Who has time to see 80 coming when your head is down, your shoulder’s to the wheel, and there’s so much traffic to direct, so much business to take care of, so many broken things to fix?

Patty Lee Cunningham was 18 in June 1948 when she graduated from Lincoln High School in Vincennes. Six months later she was still 18 when she married my dad and traded Cunningham for Salter. Eleven months after that, only 19 years old, she had her first child. My sister came along three years later.

Mom basically spent the next half-century in fifth gear, deftly avoiding reverse and even neutral.

Too young to be an official Rosie the Riveter, Mom nevertheless started working for wages when she was still in high school, waiting tables in a luncheonette. Reflecting the economic realities of 1950s and 1960s America — not the idealized TV fantasy — my mother, in fact, worked more years “outside the home” than she didn’t.

Which is not to say somebody relieved her of all her homemaker’s duties while she logged full and overtime shifts for a paycheck. Like millions of women who weren’t June Cleaver, Mom really worked two jobs — one for money, the other for love of her husband and kids. Again, as was the case for so many women of her era, the “pay” for the in-home job was largely lip service from a culture that was full of sentimental praise for women’s work but never properly valued it, literally or figuratively.

Meanwhile, she and Dad never missed a ball game, play or other school activity that involved my sister and me. The home Mom made was so welcoming and fun, our house was a magnet for neighborhood kids and our schoolmates. So sympathetic was her ear, so palliative her advice, she served as a surrogate mother for many of Debbie’s and my lonely, troubled or just “different” friends.

When I remember Mom doing all that and more — and working night shifts at Columbia — I always think of the lyrics to Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman”:

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