Lucy May Pinkerton Strachan
When my mother died, I wrote about it — naturally. And then I sent it to MS magazine, thinking I was special among bereaved daughters. They sent it back, saying bluntly that they received HUNDREDS of very similar articles in a year and could barely read them all, much less choose one to publish. It was like the woman who kept sorrowing over her child until her religious leader sent her to cure herself by collecting a cup of earth from a family who had never lost a child. EVERY door she knocked on revealed a dead child unforgotten. The only way to escape the death of one's mother is to die first. Or die with her.
It’s almost twenty years later now and my mother’s estate bought me this little house in a small town where I write as much and as well as I can. I am grateful for this heart of my life. My thinking about her has changed — or maybe it would be more accurate to say it has complexified. My basic stance — resisting domination — is just the same.
My mother was caught in a time when middle-class values were intended to guarantee prosperity. Bourgeois shopkeepers and craftspeople in Victorian England had combined with agricultural understanding of “breeds.” Not species — there was much concern that people not be considered animals in some ways — but the almost secret awareness that inheritance and deliberate cross-breeding created better plants and animals. Any family member who was underachieving or faulty, was hidden and denied. Criminalized. Confined. One suspects that families were only restrained by religion from actively “culling” as they did their herds.
Therefore my mother often said she married my father for his excellent teeth and eyes, because she and her sibs all inherited bad teeth and only adequate eyes. Unfortunately, we all inherited my mother’s teeth and eyes. She clearly had the dominant genes, but she didn’t think that way, because men were supposed to be the superior inseminator (bull) who infuses the merely gestator (cow) with classy children (blue ribbons at the fair). One also chose a husband who would be a money-maker and, if possible, someone with academic degrees and many brothers in case of tragedy. It was also an attraction to be urban, since everyone was leaving the rural assumed lack of opportunity.
My maternal grandmother was a Cochran by marriage. The point when Cochrans moved to Oregon was described by a family historian. “My grandfather was James Cochran of Kentucky . . . James Cochran had six sons, all large, strong men, who crossed the plains in an early day from Missouri.” They came over a period of years and didn’t settle together. The daughters stayed home. Nelson Cochran was born in 1835 just as Texas separated from Mexico and Arkansas became a state. Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838, so Nelson's cohort was accurately Victorian. The whole group was Victorian Scots-Irish by culture, and in the midst of revolution, separating nations, and formation of states.
For all of this group of Cochrans and collaterals, the great event of crossing the plains was considered a certification of gumption and achievement. There is no information about the family before they crossed the Atlantic, or the circumstances that prompted them to leave Virginia to go West, but probably the Homestead Act of 1862 had something to do with it. Oregon became a state in 1859. The government wanted to fill the land with tax-payers.
Some of the family traveled rhizome-fashion from one previously fur-trade fort to another. (The fur trade ended about 1870.) The major treaties with middle American tribes had been signed. The indigenous people were much reduced by disease and the end of the buffalo. White people died along the Oregon Trail early in the trip, but then were culled and strengthened by the long daily walks and avoidance of infectious people in the urban places they left. Nobody says that.
My grandmother’s mother died young as a result of infection from childbirth, which was a family reference point. (No antibiotics or even sanitary precautions then.) The second wife was not beloved. My grandmother (1882 - 1948) - died of abdominal cancer without producing a son but four daughters. She took a long time to die. This period overlaps with my childhood and my mother had a hard time with it. She was blamed as causing the cancer because of my defiantly atheist free-thinker father. She was the only daughter who had left Roseburg, thus easy to blame. My grandfather remarried and the second wife was not beloved. I witnessed all the quarrels about money and genes and who is to blame for what.
My mother was determined not to replicate all that, though that sort of stuff can sneak up on a person. She alternated between trying to make me go out in the world, lightening her load, and pulling me in to share the female work, also to lighten her load. Her “load” was my brothers. And then after 1948 — I see for the first time her mother's death almost coincided with my father’s concussion in a car accident — she saw she would have to make money. Once she got to college (Portland State in 1953) and recovered the skills she had learned in Albany (now Lewis and Clark) where she'd had to drop out during the Depression, plus hitting it lucky at a time when Korean veterans were being helped out of trauma with education, her life turned around. When my father died in his sixties, it was a relief. He was no longer an earner and had something like undiagnosed Parkinson's.
In retirement over the next decades there were two shadows: my brother’s concussion, which meant that for most of his adulthood he was dependent on her, and the sliding of the neighborhood into ghetto. Still, the brother’s presence was fortunate in a time of crime. A veteran Marine, he romanticized and blustered it through. But she really wanted to be a nice retired teacher in one of the housing towers built for them. If she had, it would have absorbed her estate and this house I live in would have been impossible. She died at 89.
Her cancer never required surgery because it was a blood cancer that took five years but was gradual and not painful. As soon as she was diagnosed, she began creating the small archive that I’m consulting to write this. At one point there was a celebration of the Barlow Trail at the farm that had received the ox-wagons as they came down off the shoulder of Mt. Hood and had kept a register that people signed. My mother, by now too weak to drive, asked me to take her to see the signatures of her ancestors.
It turned out the book had been removed to the Historical Society. A hostess was stationed in the kitchen to “explain.” My mother got into an argument over whose family came earlier. This was typical and I just waited, with a little amusement but also sadness. I knew that in our family depression is countered with anger. A good shot of adrenaline hooked out of one’s psyche by some offence, and we’re good to go on. I do it myself. We get braced in a way my mother learned when I was a child and would find her weeping in the twilight, try to comfort her with no success, and be scared until she ordered me to peel potatoes for supper. Then I would be resentful and she would be angry. It was years before I learned that laughing also worked, but my humor tended to be pretty dark.
My mother’s doctors liked her. She was obedient. Her final doc was the son of a Japanese importer with considerable importance in Portland and she was proud of that. He told her that her blood pressure med was causing low potassium and most patients would not be tough enough or determined enough to take it in liquid form with a spoon, which was the most effective way. He said, “Lucy, I think you would do this.” So she did, and bragged about it.
There’s more. TBC But the point of this first part is that what I learned from the beginning was that mothers die, that it is your fault, that mothers try to control but the next caretaker will be hostile, and that it helps to get mad. My mother never related her family’s story to the long tale of human beings. I do.