That’s my mother on the right in the 1929 edition of the Wellesley Legenda, her college yearbook. Today is her birthday; she would be turning 113 if she were still alive. She was born in 1905—“aught 5,” as she would say in her New England twang—and died in 2000, just a month shy of her 95th birthday.
Mother was born in Stafford Springs, a tiny town in northeastern Connecticut not far from the Massachusetts border. Her father, Fred Wildey, was the manager of the local woolen mill that produced shoddy, inexpensive wool for army blankets. He died in 1929, the year my mother graduated from college. Her mother, Sadie Jacobus Wildey, died five years earlier. Mother had two siblings: her brother Horace who died in infancy in 1889 and a sister Mary (born in 1891) who died at age 82 in Elmira, New York. The two sisters called each other “Dearest” all their lives.
The Legenda notes that mother was voted “Miss Personality” of the Wellesley Class of 1929. That doesn’t surprise me. Despite her New England reserve and her penchant for reading, she liked people and took on a ream of volunteer duties in a variety of civic and church-related organizations in Pittsburgh where she and father lived for more than fifty years. Mother was a woman ahead of her time: she was the first woman to be elected an elder of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the first woman to serve as Board Chair of Holmes House (a residence for indigent senior citizens), and an environmentalist who knew the name of every wildflower that grew along the trails of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the nature preserve surrounding Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of modern American architecture, Fallingwater. When she herself moved into an assisted living facility following the death of my father in 1987, she took it upon herself to read daily to Alzheimer’s patients.
Mother raised four of us: my three older siblings and me, the caboose of the train. I was the “surprise” who came along ten years after the other three, an unexpected event that might have taken the wind out of lesser sails, but not my mother’s. She took up right where she had left off, coming to my basketball games and cooking elementary school spaghetti suppers. If she resented having to do those little mothering things all over again, she never let on.
To subsequent generations, my mother was no longer “Mother” or even her given nickname, “Hattie.” With the birth of the first grandchild, she became simply “Nanny” to eventually ten grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren, and to everyone else, too. She was a river that flowed from a source unseen to an end unknown and everyone loved her. Her maiden name is my middle name as it is my son’s and my grandson’s. She lives on through all of us.
For many years, I had a somewhat tenuous relationship with mother, at least until after my father died. Mother could be flinty—she was a New Englander after all—but with my gentler father gone, she and I began to close the gap. Maybe I could devote more of myself to her or maybe I was just able to better accept what she could and could not give. In those waning years, we grew quite close and I came to recognize more and more of myself in her: her love of books, her gift for writing, her pleasure in simple things.
Mother was remarkably healthy right up until about a month before she died. Doctors found a cancer in her back and it was mercifully quick. It would not have been like her to linger. In her last hours, she was in that twilight place, sedated so there was no pain. At one point, she opened her eyes and told those of us gathered around her bed that the room was filled with love; “I’ve never seen so much love in one place,” she said. My New England mother was not one given to the slightest exaggeration, but at that moment, she could see what the rest of us could not. To this day, that blissful vision gives me great hope.
With love and gratitude, I say, “Happy birthday, Nanny!”
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com