The Saratoga Sun -

How do you say goodbye to your mother


March 18, 2020

When I was living in Taiwan, my awesome stepmother passed away and I felt a major loss. My father had died a couple years before, so that parental group was gone out of my life.

They both died fairly young and I hoped my mother and stepfather would live many more years. I was lucky up until March 6 when, I am sad to write, my mother passed away.

No one in my family really saw it coming but, I have to admit, she was not the same person I knew and admired growing up.

Many people know my Dad worked for NASA and that I am related to Neil Armstrong. What is lost sometimes is my mother worked for NASA in the 1960s too.

In fact, in the December 17, 1965 edition of Time magazine, under the Science section, my mother was cited by name.

It was an article about music being piped into the Gemini 7 space craft.

“Largely at the urging of NASA Secretary Geri Ann Vanderoef, the flight took on an elevated tone with selections from Bach, Handel, Glinka and Dorvak. Against the soothing background, Astronaut (James) Lovell was allowed to strip off his spacesuit and fly in his underwear. He thus became the first U.S. astronaut to be without a pressurized suit, which affords the only protection against a sudden, accidental decompression of the Gemini spacecraft.”

I always thought it was cool my mother was mentioned in Time.

I have a picture of President Kennedy laughing with anastronaut with my mother in the background. I have to admit, son or not, she was really pretty and she stood out.

My mother was smart, too. She had an amazing typing talent that she parlayed into becoming a sought after communications assistant at not only NASA, but also IBM.

I also have to say she took homemaking very seriously. She was the type of mother who made fudge from scratch every Friday night for the family. Her Italian cooking was restaurant quality. I took for granted that, at the Vanderoef household, there would be fresh baked cookies, pies and cakes available all the time in major quantity.

I can remember having a few friends come up with me when the folks lived in Vermont and all my buddies were blown away by all the desserts available. It was normal for me.

I proudly tell the story of how, at age 13, she got me to cook. It was one of my chores for the day for which I was paid pretty well.

“Mom, I don’t know how to cook,” was my plaintive cry.

She walked over to a shelf of books and pulled off a copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook and handed it to me.

“If you can read, you can cook.”

She was dead on. That night I made fried chicken, banana nut bread and some steamed vegetables. It was a hit. I have never been scared of a kitchen since.

Her houses looked like they were out of Better Home and Gardens. Although she worked, the interior of our home was shining and sparkling. Her flower gardens had people stop and take pictures. In fact, I have some vague memory of her gardens in some local magazines.

Plus my mother told me some great advice growing up.

In my mid-teens, I remember her telling me to live my life with as much adventure as I could.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal Mike, you don’t get a second chance.”

Where my father and stepmother were fairly conservative in the way they lived their life, my mother and stepfather were not. Especially my mother in her younger years.

She believed in justice and equal rights for all men and women. I watched her treat men and women from all races with courtesy and dignity. Her words echo in my mind of when she first told me, “Look on what is on the inside of a person and not the outside.”

I could never have lived in all the different countries I have if I did not adhere to those wise words.

There is a special memory of my mother consoling me as I was dealing with divorce.

My marriage was over even though I admit, during that time, I wanted more than anything to keep it together. I resigned myself that my ex-wife was going forward and not looking back, so I decided to do the same thing.

I packed up everything I had in D.C. and got myself ready for a move to Honolulu. Things didn’t go quite as planned and I found myself delayed six weeks. My mother asked me to come to Boulder and stay with her during my delay.

I did so and, while there, I tried really hard to hide how broken hearted I was. To me, it made no sense to show anyone how hurt I was because that elicited pity most of the time and pity was the last thing I wanted from anyone.

While I was there, I accidentally broke this large porcelain swan. I felt terrible because I knew my mother really liked it. I fessed up and instead of being mad, she told me it didn’t matter and maybe we could glue it back together.

We actually did a very good job but, while we sat side-by-side, she told me divorce was hard. She had been married twice before she married my stepfather. I can’t really tell all the words she said but, while she fixed the broken swan, she helped fix a broken son.

That is what is hard now.

This wonderful woman disappeared a few years back as time marched on.

I am not the only person who has watched their parent(s) get some affliction where the personality goes into a radical change.

It is tough when you can’t communicate any longer. For me and my family, it just got worse and worse.

I don’t really want to go into exactly how my mother degenerated into a person I didn’t know any longer, but I will say, I missed my mother that consoled me back in the day.

I look back with hindsight and wish I had been more patient here and more understanding there but, to anyone who has watched their parent decline mentally, guilt is a useless emotion that serves no one.

That would be something the mother I remember would say to me.

I am deeply saddened she is gone, mentally deteriorated or not.

I think I speak for everyone who has been in a similar situation with a parent; I am glad and feel lucky she was my mother when it really counted and that is how I will remember her.

Rest in peace Mom and know the mended porcelain swan greets guests when they walk through my front door.


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