Finding new memories

 

November 24, 2021

Mike Armstrong

Ann Vanderoef, in rectangle, is among those at the National Aeronautic Space Agency's Manned Spacecraft Center during a visit from President John F. Kennedy.

Last weekend I went to see my step-dad, who is in assisted living.

They had just lifted the ban on visitors at the rehabilitation nursing center he lives at in Fort Collins. Earlier in the week my sister was informed his health was declining.

Stuart is now in a wheelchair and has been getting a bit frail recently according to the staff. COVID-19 precautions have really limited my ability to visit. I am fortunate, when the message came in about his health, my co-workers, Josh and Dana, encouraged me to go see him on the weekend.

I'm glad I did although my step-dad's condition was shocking to me.

Although Stuart-I have always called him by his name-didn't look great, I know he can rally because he has before. But a staff member said. off the record, if he didn't start improving he could be gone in a month.

That was a little hard to hear.

When I headed back to Wyoming, I was definitely feeling a bit lost. Stuart is my last living parent. My father passed over 20 years ago and my step-mother passed five years later. My mother passed away March 2019.

It felt strange to have to recognize Stuart might be gone soon. I have known him since I was five. We didn't always get along but he always introduced me as his son. He and my mother never had kids and he had been a bachelor when he met her.

I knew there was box of some pictures and papers at my home my mother had which I ended up with when she died. I decided to go through them, just because.

The contents inside the box were pretty interesting. I learned about Stuart's jobs and education. I didn't know he had gone to Columbia.

As fascinating as it was to learn about Stuart, I ended up learning more about my mother.

I hate to say it, but my mother's last years did not endear herself to her family or me. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 10 years ago, but refused to believe the diagnosis and wouldn't take medication.

By the time of her death, my mother was not someone most people wanted to be around. No relative wanted anything to do with her with the exception of my sister. I truly couldn't talk to my mom without getting angry at her unkind words about loved ones in our family. I hate to say those last couple years when she was pretty impossible to deal with, were dominant on how I remembered her.


Then I came across a letter from Howard Gibbons, the Chief of Public Information of the NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) concerning my mother. It was dated May 28, 1968.

I knew she worked for NASA in some public relations capacity, but I really had no idea what she did. I just knew her name had been in Time magazine on an article about astronauts listening to music in space. There is also a pic of her pretty darn close to President John F. Kennedy when he visited MSC I had seen before, but I never connected it much with what she did in Houston.


That changed when I read Gibbon's letter.

"From June 1962, until January 1968, with an exception of a period in which she performed editorial assistance work with the Historical Office of MSC, Mrs. Vanderoef was employed as news services assistant to the Chief of the Public Information.


"She was in charge of all administrative and logistical planning, coordination and direction for the branch, including day-to-day public information activities and, during major news operations in connection with manned space flight missions, in the operation of mission news centers, charged with maintaining assistance and flow of information to up to more that 1,000 working newsmen of the printed and electronic news media.


"It would be difficult to measure the value of Mrs. Vanderoef's contribution to operations over these six years, for the benefit of the MSC and NASA and to the over-all service to news media representatives provided by this office.

"All of the normal terms of excellence―initiative, intelligence, practical knowledge and esprit de corps―are applicable to the highest degree to the manner with which Mrs. Vanderoef carried out her job. I have read many letters from newsmen, NASA Public Affairs officials and other agency management officials, stating the highest praise and appreciation for the work Mrs. Vanderoef performed throughout her tenure in the organization.

"My personal appreciation for the help she gave me during the Gemini Manned Flight Program and in the early phases of Apollo flight development, during which I was the Chief of the Public Information Branch and manager of MSC news centers, is based on the knowledge that without her help in the planning and operational activities connected with my work, the respect and appreciation this organization has acquired from the working newsmen covering manned space flights would not have been possible."

Wow.

I really had no idea how important she had been to NASA back in the day. This was back in the 1960s when they gave parades to the astronauts for going into space. There was a lot more coverage of NASA back then. My mother, a woman in the 1960s, was instrumental in keeping the message of space flight to the media, thus the public.

The pride that swelled up inside somehow killed my bad memories of her last few years. She was a remarkable person and I hadn't really weighed out her life in context the way I should have. The floodgates opened up with memories of her being an excellent role model. Although, to be honest, if you got on her bad side she could be a bit spiteful. The bad with the good, the good with the bad, people aren't perfect and parents are people.

I think I lost sight of that, as my mother started down a road which made her so unhappy with life. No doubt, some of her troubles were because she refused to acknowledge a medical diagnosis of her bipolar disorder. It was an error on her part, but humans make mistakes.

I've made plenty and am certainly not in any position to throw stones.

I do find it a bit ironic it took me wanting to learn more about my step-father to learn more about my mother. Life is funny like that. That letter is now my last memory of her.

From my perspective, it is not a bad thing.

A mental illness can do damage, of that I have no doubt, especially left untreated. My lesson is learned, it doesn't have to define how a person is remembered, given a whole life.

The letter jarred me into that realization and I am glad it did.

 

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