My mother’s body was buried today. I wrote something to be read at the service since I can’t be there.
Jane Elizabeth Harrer, March 21, 1935 — May 2, 2013.
Child of the Depression
My mother, Jane, was born during the Great Depression, the younger child of Clarence and Beatrice. She grew up in a Chicago suburb surrounded by family, living next door to her aunt and uncle and spending lazy summers by the river.
By all accounts, she had a wonderful childhood filled with family, love, and animals. Jane’s father, Clarence, made her a little cart to haul around her puppy, Pepper, and there were chickens in the backyard and kittens nearby. Perhaps the only less-than-bright spot was her big brother Lee’s nickname for her: “Piano Legs.” Ahh, big brothers…
Developing sense of humor
When Mom was about 6, she took out the trash one night in the alley between her house and her aunt and uncle’s house next door. Thinking no one could hear her, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Beans, beans, the musical fruit! The more you eat, the more you toot!”. When she got back in the house, she discovered she was wrong. EVERYONE heard.
One of Jane’s passions was piano. Her high school graduation gift was a gorgeous Kimball upright. In the evenings when I was growing up I’d lie on the floor and listen to her play Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Schubert. If we were very lucky and didn’t look directly at her, she would even sing. Jane had a beautiful mezzo soprano voice and was talented enough to have studied opera. Or become a concert pianist. But instead, she went to college and became a teacher.
First comes love…
Jane met my father, Gordon, in their first week at Cornell College in Iowa. They always told me and my brother Eric that it was love at first sight. By their junior year they were married. I loved looking at their wedding photos — Gordon so dashing in his white dinner jacket and Jane in her wedding dress looking like her idol and contemporary, Elizabeth Taylor in “Father of the Bride”.
Hot for Teacher!
Mom was an elementary school teacher. I even had her for several classes in 4th grade! Every September she stapled construction paper leaves in fall colors on her classroom walls and cranked out reams of worksheets from the ditto machine.
But her best teaching stories of her early teaching days in Pittsburgh when she and Gordon were first married and kids came from dirt-floor houses to learn to read and write. Jane was a popular teacher and her desk drawers were filled evidence of their adoration — Jean Nate cologne, dusting powder, and handkerchiefs.
Mrs. Dolittle’s menagerie
Jane’s passion for animals took a huge leap the year she decided we should have horses in addition to our six cats. I was convinced at the time that horses appeared because of years of my diligent wishing, but Jane had been wishing far longer than me. First we had Pepper, an angry pony with sharp teeth, quickly replaced by Copper, an excellent learner horse.
Mom took me on long rides, but I got tired of riding double behind her (or she tired of having a bouncy 9 year old holding onto her) so we got Dusty, a persnickety Appaloosa, and Reba, a nervous brown horse that nobody rode much. Summers became long trail rides along the arroyo or up into the vineyards, often with Fred, the old cowboy who owned the pasture our horses lived in. Fred was like a second father to Jane. She was so sad when he died, just a few years after her father, Clarence, passed away.
This is the part no one can figure out
Jane and my dad divorced in 1982 and she married Ed. Ed lived in San Quentin when they met and spent their entire marriage in prison. She talked about him frequently and I think she loved him deeply, but being apart from him and dealing with the stress of an uncertain partnership must have taken their toll on her. Jane left teaching and went into customer service and sales. The horses were sold.
She got a dog — first Skeeter and then Taffy — who she loved very much, and there were always cats. She lived on the outside of town in what was still “the country” back then on the vestiges of a little ranch compound. She talked a lot about the birds and animals and horses that lived nearby.
A pretty good Grandma
My mom hated being made a grandmother at the tender age of 48 (sorry, Mom), but she warmed up to the idea pretty fast and always wanted to know what my children were up to and how they were doing. She had a special bond with Jessica and Nathaniel, my two oldest. Jane was a card sender. Greeting cards for every occasion! I felt very loved, receiving her cards on birthdays and holidays.
Alzheimer’s is a crafty enemy. It steals people slowly. I think my mom knew this, way before things got bad for her, and she made notes on family heirlooms and tried to tell me stories of her childhood so she’d be remembered after she was gone. I treasure those talks now. Every scrap of her memory that I retain is like a precious jewel:
• Traveling with her parents and Lee, visiting almost every state in the country by car.
• Estes Park honeymoon with Gordon, the repeat of a childhood vacation spot.
• Trekking down the Grand Canyon on mules.
• Her favorite aunt, Aunt “Mickey”, who was named Kathryn and was the inspiration for my childhood name, Karen.
• Walking for years as a girl in a leg brace to correct her club foot.
• Running 200 miles in 1976 to commemorate the Bicentennial.
• “Baking cookies” as a euphemism for procrastination. Best cookies ever, though.
The last years
Jane’s last years were kind of awesome. She had been terrified of losing her mind (she saw her mother wasted from Alzheimer’s and was afraid to suffer the same fate) but once she faced that monster it seemed like she became more like herself. Inhibitions fell away. The carefree Jane of her childhood returned. She had a wicked sense of humor and pretty much everything was funny. I think she was very loved in her last years. I’m so grateful to my brother Eric for spending so much time with her and caring so well for her.
I remember Mama…
I’m remembering my mother Jane this way: she’s about 37, the age she was when we first got horses. Her fine straight dark brown hair is long, and she’s slim in jeans, a turtleneck, and a wide leather belt. Like Jackie O in the 1970’s but without the big sunglasses. She can lift a bale of hay and clean a horse’s hoof. Her hands, browned by the summer sun, smooth my forehead and she leans over to tuck me in, tweaking my nose while making the sound of an old car horn. Goodbye, Mom.