My Story



Remembering My Mother On Mother’s Day

By James Donahue

She is no longer here to be honored on Mother’s Day, but my mother is not forgotten. While she never received great accolades for outstanding achievements and rarely, if ever, got her name in any newspaper, Velma L. Donahue is fondly remembered by her family and the many friends and acquaintances she made throughout the 85 wonderful years she spent on this planet.

My parents grew up in the heart of the Great Depression, so they understood hard times. Even though my father rose up out of that era and acquired some degree of financial comfort, the depression left them both scarred in strange ways. They both lived frugal lives, carefully pinching pennies. I saw my mother drive a mile out of her way to save a nickel on the price of a box of laundry soap. The only new car my father ever bought was a stripped down Ford with nothing more in it than a radio and heater.

Mom was an old-fashioned stay-at-home mother and housewife. It was apparently her choice since she obviously had a broader vision for her future when she was younger. She met my father in a chemistry class they shared at Michigan State University in the 1930s. Mom was training for a career as a medical technologist and Dad was working as an assistant instructor in chemistry while completing his Masters degree.

They married and came to Harbor Beach, Michigan in 1935 where Dad landed a job as a chemical engineer at the Huron Milling Company, a plant that produced wheat starch and various by-products from wheat.

It was obvious that Dad methodically orchestrated the family as only a man of science might do. I was born in 1938, just three years after they married. My sister, Andrea was born three years after me. And our brother, Steven, arrived three years after Andrea.

Mom lived a life of service, always believing that there was something good to be found in everyone, no matter how badly they behaved, and always attempting to make the best of every day that she lived. This was the philosophy she taught us as children.

I have fond memories of becoming aware of myself in the house we rented on South Huron Avenue. I remember the comfort of a big dark brown stuffed couch and matching chair, of being held in my mother’s arms and rocked in the family rocker when I was sick, and sitting with the family at our dining room table for dinner each evening after Dad got home.

I have memories of talking to Mom in the kitchen of that house while she prepared meals, canned fruits and vegetables from our garden or ironed clothes. It seemed that she never stopped working.

She used to wash our hair in the kitchen sink. She heated water on the stove, making sure it never got too hot, before using it to wash the soap from our hair.

There were some close-heart conversations with Mom in that kitchen. I remember munching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after school and listening to her telling me about some ghostly encounters she and her sister Bernice had during their younger days.

Mom was always there for us when we scraped a knee, got stung by a bee or encountered some other kind of disaster known only to children. She and Dad provided a great home in a perfect environment so that we never experienced the hardships they suffered during their childhood.

There was a social life as well. Mom and Dad belonged to a bridge club and sometimes entertained the club at our house. We children hid in the shadows at the stop of the staircase to watch all the people playing cards throughout the house. Our parents also belonged to a square dance club, a Great Books Club, and often entertained guests for dinner. Mom was a good cook and always put on a great meal even when there were no guests.

There was tragedy in Mom’s life. Her mother, who lived in Lansing, suffered a series of strokes that gradually killed her. The first stroke hit during World War II when gasoline and tires were rationed or almost impossible to buy. Somehow Dad managed to drive the family on the old road system, some of them not yet paved, to Lansing so Mom could be at her mother’s side. We had several blowouts on the way and kept having to stop to get the inner tubes patched and the old tires repaired so they could run again.

Before we could go back home, Dad had to make contacts and buy two new tires on the black market. I remember going with him down some alley and meeting a guy in a warehouse to get those tires. It was kind of cloak and dagger stuff.

Grandma had more strokes after that and ended up a total invalid in a wheel chair. Mom and her sister chose to take care of their mother until the end rather than put her in a nursing home. They took turns, caring for grandma about two months at a time. It was hard, almost full-time work for Mom. Grandma had to be dressed, carried from her bed to her wheel chair and from there to the toilet. She had to be spoon fed at the table. She died at about the time Grandpa retired from his job at the Reo Truck plant in Lansing.

Then it was Grandpa’s turn to come to the house to die. He was suffering from emphysema after a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. Mom and her sister took turns taking care of Grandpa until he died.

When Dad retired from his job he got restless and decided that he still had something to contribute. He and Mom joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). They lived in Iowa for three years setting up meals on wheels programs and congregate meals for senior citizens. After returning to Michigan, the Peace Corps called on them and they went off to Fiji for another two years and taught school for the children of missionary families. On their way home, Mom and Dad traveled around the world.

She was tanned and the picture of health when they arrived home from Fiji. It was the last time I saw her looking that well.

After returning to Michigan, Mom and Dad sold the farm and bought a little house near Scottsville, Kentucky. We had to make long trips to see them then, so our visits were few and far between. It was obvious each time we came that her health was slipping.

The last time I was in Scottsville was after I retired from the Port Huron newspaper. We were at a family reunion in Lansing and I drove Mom and Dad back to Scottsville in their car rather than let them drive on their own. From there I flew on to Georgia to visit our daughter, Ayn. It was a memorable visit to Scottsville. For some odd reason Mom and I were both awakened at about the same time in the middle of the night and wandered into the kitchen. Mom made a chamomile tea and we sat, drinking our tea and talking for a long time. It was one of those rare times that I had a personal and heart-felt talk with my mother. It was the last one I ever had.

Mom and Dad drove me to the airport in Nashville the next day where I took a flight into Savannah. I remember my plane was delayed and we had to wait a while. When at last it came time for passengers to board I looked back to see Mom still standing there, watching me with a sad look on her face. I think she knew.

Doris and I were living among the Indians in Arizona and I was working at the White Mountain Independent when Mom collapsed from an apparent stroke. They found that she also was suffering from an enlarged heart and emphysema. My brother Steve and his wife, Paula, who were living in Albuquerque, found a vacancy in a senior citizen facility there that offered nursing assistance. My sister Andrea’s second husband, Scott, flew to Kentucky to help them move, put them on a flight to Albuquerque, and drove Dad’s car to New Mexico. Somehow in the course of all of that they got the Kentucky house sold.

Mom’s health kept sliding after the move and she did not live long. Doris and I managed to drive there to see her one last time before she died. She was in a wheelchair and in need of almost total nursing care. We made a gallant effort to get her dressed for the occasion and Dad took us all down to the cafeteria for dinner.

It was obvious that Mom was dying and she was afraid. Doris took her aside and talked to her about death, and I am sure gave her some comfort. She said it was important to keep her eyes on the light. She told her that it was OK to go, and that someone familiar would be waiting for her there. Mom seemed to be relieved after that. We attempted to make our visit a joyful one but it was difficult. We all knew what was coming. Mom went into a coma about a week later, was admitted to the hospital, and died within a few hours. I think she had been waiting for me to get there before she let death take her.

Mom passed on March 12, 1998 at the age of 85.