There is a Great Hole where a Mountain Once Stood

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July 1977

Mom passed away on December 12th, and an unsung hero of the power of women to overcome the odds died with her.  In the 1960s, when the professional ladder was sawed off below the half-way mark for women in general, Mom, a single mother with three young boys, worked her way through college and obtained a Doctorate from Columbia.  “Impossible” was a word not in my mother’s vocabulary.

Mom was not just in control. She was control incarnate but that is not how it began. Helen Elizabeth Hancock was born a woman who refused to be a victim to fatality.

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Graduation 1950

My mother and father were freshly out of nursing school working in the same hospital and I was the accident waiting to happen, probably on the night shift.  A more improbable/impossible marriage there could not be: the Greek born battle-scared WWII veteran and the WASP. I was born “guilty” and would work hard to stay that way most of my life, but not Mom.

My father’s ambitions were to care for the ill and argue politics with his five brothers. My mother’s goal was to rule the world. But first she had to conquer it and collateral damage be damned!  Why she made the same mistake twice more by giving me two brothers with Dad before she began her offensive on life, I don’t know but it was clear Mom was not going to limit her life to my father, whom I loved dearly.  So, one morning I woke up in a strange house, owned by a strange man in a strange town.

Of course, it was all ‘my fault’ which the shrinks would explain much later, after I had failed school, drifted into drugs and even in and out of jail three times, which did not make Mom’s task any easier.  She eventually ‘sacrificed’ me to my father to “protect” my brothers, she said.  “You only do this to hurt me!” Mom once told me as a young boy.  With hind-sight I might have said “Of course I do.”  But at the time I was just unwitting collateral damage.

It was not until late in my life that I understood what a courageous woman Mom was to have accomplished what she had and it took another courageous woman to point it out to me.  But Sonja had not made the “mistake” of having children with the wrong man to hinder her way to the top and Sonja knows she owes her opportunities in part to pioneers like my mother.

Mom earned her Doctorate from Columbia, traveled the world, taught in universities and ran nursing schools around the country while her geologist husband, Fred, made sure the country had enough oil and gas to waste. Fred was the best choice she ever made and few men have ever gone so far beyond and above the call to respect their vow in “for better or for worse.

It would have been harder for Mom if I had not done what any self-respecting teenage, delinquent, high school drop-out, punk would do by running away and joining the circus at 17 in 1971.  They gave me an M-16, trained me to kill people who had never done anything to me for a war I totally opposed.  I was well on my way to a career of making ‘poor irreversible choices‘ but at least I was out of her hair.

My mother was the General who managed everything and everybody, whether they liked it or not.  She was the head nurse who gave orders and there was never any time for explanation. If I had to think of a key-word for Mom’s vocabulary, it would be “NOW!

My youngest brother, Aeyiou/Peter (Mom and Dad gave us different names), would say “with Mom it is ‘my way or the highway.’”  But that was wrong.  Mom did not give you any options.

Grandma, with whom my mother fought her whole life, would say “Your mother is so bossy.  She always thinks she knows what’s best for everyone.”  The problem is she did and most would come around to seeing it eventually.  Grandma had little reason to complain about Mom.  After all, as Westchester County Clerk with Sing Sing prison under her jurisdiction she had refused a marriage license to a New York girl who wanted to marry a prisoner. “Georgie,” she said, “I just couldn’t let that pretty blond do such a thing to herself.  He was Black as coal!”  Mom was trained in a tough school.

Mom never approved of our choice in wives and all three of us eventually divorced but not after some very uncomfortable moments of having to choose between Mom and wife and for me indecision was always the greater part of valor.  ‘Undecided’ is not something you could be with Mom because you were quickly caught between a rock and a hard place and with Helen Elizabeth, that was nowhere you wanted to be.

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Fred and Helen

The General was generous and took on other people’s children.  She put Justin (son of Aeyiou/Peter’s 2nd wife) through college only to have him choose his wife over Mom and never make contact again.  She helped raise Bree and Caitlin and paid their ways through college which angered me because I wanted more for my three sons. This was egotistical as she had already given so much. My sons spent every summer vacation with she and Fred. I was angry because I felt Mom was being taken advantage of.  She needed the recognition she never got from her own mother: also a single parent who raised two daughters. I often felt Mom was buying recognition and love.

Mom was a rock that the waves of life could only break on. When my younger brother Panacea/Michael shot himself in 1998, she stood firm and kept the show going, taking care of my youngest son while I was recovering from a serious illness and surgery. She remained stoic when Panacea/Michael’s son Paul shot himself in 2011 although inside it was tearing her apart.

When I was operated on for a tumor of the pancreas in August, 1997, Mom was on the next plane.  Within minutes the nurses were following her ‘orders‘ and the doctors were snapping to attention while I lay on my own death bed, more there than here. That was Mom.

I unknowingly profited from her example by working my way through university with young sons to care for; sons I would eventually raise as a single father.  I could have never done it if it were not for Mom’s schooling.  In the end, I think she was proud of me although she would not say so. There was always room for improvement.

Mom suffered a long and rare illness and spent the last three years in bed, unable to even move her hands.  Fred stood by her and Valerie and Linda were the greatest of care givers.  No, I could not convince Mom to go to a home where she would get specialized care.  Mom had decided she would die at home, no matter what it cost in pain and sacrifice.  She fought well beyond what the doctors had said was possible.  Yes, Mom craved attention and she certainly got it, but the General who led the charge her whole life, ended it completely dependent on others.  Yet, even then, what Mom wanted, Mom got.

  • Fred, I think it’s time for my tea now.
  • You will mourn me for three days and then get on with your lives.
  • George. Promise me you will look after Fred when I’m gone.

Mom was not easy. She was not often gentle. So much remained unsaid. But she was solid as granite and wise beyond reason. If I am who I am today, it is because in great part, of who she was. She will be sorely missed.

There is now a great hole where once a mountain stood.

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