In memory of my mother, Nancy Sutcliffe, who passed away in early February 2016 from dementia-related causes, I want to share some of my best, heart-felt memories of her with you:
From Hawaii to Arkansas:
My mother was a strong-willed-inside and soft-spoken-outside tiny 5' lady of Japanese American decent who was raised on the beautiful island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was one of a few fortunate Japanese Americans to not have been put into an internment camp during WWII, but were carefully watched anyway, as I vividly recall seeing an old black and white photo of her with a soldier standing nearby. Regardless of my claims, my mother was fiercely proud to be American and never admitted to being treated as an outsider. After the war, she travelled to Chicago, where she met my father, and gave birth to my older sister, brother and I. My family eventually moved "out of the rat race" to St. Louis, and then to Eureka Springs, Arkansas where my paternal grandparents had retired. The family homestead included several acres of lush green pastures and woodlands, and so my father was determined to use this land to become a farmer while earning a meager living as a schoolteacher. We raised goats, chickens, rabbits and pigs, grew a garden and picked apples, pears and peaches from our trees to "live off the land". Life was hard on the farm, but it taught me a lot about nature, animal life and about sacrifices my mother made in her life in order to devote herself to nurture and care for her family. When mom aged and had to go into an Assisted Living Community, she refused my offer to come live in Connecticut with me and my husband saying: "Arkansas is my home." She was always loyal.
Church, Farm, and Home:
I had two pairs of shoes growing up: One for farming and one for school, but my mother let us purchase a new pair of shoes each spring for Easter Sunday and special occasions. I looked forward to that time when I could open and smell the freshly printed pages of Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward to select my new shoes! We went to church almost every Sunday, and I loved being able to put on a pretty dress that my mother would often make, wear my new shoes and get treated to fruit punch and cake in the hall afterwards. My mother often sewed our dress clothes on her black metal Singer Sewing Machine and I would stand next to her and watch as her hands guided the fabric for stitching, while smelling the warmth and inimitable odor of the machine's engine while it its needle worked with the pressure of her foot of the peddle. Our home was small and simply furnished, and like many homes our lives were spent mostly in the kitchen which was the hub of most activities, and where the smell of my mother's coffee percolating became our alarm clock each morning. The aroma of coffee meant that it was the start of another day and time to get dressed, then go to the barn and tend to our selected chores of milking goats, feeding the pigs, rabbits and chickens and collecting eggs. My siblings and I would often argue about what chores we had to do, and so it was my mother who was the referee, the coach and the judge on who was to do what. Barns have bad odors and I was particularly happy to leave them behind when I left the farm for New York to search for a career in fashion. Although those odors were left behind, they are immediately recalled whenever I take road trips to the countryside, and can usually decipher whether I am passing a pig, chicken, or cattle farm just by its smell.
My mother made all meals and desserts in our kitchen from scratch. We seldom used anything that came in a box or a can, unless it was winter time and all of our frozen vegetables or stock of preserved fruits were consumed. Planting season came when father turned the soil and we'd go and plant seeds in allocated plots of almost every vegetable imaginable. Summertime meant going out to weed nuisances like alfalfa grass that choked the young growing vegetable plants, so pulling its nasty roots were a real chore and it had to be done in the morning when the soil was still damp. (Have you ever noticed that the smell of damp earth is different from dry earth?). Once harvest time for each of the vegetables came, we would all get out in the garden to pick, clean, and freeze them. When apples, pears and peaches were ripe, we'd go to the orchards and pick those too. Mom would have us all in the kitchen with special tasks to do for the processing and we'd fight for who would be able to take the pits out of the peaches so that we could suck on the delicious juices. It was times like those that, although at that time, we did not particularly that type of work, but my mother always made it OK because she'd tell stories about her childhood in Hawaii, or about other things in life that were thought-provoking, or we'd listen to the news on the radio and we'd have a discussion about world events like the Vietnam War or the Civil or Women's Rights Movements that were going on at that time. She was our teacher.
Being Humble And Generous:
Mom had quite the sweet tooth, and enjoyed eating desserts as well as making them. We often had homemade apple pie and she used to bake breads made with zucchini, tomatoes, and banana. Banana bread soon became a family favorite and before long, my mother would churn them out and started giving them to neighbors or taking them to church on Sundays for after service coffee hours. Even after we had all left home and started having our own children, mom kept baking that banana bread and continued her tradition of giving.
When my parents were going for a divorce, my mother never complained about her marriage or said a bad word about my father. We coaxed her to try and go out on dates after several men had asked her for out for coffee and donuts but she declined saying that she would not know what to do if they tried to hold her hand. She said that she believed that my father would be her husband for life, and that she would never be able to marry again. My mother was a woman of tradition and one who was devoted to her family and her religion. She rarely spoke harshly of anyone, always forgave people even when they treated her poorly and supported all of us when we were going through our own difficult times.
As I think about the road my mother travelled throughout her life, I believe that she could have become a bitter person, but she did not: She was a Japanese American, living in an a time and place where many people were discriminating against anyone who was not white. She put many of her own dreams aside to take care of her family, always thinking of herself last, and never complained. I'm also sure a few people took advantage of her because she was kind and gentle, but I'm certain it did not go unnoticed by her--but because she was such a dignified, humble and generous human being, it kept her on top. I believe that if the world had more people like my mother, we would be in a much better place. She was a giving person.