My mother, Phyllis Hilma White, was born on June 26, 1917, to a very poor man from Helena, Montana, and his wife who had immigrated from Sweden as a nineteen-year-old girl. They lived on a hard scrabble ranch, with the father working nights at the state nursery in Helena. Phyllis was the oldest girl of nine children, one of whom died in early childhood. When Phyllis was about nine or ten years old, her mother died and her father, who was not a kindly and caring man, literally left the children to the state. Several of mother’s brothers and one of her sisters were adopted by neighboring ranch families, but mother and her youngest sister were sent to orphanages, mother to the Montana State Children’s Home in Twin Bridges and Aunt Margret to the Deaconess Home for Children in Helena.
Mother’s stories of her childhood are full of pain and humiliation, sprinkled with moments of joy and tenderness. During her entire life, she carried with her the lyrics of a Swedish lullaby that her mother had sung to her and each succeeding child. Through my mother’s eyes and memories, I grew to think of my Swedish grandmother as a ray of sunlight through dirty, broken panes of glass that were the whole of my mother’s early existence. Hers was a shabby life filled with deprivation, harshness, and her father’s drunkenness and violent temper.
Mother was sent on the train by herself to the state orphanage. Upon arrival, they cut her long golden hair, scrubbed her for lice, issued her institutional clothing, and gave her a bed. Rules were strict, love was in short supply, and work was relentless. Nonetheless, my mother thrived in school, making friends with the children from local ranches and finding a family, the Bockovitzs, who routinely intervened with weekend getaways and special trips. Zorine Bockovitz’s family had immigrated from Yugoslavia. Zorine and my mother remained friends for over seventy years.
During the last years of mother’s life, I would drive her to Helena to pick up Zorine and then on to Twin Bridges for their annual school reunions. Their school days were tough and everyone was poor. Friendships formed during their school years were important and held fast. Reunions were an annual event held at a ranch of one of their classmates.
Mother was smart and graduated early from high school as the salutatorian at age seventeen. She would not come of age until her eighteenth birthday, so the state still controlled her movements. They fostered her to the owner of the Granger Hotel in Butte, where she was little more than a chambermaid, and had to fight off the many men who were taken in by her beauty. When she turned eighteen, she stayed on at the Granger to earn enough money to attend business college, where she learned to type and take shorthand. For the next few years, she worked three to four jobs to make ends meet, until she met and married my father. Afraid of her father and nearly every man she had encountered in Butte, she could not have chosen a better mate. My father had been raised by strong women after his own father’s death; he always respected women and thought of them as equals. He was one of the gentlest and humblest souls I have ever met, generous to a fault. Mother and Father were good for—and to—each other.
After marrying my father, Mother went to great lengths to reunite her siblings, providing resources of all kinds when needed. They financed dental work and eyeglasses, provided temporary housing and transportation, and were always available for emotional and moral support. The family’s difficult beginning manifested itself in serious trouble for some of the siblings, including mental illness and incarceration. During my high school years, my mother and I would make a 70-mile round trip each Sunday to visit one brother in Montana’s State Mental Hospital in Warm Springs, only to then proceed a few miles down the highway to Deerlodge, where we would visit another brother in the Montana State Prison. Her love for them was unquestionable.
Mother’s early life circumstances established in her a strong set of values and principles by which she lived her entire life. She saw beyond surface values and was kind, forgiving, and nonjudgmental to virtually everyone she met. She sought and found the good in everyone, and tried to help with their challenges and weaknesses in whatever way she could. She was faithful and steadfast in her friendships, never giving into petty disagreements, jealousies, or wasteful comparisons. She was a stellar employee, giving her all to succeed, finding ways to improve every situation, and never complaining. She excelled at making lemonade from the foulest of lemons.
She thought herself lucky. She had expected life to be harder than it was once she met and married my father. They were certainly not perfect, but they created a loving, caring home for each other and for me and my brother. They worked hard and taught us to do the same. They found joy in being together—in nature, in animals, and in serving the community.
Of all the lessons that I took from my mother, this has perhaps turned out to be the most important in my own life. While she never articulated it thus, by her example, she made me understand that happiness exists at the intersection of expectations and reality. Hard work can, at times, change reality, but not always. Some realities defy our best intentions and most earnest efforts. Sickness, accidents, cultural upheaval, economic hardships, do not necessarily respond to individual acts of any kind. We can, however, always control our expectations and our responses to what reality does throw at us. My mother’s early reality was not of her making, but her response to it was. She triumphed over it. She learned from it and let it create in her a resilience that she passed on to me. What a gift. It has held me in good stead for many, many years. I thank her for it daily.
In writing this article, I searched the old suitcases where I have stored family photos. There I came across two items from me that my mother had saved. The first was a letter from me to my parents written while I was a freshman in college in 1967, some fifty years ago. The letter made me cry and filled me with joy. Somehow, in my clumsy and innocent way, I had expressed my gratitude for the ways in which they had raised me. It is an imperfect letter, adolescent in its execution, but it clearly struck home for her. It pleases me to know that she read and saved those words. I feel them now more than ever. I am grateful she and Father heard them from me.
The second item was a poem that I had written to Mother long ago. It is amateurish, but heart felt. It clearly acknowledges my mother’s tough start in life and my gratitude to her,
A Mother’s Day Poem
For Phyllis from SuzAnne
When life presents me with a trial
I always think of you
Your strength to face without denial
Whatever you must do
How in your very early years
When you lost your father and your mother
You chased away your many tears
And found your each sister and brother
To the Granger Hotel in Butte you went
To iron, and cook, and clean
For Business College your money was spent
So you could follow your dream
Of building a quiet and dignified life
With independence and grace
And to keep yourself apart from the strife
That permeated that place
Your beautiful smile and many charms
Attracted men far and wide
But you were selective about the arms
Of the man in whom you would confide
And what a wonderful man you chose
A Goodman through to the core
And soon in your house small voices rose
From the two little children you bore
And thankful am I that on this day
MOTHER is your favorite name
And every day I can only pray
That my own children feel the same.