On the Corner

Quite a Person – my mom

by Robert Docter – 

She was born with the dawn of the 20th century and died 93 years later as it prepared to ease into history. She witnessed most of what we have come to call “progress.” She gave birth to three sons, and in that experience, she persevered through triumph and tragedy – delight and disappointment – love and loss – never losing faith in the absolute fact of God’s role in her life.

Pictures remind me of her beauty. My memories recall her love.

As I remember her, she presented two very strong, yet opposite, characteristics – faith and fear. Her own upbringing explains both. Her mother, abandoned on the streets of Toronto, Canada at age 16, provided as much love as possible, but filled the remaining space with anxiety and insecurity. The Army had rescued her. She became an officer, married a tight, rigid Scotsman a few degrees short of warm, and raised two children. I suspect my grandmother’s primary love was for the Army, and from her, my mother learned steadfast loyalty while wading in a pool of insecurity.

She trained for officership in her late teens, met a dynamic young captain a few years later and married him on October 26, 1922.

On the mantle of each home in which we lived was a picture framed between two, tiny copper coated shoes. It showed my father and mother, smiling with great joy – for in their arms was the brother I never knew – Wilfrid Barnard Docter – born July 21, 1924, died January 8, 1926. We called him Billy. He died shortly after that picture was taken — also in my mother’s arms. He was 17 months old – full of life, active and exploring, beautiful to see.

It happened in Pasadena and must have been a Monday. Trailing behind my mother, who carried a large laundry basket from the lines in the yard, he spotted a water-like liquid in a pan left on a neighbor’s back step off a shared driveway. It was a poisonous substance used for cleaning clothes. Just a couple of steps behind the one who cherished him, he leaned over the pan, inhaled the fumes, lost consciousness, and died.

How did they survive? There is no greater loss than the death of a child – no greater test of faith – no greater assessment of the strength of a marriage. They made it through that valley together, and on July 20, 1928, twin sons were born. The unexpected “extra” was always perceived as God’s way of making his presence known.

Life for my brother and me during our growing years in San Francisco was a life of complete security in the love we felt at home. Mom seemed always to be there – always available. It was an orderly existence, for Mom saw herself as a homemaker, and cleanliness was not just next to Godliness – it was inseparable from Him. Monday was washday. Tuesday, things were ironed. Wednesday, while we were at school, she, Edith Morris and Audrey Wilmer always did League of Mercy work at Laguna Honda Hospital. The rest of the week she related to people with caring and compassion wherever she might be. She could talk to anybody, and if they couldn’t speak English, she simply spoke louder.

I always knew where to go when I needed comfort of some kind – when I needed a measure of strength. She seemed always available, never too busy, ready to reach out. She seemed, also, ready to give considerable advice about life’s pitfalls just over the horizon.

Safety concerned her, and my father sought risks. Life at home was always exciting, filled with different points of view and subtle humor. Everyone was a leader. No one simply got in line and followed. What individuality. At the same time – what a sense of family. In the middle of our adolescent passage, my father decided to leave officership. He never stopped being a soldier. He attended the corps regularly, but never wore uniform again. My mother never approved of this decision. To her, the Army was infallible. She recognized that the same could not be said of some of its leaders, but it never weakened her view that the Army itself was God’s own creation. She simply changed the color of her epaulets, went to work in the family service department, became the Home League secretary, and sang soprano in the songsters at our corps. What a soldier! What a soldier!

She was tireless in her commitment to God, to the Army, to anyone in distress, to her friends, and to her family. Her strength and devotion has not been exceeded by anyone I’ve met in my lifetime. Along with my father, she lifted my brother and me to life’s launching pad and stood us tall with a strong sense of identity, security and unfailing love.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom – and thanks for everything.

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