Today is the birthday of the famous young gymnast, Simone Biles, who was born on March 4, 1997. Another not-so-famous, Great-Depression-era gymnast who also made her entrance onto life’s stage on March 4, 1921, was Anna Violet Adlam. Her ten other siblings called her Violet. My father called her Ann. I was most blessed of all, because I got to call her “Mom”. She was diagnosed with (and later died from) a massive brain tumor when I was only twenty-three years old, but her legacy lives to this day, in my life and in my heart.
The “gymnast” portion of my mother’s story was fleeting and uneventful, in large measure because it had been born out of necessity, as opposed to any particular athletic talent. She had joined the high school gymnastics team because she was issued a school uniform and, therefore, she knew that she would at least have something acceptable to wear to school every day. The uniform was hand-washed in a bathroom sink and hung up to dry, just before retiring to bed at night, in her family’s small row home in Philadelphia, where she slept sideways on a bed, alongside her sisters – my six aunts – three of whom are featured with her in the photo in this blog post.
During my life, Mom shared many recollections of growing up as one of eleven children in daunting, tough, uncertain times. Today, as news reports have continued to unfold about the present stark and unconscionable conditions in Ukraine, I am reminded of my mother’s stories of wartime and economic turmoil. As some of the Ukrainian people and their leaders are interviewed, it would appear that certain people seem almost designed to bear difficulties and strife; in my opinion, my mother was one of those indefatigable people. Gary’s Armenian ancestors also come to mind in this regard. They also endured unfathomable circumstances with tremendous faith and courage. For sure, amidst turbulence, tragedy and challenges, it requires more than mere perseverance or a modicum of resolve for people to rise above fear, to manifest personal resourcefulness and to prioritize other people and ideals as being greater than oneself. Circumstances can guide and shape our personal choices but, greatness – as regards our humanity and our legacies – is often revealed by how deftly we navigate the broken glass, potholes and orange cones on our paths, while still choosing kindness, goodness, loyalty, truth, and love for others. In a way, living life well is a different type of gymnastics. The execution is not always flawless. It requires strength and tenacity, and it’s all the more memorable if you can stick the finish.
Now, I’d be sorely misleading you if I suggested that my mother’s execution for living was always lilting, sophisticated or smooth. Still, I respected her immensely, for everything she overcame and everything she accomplished, especially given the odds against her during certain stages of her life. Her optimism was fortifying, her spiritual faith was unwavering and her selfless energy on behalf of those she loved was immeasurable. My memories of growing up are wonderful ones and I am immensely grateful for her part in creating those.
Of course, there’s more to her story…
She could serve up sarcasm with a smile and cut right to the chase of any issue with a one-liner that would leave you reeling on the hook. In a world of spicy, she could be the whole jar of Tabasco; she didn’t mince words – and she frequently had plenty of them. To this moment, I can still recall some of her more humorous caustic and succinct retorts, none of which I could politely memorialize in this forum. If a politician or a commentator annoyed her as she watched the morning news, she would, at one moment, hurl a loud and cringeworthy insult at them, and turn to my father in the next moment, to calmly inquire whether he’d like another cup of coffee (service with a smile). She kept up with beltway politics and, if Mom were here today, she would, without doubt, have much to say about the yahoos presently in the White House – as well as those espousing the woke orthodoxy that is ruining America. Mom was authentic, simplistic, honest and blunt. (Let’s go Brandon!)
As it follows with Maggie Smith’s character who portrays Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey, Violet Adlam had little patience for people who lied, who cheated, or who were hypocrites. I can think of a few people, in particular, that she didn’t appreciate when she was alive – as well as some who she would not have enjoyed or tolerated, if she had been alive presently. She wasn’t a game player or a drama queen and had no time for those who were. For the most part, she was warm, welcoming, loving, quick-witted and brutally honest. Her relationships with others could be as lyrical as Mozart but her interludes with others were more like Mozart interspersed with unexpected stanzas of Led Zeppelin, if she sensed something at a core level that she didn’t trust or respect.
And, unlike the prim, proper and well-manicured Violet Crawley, Violet Adlam’s chaffed and rough hands were not feminine, pretty or aristocratic looking. Hers were hands that had spent time saluting as a Sergeant in the Women’s Army Corp, hands experienced from forty years of secretarial duties, and hands that had been worn from washing, wiping runny noses, hugging, rocking babies to sleep and so much more. With those hands, she worked long, hard days. She single-handedly served up more guests at our dinner table more frequently than the butlers at Downton Abbey did, during all of the years six seasons of episodes comprised. She was always cooking for someone and it was always delicious, even on a budget. Not once did it seem to really matter to anyone, as it turns out, that Mom’s hands were manly and unattractive. Not once did my father, my siblings or I ever complain that her nails were unmanicured and bitten short from financial worries, or that her hands were dry and cracked. No one complained or criticized her, when she was using those unpolished hands (often and vigorously) to help each and every one of us with everything we did. Those were the hands that clapped for hundreds upon hundreds of musical performances she unwaveringly attended, to support us, to applaud us, to cheer each of us on. We were all the beneficiaries of Violet’s hands, unattractive as they were, because those hands were directly connected to her heart.
It’s the lighter, fun, joyous and convivial side of my mother that I try to conjure the most. The sound of her laugh is burned into my memory, as sure as if she is standing in the room with me. In spirit, she still cooks with me, offers fashion advice and takes Gary’s side of an issue whenever controversy arises (even when those positions are, quite obviously, entirely mistaken). She never even got to meet the dashing Mr. Beck and, yet, I know with certainty that she adores him from her heavenly realm. She would have loved him even more here, on earth.
Certain memories about her stand out more than others – such as the (few and far between) family road trips when, with boredom in tow and fights over leg room in the back seat of the car, she would come up with creative ways to pass the time. “Let’s all curse!”, she would suggest. Or, as an alternative, she would bust out some of the more humorous (read: distasteful) jingles she had learned when she was young, while jumping rope with her siblings and friends on the streets of North Philadelphia. You can let your imagination wander regarding what those particular ditties were like.
Both of my parents were incredibly generous, with the money that neither of them actually had to give. Treasured amongst my memorabilia, are little typed and handwritten notes my mother sent to me in the mail, during my college years. Her notes would be folded neatly around a $10 bill or two and usually say things like, “I wish I could send you more” or, “Here’s a little something to put toward a new pair of shoes”. The signature lines typically read, “Love, love, love, Mom”. Mind you, my mother’s own closet had scarcely a few pair of her own shoes and she never, at any one time, owned more than a dozen or so outfits to her name. How I wish she had been here in my adult years, when I could have treated her to some simple luxuries!
There were also some “mom-moments” that I wish I could erase from the history books, but can’t. Certain boyfriends still probably have a few of these moments uncomfortably burned in their psyches, as well. One occurred during my freshman year at Muhlenberg College. Believing that she was acting as my dating advocate, she had a brief “heart-to-heart” encounter with my college beau, outside of a fitting room in Hess’s Department store, where I was trying on gowns for a formal dance. After I had rejected the fit of the first two dresses, I somewhat-dejectedly retreated to the fitting room to try on a third. Standing before the dressing room mirror (nearly naked and mid-gown change and, therefore, helpless to rescue my boyfriend from my mother’s company), I could hear her lovingly (but unnecessarily) “defending” me to him, by telling him not to pay any attention regarding my disfavor and disappointment with how the first two (rejected) dresses had fit. She went on with her comments – oh, boy, did she ever. She went on to explain to him that I had lovely breasts… she matter-of-factly described their shape and perkiness… and, further, she summed them up as being “modest, but ample”. My boyfriend, who was one of the sweetest, most innocent and polite gentlemen quite possibly EVER, recalled being wholly mortified, trapped in a state of suspended animation, and not at all sure how to respond. He wondered: should he say, “good to know”? Or, should he merely remark “duly noted”, as he feigned complete ignorance? Or, should he take the bait and respond, enthusiastically, in the affirmative – “I agree!”? Needless to say, I have never gotten clothed more quickly. I practically flew out of the fitting room, and declared that I would simply wear something already in my closet. Away we all went, up to the restaurant, for some of that famous Hess Department Store strawberry shortcake. This memory, and others JUST LIKE IT punctuate my early decades, under the “unfiltered” category.
Regardless of these types of awkward, quirky dating events that were “enhanced” by my mother, both I and every boyfriend I ever brought home, seemed to accept Mom’s “advocacy” as well-intentioned – because it actually was. My mother was someone to laugh with and someone to cry with and, sometimes, you just needed to laugh at, with or about her… until it made you cry. Almost 40 years since her death, she continues to march forth – in my head, in my soul, and in spirit – just as her March 4th birth date had ironically prophesized. A mountain of gratitude could never suffice, to honor her time, love and sacrifices on behalf of me and others.
Just before the tumor in her brain had fully claimed her thought processes and her body functions, she and I were able to share breakfast one morning, at a little restaurant around the corner from Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia (where we had just obtained a second opinion regarding her prognosis). Choking back my tears, I recall barely being able to compose myself, knowing that our time together was running out, even as we were sitting there. She would never be able to know the children I might have. She and my dad would never experience their golden years together; there’d be no time to just enjoy life and stop working so hard. The months ahead would be filled with pain, radiation, pharmaceutical interventions, and horrible sickness. But, that morning, she just reached across the table, grabbed my hands in hers, and re-assured me that her life had been incredibly meaningful. She declared, “I had the love of God, a husband and three wonderful children – what more could I have wanted?” Imagine that.
And, it is that vision and those words which bubble up inside me on her birthday, every March 4th. Tonight, as I think about her on the eve of what would have been her 101st year, I decided to spill my thoughts in this little tribute, to reflect on the courage, love, selflessness and devotion she possessed. Despite her own difficult upbringing, despite having not been provided with a fraction of what I was fortunate to have had, she managed to execute life and love and, just as importantly, to stick the finish. If she could “march forth” with such dignity and strength, then I know I have everything I need to march forth despite any challenges in my path, as well. Just as violets tend to thrive under all kinds of conditions in a garden, so did Violet Adlam weather the storms of life. She did so with an abundance of grace. That’s what she passed on in the process of passing on. It’s what I want to pass on to my children, in turn.
There are some who, even as adults, cannot move beyond the bondage of petty resentments, jealousy, regret and anger they experienced (or perceived) from their upbringing – and that is sad. There are some who feel mad or victimized by their family or other life experiences. Fortunately, whether such experiences or perceptions are legitimate or not, there is a way forward – and it’s not to ruminate on the same old cud or to constantly bind oneself to narratives that don’t elevate living or serve a higher purpose. Learning to live in gratitude for that which is good on the balance beam of life, helps us each march forth (and move beyond) those things (and people) that are bad. My mother’s legacy taught me that, just as with gymnastics, life is not one huge pass/fail event but, rather, a series of the smallest of good elements that, put together, add up to great execution. The collective of those small, good things is more important and meaningful than any bad thing – even the big, bad things. So, today and every day, move beyond, march forth and think about the legacy you, yourself, will be leaving to others. Give it your all – and remember to stick the finish, for the win.