I can remember it like it was yesterday. Preschool at Joslyn Art Museum. I was three years old and yet can still recall making a big mess of it as I finger-painted in the midst of the great masters of art. Without a doubt, color and design were wired into me at an early age, and I remain so grateful to mom for getting me there.
I didn’t have to worry about separation anxiety, as mom sat on a marble bench just down the hallway knitting the hours away. Just to be sure she hadn’t left me, I would occasionally peak my head out the door. The visual picture was a constant. Mom’s gaze fixed downward on the rhythm of the needles.
She was a knitting machine.
Mom had learned the craft when she was just 8 years old. For her, art class was replaced with knitting – mandatory for both boys and girls. The task was to make 6” squares, which were later sewn into blankets for the troops in World War II. Mom never stopped knitting.
The art of knitting was perfectly suited to my mom’s personality. It’s precise. Absolute. A pattern to follow. Any deviation from that pattern produces utter disaster. And at the end of the last loop was an item of function, be it blankets or mittens or scarves.
My lifelong friend Sue Kalina posted on Facebook, “Bev was a no-nonsense force of nature.”
Mom and Dad surely were progressive thinkers by sending Jessalyn and I to preschool at the museum, but life was not one big coloring book for me. Reading words was a challenge, from early on. There were those stand-offs at the library when I would trot out with a big stack of picture books, and the Reading Gestapo would send me marching back for books with a higher ratio of words vs. pictures. And there was that day in the New Orleans library that all ten of my selections were rejected. I rolled my eyes thinking “you are so unreasonable!”
I do not know why I thought I could out wit or outlast Beverly Wilscam. My mastermind decided to pick out the necessary 10 books, with no intention of reading them. Little did I know that there was a short quiz at the end of that week, and I failed on 10 counts.
Beverly did pass me on to several summer school classes for remedial and speed reading. There I was, slumped over in an unairconditioned classroom…but somewhere it clicked. You see, Mom had a pattern that included all three daughters graduating from college, and there was no deviating from the design. No nonsense. Non-negotiable.
There was also no deviating from several other Mom mantras. The list included “Because I said so…” “I’m your mother, not your friend.” And “Sit and act like a lady.” “Do you have a bra on?” is a personal favorite. But the grand prize winner is “Nice girls don’t chew gum.” Gum snapping and popping did not equal lady like behavior, and even in recent adult years I would beg my friends to not chew gum in mom’s presence.
Mom continued to knit.
The thread that none of us imagined being woven into our lives was watching my daughter (Beverly’s granddaughter) courageously battle adrenal cancer. As Megan’s health declined over 44 months, and I teetered on the edge of utter exhaustion, I asked Mom how I was going to do it? Mom’s reply was “You can do whatever life requires of you.”
Mom continued to knit, but her focus was now a wardrobe of caps for her beautiful but bald granddaughter. Though my daughter’s life ended in 2008, Mom continued to knit and pearl close to 1,000 caps that she donated to the Immanuel Cancer Center.
It should come as no surprise that Beverly Jesse Wilscam’s life ended with the same absoluteness with which she lived. A few weeks prior to her death she privately told me, “Valerie, I want to die. Can I tell you that? I’m 80 years old, and I’ve had a full and complete life, and I just can’t keep living in pain.”
On Saturday, April 28 mom signed into Hospice. No heroic measures were to be used to save her life. Within just a few hours of that decision, Mom began to command my attention – the first order of business was to talk with Jessalyn and Adrienne. She called her sister. She talked to her brother. I knew, without a doubt, that Mom was organizing her affairs. I sent Uncle Fred to bring Dad back to say good-bye. Mom called for Pastor Peggy.
In the midst of a very relational bucket list, Mom told me that my sisters and I should divide the sterling silver.
By five o’clock, when the morphine arrived, she began to slip into a deep sleep, waking up enough the next day for Father Tom to share the Catholic sacrament of last rights. Hospice had thought mom would last one to two weeks. But my mom had made up her mind. Seventy nine hours after signing the hospice papers, in the presence of her brother, Mom drew a few short breaths and died. No crowd. No fanfare. No nonsense.
Beverly Jesse Wilscam lived through The Great Depression, and watched and waited as my dad shipped off to Korea. She is a woman that survived five major brain aneurysm surgeries and breast cancer.
And the woman, who said she wasn’t smart enough to graduate from college, watched three daughters graduate from college, and my two sisters’ advance on to master’s degrees. She lived to see granddaughter’s Megan and Caitlin and grandson Ryan graduate from college, with Alexander and Tyler on track to make higher education a clean sweep. Might I add that on Thursday night of this week my younger sister will receive “Teacher of the Year” for her district. And well, my older sister is so savvy in her field that world economies need her.
Maybe it is appropriate that Mom died on May Day with a basketful of knitting needles at her bedside, ending 80 years of life, and 72 years of knitting.
In memory of my mom, remember you can do whatever life requires of you.