My mother was in her late 70s when she learned to send email on a second-hand computer. It had a dial-up connection that was even spottier than most because she and my dad lived out in the country, on our family farm in southern Indiana.
After Dad died in 2001, Mom continued living there, which caused us some concern. I’m one of four children, and none of us lived nearby. My sister was closest, about an hour and a half away. And here I was in Charlotte, a 500-mile drive.
Mom remained independent, driving herself to church, the beauty parlor and the grocery store. But just to make sure, we agreed we should touch base every day.
Instead of phone calls, Mom agreed to send daily emails to my sister and me.
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Over the next seven years, she opened almost every email with the same subject line: “I’m ok.”
Seeing that phrase pop up in my inbox always made me smile.
Recently, as I cleaned out old files, I reread some of the hundreds of emails and dozens of greeting cards she sent over the years.
There wasn’t always a lot of news. But I miss the details of her small-town life.
Here’s a typical email message, from 2003:
“Well I made my round trip today. Left home to go to the chiropractor about 9 o’clock. then went to Walmart…Then to get my hair done. then stopped at the grocery store.… Just got through reading all my mail and ate a bite. It was a beautiful day here today although a little windy. Love Mom”
Reading this, I can see Mom at Ruth’s beauty salon on Main Street in Brownstown. With her newly permed hair in tight pink rollers, she’d be dozing while sitting under the hard plastic bonnet-style hair dryer.
Once in a while, Mom would type a new subject line that gave us a scare, as it did in the summer of 2007: “I’m sick again”
For many years, she’d had periodic intestinal problems – a side effect from radiation treatment after surgery for uterine cancer. Muscle relaxers could fix things for a while. But on that June day in 2007, the drugs weren’t working.
“Guess I’ll go to the emergency room again if it doesnt quit,” she wrote.
A month later, the subject line of her July 12 email was familiar: “I’m ok.” But the message sounded less certain.
“My legs and feet have been swelling so bad so I called the doctor this morning and he said to keep them elevated above my heart for 90 minutes each morning and afternoon.” Even so, she wrote that she had “put up the pickles” and “I think they turned out pretty good.”
When I lived at home, she would have stacked those jars of pickles neatly on shelves in the cool basement “fruit cellar.” But at 87, she probably kept them in the kitchen to avoid climbing stairs. I can picture her sitting at her computer, on a desk wedged in between two freezers in the “back hall” adjacent to her kitchen. With a swivel office chair on rollers, she could whirl around to her sewing machine, where she stitched so many quilt blocks that became comforters for all the beds in her home. And ours.
Things went pretty well for Mom on the farm until Sept. 4, 2007, when this heart-stopping subject line showed up in the last email she ever wrote:
“I’m not ok.”
Because Mom rarely complained, we knew it had to be bad. She had awakened at 2 a.m. with severe abdominal pain. She felt dizzy and couldn’t keep food down.
Over the next few weeks, we took her to see specialists in Indianapolis, where she ended up having surgery to remove a large section of bowel. She was recovering in the intensive care unit when, three days later, her heart stopped.
I held my breath as doctors performed CPR with electrodes and paddles in a scene straight out of “Grey’s Anatomy.” They got her heart beating again, but she never regained consciousness. She died three weeks later, on Oct. 13, 2007.
That was nine years ago, but I still think of her every day. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see her resemblance in my own aging face. When I hear the hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” I remember Sunday mornings when she played it on her piano before church. When I use her old Sunbeam mixer or the pie plate with her name on it, I miss her deeply. Sometimes tears come. But mostly I smile.
As time has passed, I’m even more glad that I’ve saved Mom’s emails and cards. When I read again that she was sewing lap covers for the nursing home or that she baked herself a cake because she wanted “something different” for lunch, I’m reminded of how content and happy she was even as she faced health struggles in her final years.
And although I don’t really need reminding that she loved us, it’s nice to read, in her perfect cursive, this note from an anniversary card to my husband and me in March 2006:
“Our Ladies Aid for tomorrow was cancelled on account of the snow. Don’t know if I’ll be able to get to church Wed. night or not. I’m supposed to bring cookies.…This will probably get to you late. But my wishes are still the same. I love you both very much & I couldn’t have a nicer family. Love always, Mom”
Readers celebrate mom
The Observer asked readers to submit stories of how they communicate with their mothers today or how they communicated in the days before emailing, texting and social media. We chose submissions from Chris McLeod, Michelle Scroggs-Higgins and Kathleen Frandano Franek. Here are their stories, as told to Karen Garloch.