Always there: A tribute to Mary Caves
Carlton M. Caves
2007 August 6

My mother, Mary Caves, died three weeks ago at the age of 82. She survived her husband of 60 years, my father Morris, by just over a year, and she is survived by her three children, Douglas, Carlton, and Linda, and seven grandchildren, four of whom are married.

As she entered her 80s, Mother was in pretty good shape, still enjoying life despite the macular degeneration that had destroyed her high-resolution vision. She could get around without much difficulty, especially in familiar locations, and she continued her lifelong habit of reading, using a device that magnifies text onto a television screen. She was in her own way a gentle reproof to those who ask how an exquisite design like the eye could evolve from nothing. What good, they ask, is half of an eye? Mother used what little sight she had left, which was considerably less than half, and she certainly wouldn't have wished to give it up because of somebody's argument that such a small fraction of normal vision is useless.

As Dad approached death from lung cancer in the spring of 2006, Mother planned to move into an assisted-living facility near Linda. She faced Dad's death and the consequent disruptions of her own life with apparent equanimity. This relatively happy state of affairs came to an end about six weeks before Dad died, when a case of pneumonia sent Mother into the hospital for two weeks. She emerged sadly reduced, unable to get around well and, tragically, unable to use her reading device. With the help of several dedicated full-time caretakers, she stayed in her home and rallied throughout the summer and fall of 2006, although she never recovered the ability to use her reader. She even survived five days in a hotel during the great Oklahoma ice storm of last January, which left her house without electricity. Shortly after that, however, minor back surgery and a few days in the hospital initiated a further decline. She saw most of her progeny during a long auto trip in May, which took her from Muskogee to Albuquerque, thence to Colorado Springs and Madison, and finally back to Muskogee, but she then went into the hospital for intestinal surgery, which exacted a further toll and put her into the final decline.

Doug, Linda, and I were all in Muskogee at the end of the week before Mother died. She knew we were at hand, she responded to an offered hand, and about once a day she rallied to sustain a conversation for a sentence or two. As the three of us left on Saturday morning, we all felt that Mother's remaining time was short, and early on the morning of Monday, July 16, she died, succumbing to old age in the form of Alzheimer's, repeated small strokes, and persistent infections that couldn't be defeated, although perhaps the real explanation is that she had just had enough.

When I began thinking about writing something about Mother, I started in the mindset of a piece I wrote about Dad. Dad left us with principles and precepts that I could point to, but I had a hard time thinking about Mother in those terms, and finally I figured out why. When we were kids, Mother was an immediate presence in our lives in a way that Dad could never be. Mother was always there, a part of everything we did. Mother, we remember you not through abstractions, but through stories that tell of your constant presence, through experiences that are built into us right at the core. From the perspective of 40 to 50 years, we can see clearly how those experiences shaped and continue to shape our lives.

I'll start in something like 1955, with Mother and her mother, Grandma Doris, spending a long, hot, exhausting day shopping with five-year-old me and three-year-old Linda. Returning home, I couldn't find my coin purse, which contained my entire stock of funds. I was devastated at the loss, the tears flowing freely. Without complaining, Mother and Grandma took us back to all the stores, inquiring whether they had found a little boy's coin purse, but without success. Home again at last, still inconsolable, I removed my cap, revealing the coin purse perched on top of my head. Not surprisingly, this became one of Mother's favorite stories about the trials of parenthood. What parent could resist putting a story like this in his or her repertoire, but for most of us, the humor would come only after the frustration and annoyance of the experience had faded. What was unique about Mother was that she didn't get angry, didn't even seem flustered, though I'm sure she was.

Mother had an inexhaustible supply of patience. She rarely got angry or rattled or even raised her voice, except in her perpetual, but ultimately futile attempts to control my pestering of Linda. She tried---very hard---to make the world work smoothly, but when it didn't, as inevitably it doesn't, she didn't get visibly upset. She took a deep breath, adapted to new circumstances, and carried on.

Back in the 50s and 60s, we took our meals at a table with a semi-circular end, which stuck out from the wall between the kitchen and the den. We sat at utterly unchanging positions, Mother on the short straightaway on the kitchen side, Doug and Linda on the semicircle, and Dad and me on the long straightaway, with Dad strategically positioned between me and Linda. Lunch was a bit free form, but for breakfast and dinner, we all ate at the same time, talking about whatever came up. After dinner, one of us kids would wash the dishes, while Mother rinsed and kept an eagle eye out for the slightest particle of food or anything else that had escaped our washing exertions. The immediate lesson here was that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the family, but I think there was another, deeper lesson as well. Dad liked to say that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing right. Mother's credo was subtly different, perhaps reflecting a woman's perspective: "Any job you do, even one you don't like, should be done right." She didn't have to verbalize this, because those dishes said it plainly every night.

I didn't have a taste for vegetables as a kid, and one of the most trying aspects of family dinners was the requirement to take one bite of everything. The only effect of making me take a bite of broccoli or carrots or---ugh---okra was to make me gag. On one such matter, however, Mother got her way, and that was in getting me to eat salads. Whenever we went to a restaurant, I whined and complained about having no food while everybody else was eating their pre-dinner salad. Mother laid down the law: learn to eat salad, Carl, or no more restaurants for you. This was perhaps not a very credible threat since there is no way the family could have left me alone---or even locked me in the car---while they all went out to dinner, but it worked nonetheless. Mother tried different salad dressings on me until she had devised a concoction of equal parts French dressing and lettuce, with a heavy dose of soda crackers, which I managed to get down, gagging only when a hint of vegetable matter snuck through the coating of dressing and crackers. The lesson here: Dream the impossible dream. More down-to-earth, the lesson might be that if you want to help somebody modify his behavior, you need to be prepared to work with him intensively and to devise imaginative solutions.

When I was in the third grade, Mother was the parent volunteer who tested students' vision. I remember walking into a darkened room, peering into the testing device, and being asked to identify the arm with a dot on a series of crosses lining a road running off into the distance. My response, "What crosses?", floored Mother, I am sure, but her reaction, after checking that the machine hadn't malfunctioned, was to state calmly and matter-of-factly, "Carl, I think you need glasses." I was wearing glasses within a few weeks, assured by Mother that it was the most natural thing in the world, despite the fact that nobody else in my class was wearing them. I have been wearing them ever since.

I was an enthusiastic Little League baseball player, progressing from the proverbial right fielder my first year to a passable pitcher in my fourth year. Mother attended games whenever she could, and she had Grandma Doris trained to go to all the games without exception and to buy the whole team Cokes at a local soda fountain after the game if no one else volunteered to do so. After a good fourth year, I elected to play a fifth year when I was about twelve, this at a much higher level of competition. Did Mother know that I would discover that I wasn't going be the next Warren Spahn? Almost certainly she did, but she didn't tell me, and she encouraged me to do the best I could, even in a season that didn't go well for me. She let me find out for myself that my future did not lie in athletics.

Our family vacationed most summers at the Ft. Gibson Lake house, where we were joined by the Vaughts, Don and Gerry and their kids, Larry and Donna. This arrangement allowed Dad and Don to continue working through the vacation, commuting the short distance to Muskogee. We kids enjoyed nonstop swimming in the lake off the boat dock, interrupted only by meals and by a mandatory two-hour rest period after lunch. This two-hour downtime was said to be based on the strict medical prohibition against swimming for at least two hours after a meal to avoid cramping. I have often thought that Mother and Gerry Vaught made up that rule, perhaps in league with all the other mothers of 1950s America, since the requisite time period got shorter after we grew up and has now vanished entirely. Made up or not, that rule gave Mother and Gerry the only rest they got all day, because they uncomplainingly spent ever other waking minute sitting on the dock supervising our swimming.

Every year Dad planted a vast garden in the back yard, which produced far more fresh fruit and vegetables than we could possibly eat. Dad's method was to bring the harvest into the house and plunk it down on the counter with a great sense of satisfaction---the more, the better was his philosophy---leaving the post-harvest phase entirely to Mother. Mother's response, I have to admit, was often something like, "What am I supposed to do with all this stuff?" But she quickly got past that immediate reaction and set to work cooking, canning, freezing, or whatever was required to eat or preserve everything. We feasted every summer and throughout the year on the products of Dad's garden, lovingly prepared or preserved by Mother. One lesson here is the obvious one not to waste, but we can find a more contemporary lesson as well, which put Mother way ahead of her time: Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown, whenever you can. We did a lot of that.

Doug and Linda had pet cocker spaniels---Doug's Midnight was succeeded by Linda's Pepper---but I preferred wild things like snakes and lizards and tadpoles, which Mother tolerated without complaint. I had two phases of insect collecting, the first focused exclusively on butterflies and moths and the second, when I was about twelve, generalizing to all insects. In the second phase, I titled my collecting efforts the Caves Insect Collecting and Displaying Association (CICADA), with me as president and a reluctant Linda pressed into service as secretary because you can't have an association with just one person. Mother backed my efforts enthusiastically, making me and Linda first-class cheesecloth nets for capturing insects, devising an effective killing method using cleaning fluid, and making sure I had the materials for displaying the insects to best effect. This was Mother at her best, supporting her child's interest in any way she could.

One of the trials of my late childhood and teen years was mowing lawns. Every week during the summer, I mowed our lawn, the next-door neighbor's lawn, Grandpa Curt and Grandma Doris's lawn, and the front lawn at Acme Engineering and Manufacturing Corporation, the family-owned business. I made good money doing this mowing, but I made the job harder by not getting started till the middle of the day, when the Oklahoma heat and humidity make outdoor work a misery. Dad would often suggest strongly that I get the mowing done early in the morning, when it was relatively cool. Mother endorsed this suggestion, and I am sure she hoped I would wise up, but she didn't waste words on what she knew to be a losing cause. She knew that the world has many problems and that you should devote your own time and worry to dealing with those where you can make a difference. I have solved the lawn problem in my own way: as a teen-ager, I swore I would never have a lawn, and sure enough, I don't---and I portray it as the virtue of preserving native habitat.

No set of recollections would be complete without mention of the family gatherings at the lake house. Dad's side of the family from southwestern Oklahoma would arrive for several days at the Fourth of July or during a school break in October. There would be at least one meal with all of Mother's Muskogee relatives in attendance, and for the Fourth of July, there would be a spectacular fireworks show, financed and organized by Mother's father, Curt, and featuring at least one fiery whirligig descending on the shrieking audience, where it attacked only females, burning a hole in a dress or setting hair on fire. Mother organized these affairs with aplomb: breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for fifteen to twenty people, with at least one big dinner for 25 or more. She was in her element organizing all this. She had plenty of help once the guests arrived, but she was the impresario who put the whole enterprise together and made it work, seemingly effortlessly. It was her gift to the extended family, her way of saying how much she valued family. Therein lies an obvious lesson, one that our entire family has absorbed.

After Mom and Dad fledged their kids, there was nothing they enjoyed more than vacationing with their children and grandchildren. The first of these vacations, in 1974, was called the September Educational Visit to Arizona and California---SEVAC. In addition to Mom and Dad, it involved Doug and his wife, Sherry, and me. For this trip, Dad had worn down Mother's resistance and somehow convinced her to try car camping. Mom, Dad, Doug, and Sherry camped in the Pecos east of Santa Fe and then proceeded to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I joined them. We took a half-day mule trip into the canyon and stayed in the North Rim lodge. From the Grand Canyon, we went to Zion National Park. After two days of camping in strong winds there, Mother announced that her days of camping were over---forever. Though there were many more SEVACs over the years, if camping was involved, Mother demurred, preferring to stay behind and take care of grandchildren too young for hiking and camping. The lesson here is pretty clear: family is important, but---let's be sensible---sleeping in a bed with a mattress is more important. Fortunately, this is a credo family members are free to adopt or not as they please.

To celebrate Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary in 1995, all of their children and grandchildren joined them for ten days in Hawaii spanning the turn of the year from 1995 to 1996. Whether peering over the rim of Kilauea crater, touring tropical gardens, watching whales from a boat bucking in storm-driven seas, visiting a whaling museum, enjoying a luau on the beach at Lahaina, or just playing dominoes, Mom and Dad participated in all the activities, glorying in the company of their progeny. It was a fitting tribute to fifty years of marriage that were indeed fifty years to celebrate.

Mom and Dad both made it to their 60th anniversary, in 2005 November, but not long after that, both their lives entered the end game that we all must eventually face. Now every day for me---and I'm sure for Doug and Linda---has a different character than days used to have. For our entire lives, we could look behind us and find Mom and Dad rooting us on. Not that we've relied much on that for many years, but the presence was there nonetheless. Now it's gone. Our kids can look behind themselves and find us providing encouragement and support, but when we look behind ourselves, we find only memories in our wake. Celebrating those memories is what this contribution is all about.

Addendum: 2007 October 14

I can't resist adding that Mother had a very practical streak that is nowhere better illustrated than by the dishwashing chores mentioned above. When we visited Dad's sisters in southwestern Oklahoma, we were always astonished and discouraged to find that immediately after washing, they dried the dishes and utensils and returned them to storage. This practice required three or more participants, one adult to supervise the operation and rinse the dishes, one kid to wash the dishes, and two or more additional kids to dry the dishes. Mother never bothered with the dish drying, preferring to put the dishes on a rack and let them dry at their own pace. That's why we could get along with one kid and one supervisor. Mother didn't believe in spending her time on something that time would take care of by itself.

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