It was raining yesterday in Youngstown Ohio, big warm drops sluicing from the bellies of black, fat clouds. During a pause between downpours I stepped outside my mother’s assisted living facility for a bit of air, and I couldn’t help myself: my eyes wandered over the saturated yard, looking for mushrooms. Yes, there were some - a solitary pair of the Coprinus genus, side-by-side in a wood chip pile.
They made me smile. Were Mom with me in her wheelchair, I’d have gone over, pulled one out and brought it back for her to examine. She’d have looked it over carefully while listening intently to the fungal facts: that Coprinus grow with astonishing speed, that they weirdly deliquesce (hence the common name, “Inky Cap”), that some have a nasty and hidden toxicity, sickening only those who consume them after drinking alcohol. It would not have surprised me if she’d called me after every rainstorm this fall, reporting how she’d found more of “those inky mushrooms” and wondering if they were the “good” ones (C. Comatus) or the “sickeners.”
There will, however, be no more phone calls from my first botany teacher and my eldest mycology student. Mom died in the morning on August 10, passing away peacefully in her bed after a short, steep decline. She was 91.
What a long and interesting - and very difficult - life she lived!
Lois Ruth Luce was born in Struthers Ohio in 1920, the youngest of five children. I’ve no doubt there’d have been more siblings - given her father’s attitude towards his wife, and the morays of the time - had her mother not been too frail and too old to conceive. But as it turned out, Mom was the last, and hence the youngest.
Her eldest sister Mary was a primary caregiver, since Mom’s mother suffered from pernicious anemia. A teenager when Mom was born, Mary was soon to marry, and leave the home. The middle sister was Uretta, who looked, of all the girls, most like Mom. William - Bill - was her big brother, a lover of science and the natural world, smart as a whip and an incredibly hard worker. Orlo was the youngest boy. He was sort-of wild, with a penchant for fun and a desire to be popular. Which leads us to the poisonous family dynamic.
Mom’s father Harry was a rod-wielding, self-proclaimed Christian fundamentalist of the old school. He believed that every human was innately evil, and every father had not only the duty to beat the evil out, but to run his family like a king and overseer, extracting pleasure from his women and labor from all. In neighborhood lore he assaulted Orlo so furiously he almost killed him; in Mom’s stories, he and her mother fought until my grandmother’s last day on earth. Grandpa was a racist, and an unforgiving believer in the poor deserving (and needing to remain in) their place. His hatred of Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal go a long way towards explaining why my mother spent her life moving politically leftward.
But enough negativity. (I do need to point out that Mom became a teenager just when the Great Depression struck. None of my peers went through the kinds of deprivation her family suffered from 1932 - 1941. The experience changed her, hugely. As did the loss of her mother when Mom was 15.)
Struthers was a steel town, a suburb of Youngstown. Steel towns have gritty reputations, but both Struthers and Youngstown are blessed with terrific parks - Yellow Creek in the former and Mill Creek in the latter. The happiest hours of Mom’s childhood were spent in parks; first in Yellow Creek with her beloved brother Bill, who called her “Mike” (I could never figure out why) and taught her everything he knew about the botanical world. Thanks to their loving relationship I know how to spot a sassafras tree when the leaves are off, and how to tell the difference between Solomon’s Seal and False Solomon’s Seal, and many other things about plants, because everything Bill taught Mike remained in her prodigious memory and came down to me.
When she was old enough to ride a bicycle, Mom and her friends Katherine and Vanetta took to exploring Mill Creek. It’s a huge place, with four lakes and an intricate ecosystem. When I was a child, Mom and Dad would take us kids through it, and it seemed to go on forever. We’d search beneath tulip trees for dog-tooth violets in the spring, and marvel at the vivid crimson of American gum trees in the autumn. In the winter we skated on Lake Glacier or Lake Newport - but I’m getting ahead of my tale.
Mom joined the Girl Scouts, I’m not sure what year. I have the badges she won for archery and badmitten, and old black-and-white snapshots of her with a great curved wooden bow and a target larger than this desk.
When it came to athletic activities, though, her favorite was ice skating. She learned the basics of the sport on a pond in Yellow Creek, and although she was never formally trained, she spent many happy hours both there and at a now-defunct indoor rink. In fact, as I just learned just this week, an evening of ice skating was one of her first dates with my father.
This was another of her great gifts to me. She had me in skates before I was in school. I didn’t learn the sport “right”, but I did learn fearlessness, and a feel for the ice, and a love of it - as well as how to tell if a pond was safe and when blades are in need of sharpening.
She also taught me how to cook, as the photograph heading this blog attests. This was far more than a set of mechanical moves. She wasn’t a chef and we didn’t eat cuisine, but Mom loved food, especially fresh garden vegetables and fruits, and she understood both nutrition and efficiency. She could put all those concepts together to make tasty, healthful meals from pennies worth of ingredients.
Mom and Dad married in 1944 on Pearl Harbor Day. Dad served with the army in WWII. I was born in 1946; my brother in 1949; my sister in 1952. We first lived in a Veterans Administration housing projects until Dad built a house at the edge of Youngstown’s suburb, Hubbard.
It was not easy for Mom to be married to a leftist activist, which was what Dad was. He opposed or questioned so many of the values she’d learned: religion and capitalism and family structure and race relations. There were constant tensions, and I fear their marriage nearly fractured. But they resolved their difficulties and remained a married couple until the end.
I left home in 1964, and have been an irregular visitor since. Ditto my brother, Danny. My sister Ruth lived in the Youngstown area until just 5 years ago, so she spent more time with Mom than any of us. When she gave birth to her daughter Brianna 22 years ago, Mom had a granddaughter to dote upon and spoil, which she did with a vengeance.
Perhaps the hardest week of my life was the one when my wife Leslie and I moved Mom and Dad from the family home and into an assisted living facility. Dad was in the throes of Alzheimer’s and Mom had become so physically crippled she could barely walk, so there was no choice. Besides, she’d recently been mugged in her own driveway - by a man who followed her home from church - so moving was an act of preservation.
The toughest day for her was the one she sent my father to live in the memory care unit of their facility. She had so much difficulty forgiving herself for that. I hope - I pray - that she eventually did. Dad died in December, 2007. Mom has spent the last 4 1/2 years missing him terribly.
Over the past year I’ve tried to visit her frequently. It’s been challenging, with me trying to start a business and a 6 hour drive separating us. But as I’d pilot the car across PA, watching trees and bushes and grasses fly past, I’d think of their names and realize I’d be ignorant if not for her.
Many of you reading this have witnessed my love of teaching, eaten my meals, test-baked my bread or heard me me name a tree after glancing at its bark. That’s not me you’ve benefitted from, but Lois Ruth Luce.
A story: When my siblings and I were young, Mom would read to us from the Golden Book of Poetry. Last year she decided she needed to find that book, and was deeply upset that the person to whom we’d given it when dividing the house couldn’t locate it. Although I couldn’t figure why she wanted it - she’d given up reading about three years ago - I promised to find it in time for Christmas. Of course it was available on E-bay, and I surprised her with a gift wrapped copy.
Soon I discovered her motives: All winter and spring she read those poems out loud. Not to the air, or to herself, but to her assisted living helpers.
There were many poems she did not need to read, having memorized them long ago. The Owl and the Pussycat was one of her favorites. I think some of her younger assistants - girls in their 20’s whose entire literary experience consisted of TV episodes - were bewildered and stunned by Mom’s grasp of that work’s arcane language.
One tough day she had to be sent to the ER with a skin infection. Her facility agreed to give me time to get to Ohio, and I was able to accompany her. Through the interminable waiting, she recited poetry from memory. The Night Before Christmas will never sound the same.
Thursday, her last day in this life, my wife Leslie read those poems to her, along with Genesis and the 23rd Psalm. I have no doubt she heard and understood every word.