Every year as Mother’s Day approaches, I think of the story about a woman who gave birth to her second son during the mid-1940s in a Southern town.
By JOHN LAWS
Special to The Star
Before the baby was a day old. he was kidnapped from the hospital but returned three days later. Roll the clock forward 21 years and she collapses upon learning that her oldest son was a casualty in the battle for Hill 400 in Vietnam. A little over two years later she quakes from emotion and the chill of a January morning at her husband’s grave site.
In years to come, she would lose three of her four siblings and her best friend. Despite the losses and trauma in her life, she persevered with her “inner dependence,” calling on the strength and resilience she had relied upon from her family, friends and faith. At age 83, she closed her eyes and went peacefully, leaving her legacy of persistence and endurance.
So, how do I know so much about this lady? She was my mother, Sally Laws. It was my father who succumbed to leukemia at the young age of 47; it was my 23-year-old brother who received the Silver Star, posthumously for his bravery that day on Hill 400, and I was the baby taken from the hospital just 22 hours after birth.
I think of my mother often for her influence and impact on my life. I grew up asking about, and listening to, stories of her life. She was born in Potosi, Mo., and grew up in Mineral Point, where she and her four siblings helped her parents eke out a living running a general store. In addition to her duties at the store, she tended the rabbits and chickens they raised.
The family moved to Meridian, Miss., where in 1942, she married my dad, who was serving in the Army Air Corps. She adapted to the role of a nomadic military wife and mother and over the years I learned how her life, and mine, was formed from her tenacity, perseverance and hard work.
Growing up, I heard stories of my kidnapping from her, my relatives and people who had been there. Most talked about her strength and resolve during the time I was gone, relying heavily on her faith to get her through it. She felt strongly that her prayers had something to do with the outcome. The lady who took me from the hospital took good care of me; in fact, I gained several ounces. Fearful that the authorities were getting closer to solving the case, she left me on a table in the mess hall of the naval shipyard in Mobile, Ala., and told the workers who were eating lunch, “Take care of this baby.”
As traumatic as this event was for my mother, she never seemed to avoid the discussion or sound any alarms about skepticism of being around people, other than the usual “don’t talk to strangers” and the admonitions that went with it.
I’m not sure how this affected her close involvement with my brother and me during our younger years, but she was a room mother in school, a den mother in Cub Scouts, always volunteered to host season celebrations in sports and played an active role in whatever we were doing. Occasionally, with misty eyes, she would open the scrapbook and read the headlines of the newspaper neatly pasted on a tattered page that read, “Doubtful If Laws Baby Will Be Found Alive, If At All.”
As a young child, when I was being “counseled” (I admit that I was a handful!), I would question whether I was with my “real mommy”, and she would respond with appropriate levity and love that I was in no position to be lobbying for an alternate mother! Her patience was tested most often when we were in public places because of the uncertainty of what I might do. When I was about 4, we were shopping in an A & P store and I pulled a can of green beans from a strategic spot in the end of aisle pyramid display. The sound and the fury of the tumbling display, while frightening, didn’t compare with the reaction of my mom. Thereafter, when we went shopping, I wore a leather harness that tethered me within three feet of my mother’s side. Over the years, she delighted in telling my son and daughter how the harness neutralized a potentially eventful shopping trip. I still have that harness as a reminder of her creativity and problem solving ability!
As I grew older, I appreciated and marveled at her tenacity in making things work. She and my father, like many parents in their generation, would work multiple jobs and sacrifice their time and personal comfort for the wellbeing of their boys. She was a “kitchen magician” creating tasty and nutritious meals by combining leftovers from previous dinners. She was also a “boredom buster,” creating fun, educational and time-consuming activities, like helping us to gather the surviving components of Lincoln Logs and an Erector Set to create an amorphous object which would have to be assigned a name before starting on the next “Linctor” creature.
My brother and I were involved in every high school sport and in those days the players (which meant their mothers) were responsible for laundering all of their practice and game uniforms. Mom would take pride in hanging the football, basketball, and track jerseys on the clothes line (we had no clothes dryer) and she would leave them there for several days as if to be sure that the neighborhood knew her boys were on the local high school team!
In my adult years, I would lovingly suggest that she would be reincarnated either as a tank or an armadillo because of her toughness. Her legacy of resilience was never tested like it was as I sat next to her on that blustery January day beside my father’s flag-draped casket, her trembling hand in mine, squeezing harder as our emotions heightened while taps laid him to rest. She flinched as each shot was fired in military tribute, reminiscent of that day just 28 months earlier as that same roar notified the commander in the sky of a young fallen Marine.
Mothers are a special breed. Their sinewy determination and fortitude are often masked by their nurturing love and tenderness. Mothers, and certainly mine, provide great role models for courage in coping, given their courage and fortitude in the face of so many trials. Eric Hoffer said, “Treasure the memories of past misfortunes; they constitute our bank of fortitude.” I am grateful for the “bank” that my mother passed on to me, along with an understanding of the importance of calling on my “inner dependence” during difficult times.
During this Mother’s Day, I hope you find peace and gratitude as you reflect on your mother’s legacy and the impact of her influence on your life.
John Laws lives in Overland Park.