How can this be? Already a decade has gone by since my mother passed away?? I thought I should write about her life after taking inspiration from a friend’s blog. My mother was a complicated woman —she gave some of that to me, no doubt— and there are many gaps in her life story that I will never know. Last month I finally finished going through ALL the old papers she saved, looked at each & every photo, read years of family correspondence & listened to endless hours of recorded conversations on cassette. I may not have a complete picture of her life, but I know more than I ever did & there’s no better moment to share her story. Buckle up.
Elizabeth Gae Philby was born on 25 Feb 1941 in the small town of Mystic, Iowa. She had a sister who was 4 years older with the middle name of Mae… so they rhymed: Mae & Gae. At the time of her birth, Gae’s father had just begun work as a machinist. That side of the family originally came from a small village just outside of Manchester, UK & arrived in the US in 1865 —a few months before the end of the Civil War. They worked in coal mines in Pennsylvania, then came out to Iowa to do the same in 1908. Gae’s mother enjoyed photography, so I’m fortunate to have quite a few photos from her early years.
By far, my favorite family portrait before I came along is the photo below. My mom was only 1 year old, if that. I have no idea whose house is in the background (definitely not my family’s home at the time), but the American Gothic feel of this photo makes me smile every time I see it:
As a child, my mother loved to draw & paint. By her high school graduation in 1959, art —especially in advertising— had became an important part of her life & she won several local & regional contests. I still have a few of her pieces from high school that I need to frame:
Sifting through some old papers, I discovered that Gae was accepted to Drake University in Iowa but she would never attend college… most likely because my grandparents could not afford tuition. Growing up, I remember how much my mom encouraged me to be artistic, & I also recall being impressed by her talent. She found a way to continue her love of the arts through me, but I always wished she had returned to painting later in life. One outlet for her creativity though was fashion. She made her own dresses from patterns, often choosing the most hip fabric she could find. Honestly, I never realized how cool my mom dressed before writing this!
When did Gae meet my father? Not sure. My dad’s side of the family lived in various places down the Atlantic coast of Florida, so perhaps during a vacation there? No clue. They married in 1961, & prior to that some tension developed between her parents & my father… earlier this year when I asked her sister Mae about those letters, she finally told me what I’d suspected all along: “We all thought your mom could have done better.” Honesty at last. My dad’s family called her Liz instead of Gae (for reasons I never knew), & she changed her last name after marriage to Wright… a whole new identity!
Gae Philby/Liz Wright seemed happy enough at the time, in spite of my father not holding a steady job. To save money, he lived with his family in Jacksonville for a time & my mom remained in Iowa. From reading their early letters, making a life together seemed difficult but they found a way to set up a home in Florida.
I came along in 1970. Things were still difficult because they moved from place to place & probably for lack of income, Gae took me to Iowa to live with her parents. By 1974, my dad got a job at the evening newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. I was 3 when we moved there, but I still remember the first time I stepped into our apartment… with my mom. My first memory is with her.
As money came in & with a new city to explore, I remember my mom as fun, funny & very active. The couple next door had a daughter my age —we ended up growing up together like siblings— and her mother became Gae’s new best friend. They did everything together: joined a bowling league, took us roller skating, went on vacations to Biloxi, took exercise classes at the local community center & had a few spats as best friends can. Quite the 1970’s mom, this might have been the happiest time of her life. My fondest memories of her are certainly from this decade.
She encouraged me to learn an instrument, so of course I wanted to play the piano just like her. Her love of the piano made it a focal part of family life. She also encouraged me to read from an early age, & I became the bookworm I am today. She even volunteered to shuttle my schoolmates in the Ford station wagon for weekly school activities. My father worked night shift, so I rarely saw him & my mom did more than her fair share of raising me. She seemed to enjoy it… even taking me to BASIC programming classes in the sixth grade. Her encouragement & constant support made me a better person.
Times soon changed. My father earned less as the years went by because the evening newspaper failed to sell, his gambling at the dog track increased & eventually he was laid off the newspaper in 1983 when it closed. He turned to dog racing connections in Florida to find temporary work & sent money home to Memphis. Eventually he found another newspaper job in Phoenix. My mom & I spent Christmas 1984 in Arizona & came home with the idea that we’d soon be moving out there.
Except for one thing: my dad disappeared. Vanished. Even the IRS couldn’t find him. No doubt my mom was distraught, but she held strong. She’d quit working after getting married —as many women did then— so not only did she have to find a way to support the two of us, she also had to navigate the crazy bureaucracy of federal & state aid… plus pay tons of credit card debt left by my dad. All with no child support. What happened to my father? He’d fallen in love with another woman & abandoned us. I only found that out around 2002. Although my mom stepped up to the challenge, she never fully recovered from what my father had done.
Over time, she lost touch with most of her friends. She never dated again. She left all community programs. She argued more & more with her sister. Her work relations grew strained. I tried suggesting small ways to improve her life but was often met with negativity. While I’m not surprised at the effect my dad’s abrupt departure had on her life, I can’t understand how she never, ever got back to that happier version of herself I knew as a child. Her true self.
Liz eventually found full-time employment & stayed at the same company until she retired in 2007. She found a way to help me pay for expensive biochemistry books in college, then later helped me move to Seattle in 1994. Our relationship had deteriorated quite a bit by that point, & I sometimes think she saw my departure from Memphis as another family member abandoning her. But I was 23, had had enough of life in the South, & wanted to come out. Leaving Memphis was a way to do it. She drove the moving van with me to Seattle… although during an argument, she said she didn’t even want to be there! I’ll never forget that, but I understand that it must have been difficult to see me go.
By the time I’d settled in Seattle & found a boyfriend, I knew the time had come to tell my mom I was gay. During a Christmas visit to Memphis, I let her know. She cried a bit, saying she was happy we were finally talking about it. But then we never discussed me being gay again. No questions about my childhood, no talk about the present, no musings about the future. Throughout the two relationships I had while she was alive, she met both my partners & even became close to the mom of one of my exes. However, there seemed to be some sort of disconnect whenever we talked about anything gay.
I suppose she did the best she could given the circumstances; that’s all any of us can do. But I feel her refusal to discuss anything emotional drove us apart as time went by. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 & opted for radiation therapy only. Shocked, I asked her, “You know what no chemo means, right?” Yes, she was aware of the consequences. Four years later in July 2009, she called me at the end of a Spain-Portugal tour to let me know that her previous cancer had metastasized & was now in other organs. She didn’t have long.
After retirement, she had decided to move back to Iowa & left Memphis behind. I went to see her in Centerville, & we got most of her affairs in order. I promised to return after the next work season was done —before Thanksgiving— but she only lived for about another month. I still remember that evening, sitting in my apartment in Buenos Aires. I’d opened a bottle of wine, & the strangest feeling came over me. There aren’t words to explain what I felt, but it was a calming sensation of peace, happiness & joy. So I raised a toast to my mom… seemed like the right thing to do because I felt she had finally found what she’d lost so many years ago. The next morning I received an email from my mom’s friend & neighbor that she’d passed away. I already knew.
In spite of a great tragedy that changed my mother’s life, I cherish my memories with her. Her support helped me excel in school, gave me the opportunity to try many new things & instilled a love of learning that I’ve kept all my life. I wish I’d inherited her talent in art! Even though we weren’t very close in her later years, we always kept in touch. And I’m thankful for the time we spent together before she passed away. I’m positive she wouldn’t approve of posting so much of her personal history on the internet, but I believe my mother’s story should be told. Her struggle might resonate with someone… & I’m positive she’d be just fine with that. Here’s to you, mom!
Robert, thank you for sharing this. I see some parallels with my own mom, and I’m struck by the way that these women faced expectations and barriers that limited the things they could do and probably resulted in less fulfilling lives than many women can enjoy today. And nevertheless, they persisted (to use a current popular phrase). I love her art, and I’m glad that she helped to nurture some of your many talents. I hope that writing this helped you find greater meaning in her life and your relationship with her. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and seeing the photos (including some very cute ones of you)!
Thanks so much, Davis! I can almost imagine my mom sitting around thinking, “What if I’d…?” I wish more options had been available for women of our moms’ time. The best part about writing this post is how much I’ve learned from other people’s comments (on Twitter). One woman called my mom “courageous” & I thought, yeah, she really was even though I’d never her seen her that way. I’m so glad your mom got to go to your wedding!!! See you in a few months!
Robert, thank you for sharing this. Losing our parents is a singular episode in the lives of all of us–no matter what the circumstances—and this makes me realize that I should write my mom’s story and the story of my relationship with her so my sons can better understand both of us. Thank you for your generosity in telling this story. You won’t remember me, given all of the people you meet on tours, but I was on the RS Portugal tour several years ago and, in spite of the fact that I have been to 34 countries, the trip to Portugal is one of my favorite memories and you contributed to that in significant ways. I hope all is well with you and that you are still sharing your love of Portugal with people like me.
Hello, Kristine! Of course I remember you… wasn’t that trip back in 2015? Seems like longer with all the changes in the past few years, so it’s wonderful to hear from you. I’m glad you found a connection in my mom’s story, & I have always been a firm believer in discussing family matters. One thing I wish is that my mom had been able to put her experience on paper & left it for me to discover, even if she wasn’t comfortable talking about it in person. Good for you! I’m sure your sons will appreciate it very much. Take care & I hope you’re still out there traveling!
It was 2015! I can’t believe you knew that!! Or that you remember me, given all of the people you meet on tours. Yes, I am definitely still traveling. In fact, just got back from a month in Europe, about half of that time roaming around in Spain, followed by a brief stop in a little town in Germany where my great grandmother was born, a few days in Paris (just because it’s Paris), and my usual stop in London to gorge on theater for a couple of days. Next up I think is a Norway, Denmark, Bulgaria trip. Also, keep finding Buenos Aires in my thoughts….. Happy Holidays!
Robbie is how I knew you as a young boy. I was a neighbor of your Aunt Mae and friends with her until 1981 when something happened that broke the bonds. I remember when your mom sent a card to her sister with a picture she drew of a pregnant woman and “Great Expectations” written under it. It was how she let Mae know she was expecting. I knew your mom just from her visiting Mae and bringing your gramma, Mrs. Philby. You played with my daughter when you both were toddlers. I’ve really enjoyed reading your history. I think of Mae so often but feel she wouldn’t either remember me or not want to see me. Thank you, Robert, for the interesting read!
Hello, Marji!!! What a pleasant surprise to hear from you! It’s funny because I recognized your name immediately in spite of all the years that have passed. I think I quit being Robbie around the age of 12, but Mae still calls me that. I was just in Cedar Rapids/Marion a couple of months ago in November… Mae & I are the only ones left in the immediate family. I’m sure she would want to see you again, but with her dementia progressing rapidly she might not recognize you at first. I’ll send you an email later today with all the details. I hope you & your daughter are doing well. Thanks so very much for getting in touch!