Our Mother, Alicia Chambers Polk Withers
One of the most painful times in our mother’s life was the death of her first child, Ernest Lee Withers III. At ten days, he was very ill. Our father rushed him to the hospital– without Mom, because in those days women stayed in bed for a least two weeks after giving birth. The baby died in our father’s arms on the steps approaching the hospital. Mom never saw her baby again.
Our mother was nothing, if not brave. Even though it certainly took courage to sign up for overseas duty as a Red Cross Volunteer during WWII, we think that even more daunting was the journey Mom made with the three of us (school girls) and two dachshunds to live in Toulouse, in the south of France. Our 14 months in Europe were filled with adventure and misadventure.
In the confusion of arriving at the Gare du Nord in Paris our biggest suitcase was stolen. Mom replaced some of the clothes for our stay at the beach with Bermuda shorts and shirts she made BY HAND.
Eleanor had an appendectomy shortly after our arrival in Toulouse, while we were still staying in a pension. Our bedrooms there were on the first floor. One evening while Eleanor was recovering Mom staged a performance by the casement window. Bent over a little table while pretending to be sewing, she crooned Au Clair de la Lune in a high, trembling voice, hoping to surprise and, with luck, shock any hapless passer-by. We laughed until our sides ached.
Soon after, Mom who spoke barely a word of Spanish, decided that a trip to Spain would be nice. Stowing the beasties with a nice older couple, we took off in our Peugeot 403. On the way we spent one blissful night at Lourdes, another at an enchanting village in the lush French Pyrenees, then across the border and into an arid, Moorish-ruin studded landscape where filling stations were suspense-fully rare.
To Zaragoza and beyond we travelled, sampling nougat wherever it could be found. Once in Madrid, our destination, we visited the Prado, sampled our first gazpacho, and window shopped. Another day Mom drove us northwest from the city, through miles of olive groves to visit El Escorial.
We got around with Mom– Dachau, the caves of Lascaux, Orleans, Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, Andersonville—these are only a few of the historical sites that Mom brought to life for us, thanks to her unending fascination with history. Even very late in her life, when Molly and Gareth were posted to Yerevan, Mom read every book she could find about Armenia, surely becoming knowledgeable enough to give lectures.
In Toulouse our apartment on the Rue des Gestes was in a 400 year old building. Heated only by a pot- bellied stove, Mom arose every morning well before dawn to stoke the fire wearing a plastic mop cap decked with purple violets to protect her hair from coal dust. She bought all our fruits and vegetables at the out door market in the Place du Capitol. She scavenged x-ray paper from a near-by hospital’s trash cans to make our Christmas ornaments. She staged a surprise reveillon (midnight Christmas supper) for us and Mary, our Irish house guest.
Lucky for us that Mom was so good at making friends. For example, she took advantage of Sarah Fehlig’s letter of introduction to meet “la famille Metge.” Zou Zou and Marie Paul Metge were at school with us at the Sacre Coeur de Rangueil in Toulouse. We spent almost every weekend with the Metges—magical times in the tiny village of Siran and the surrounding countryside.
Mom loved hand work; it was one of her favorite ways to say she loved you—knitted socks, sweaters, scarves, skirts, necklaces, slippers, and all sorts of goodies for Christmas. There are probably more than a few mortals still craving her fudge cake and candied grapefruit peel. Mom also loved animals. Her cat, Sugar, rarely left her side. He lives with Anne now.
Mom always put us first. Because it was Valentine’s Day, just hours after her stroke she said “promise me you’ll take cash out of my wallet and buy yourself (Anne) an ice-cream cone.” One evening about a week before she died she said when I (Anne) was leaving: “drive safely.”
Mom was very proud of and always au courant about her grandchildren and great grandchildren, who called her Bobby (a name devised by Charlie, which Mom appreciated because it sounded youthful ). Three days before her death, weak as a new-born, she insisted on getting dressed in deep blue sweater and slacks so that she could receive a visit, looking her best, from Cate and Charlotte during the Easter weekend.
Mom gave up cigarettes and alcohol a long time ago; chocolate and salt periodically, even at the end of her life. She made these sacrifices whenever a special loved one was in peril.
For a long time Mom was a daily communicant. Just months before her 91st birthday she drove to Saturday afternoon mass at St. Roch’s. She took us to many churches in Europe. Upon our first visit we always made a wish. She kept, tucked under the glass top of her little dining table at the carriage house, this prayer:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything, to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
And that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature and grow gradually—
Let them grow, let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace, and circumstance acting on your own good will)
will make of tomorrow.
Only God could say
what this new spirit
gradually forming within will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J.
After Mom’s stroke Roxanne, one of her care-givers, told us that she had been seriously thinking of getting out of home care because she could no longer feel anything for her patients …until Mom.