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It’s an odd title, Mystery Having Eight Mothers, and she didn’t have an editor. You can’t help but smile at an occasional misspelling, and often there’s little rhyme nor reason why one section follows another, although the book is roughly chronological. Stuck between its hundreds of pages are aphorisms and occasional poems she really liked. In Mystery Having Eight Mothers, the writer–let’s just call her “Tina”–made her life a miscellany.
The book is thick and wire-bound, and the only color throughout is on a homemade cover featuring butterflies that otherwise fail to appear. She wanted me to read it–a real writer, she said. She blushed about the errors, but she brought it along anyway, proud because she’d done it herself. “You want to read it?” she said one Sunday.
Wasn’t really a question.
But I’m a sucker for wire-bound memoirs old folks write for their grandchildren, memoirs that don’t aspire to any New York Times list or even the local newspaper. Something about a life story is greatly compelling: we all want to make some sense of things, lament the sadness and honor the blessings.
That’s what Tina had in mind. She wasn’t asking for a blurb, just proud of Mystery Having Eight Mothers, and liked me enough to think I might enjoy it. About that, she was right.
Tina was born in Michigan sometime in the 1920s to a machinist and his wife, a woman who left him for good just a couple of months after Tina was born, when she took her kids back to her native northwest Iowa, then died in childbirth just a few years later, at which time all her children were moved to Grandma’s. Grandma is Mother #2.
When both Grandma and her husband died not long after, Aunt Bert–her birth mother’s sister–took them (Mother #3). Bert (let’s call her) was just 18 years old. When her parents died, Bert took care of Tina, as well as two of her own brothers, still at home. Tina is still a little girl; she’s lost two moms, and the third is eighteen, running a home with four kids.
Aunt Bert fell in love with Tina’s step-father, who, together, mid-Depression, soon had their own family. Tina’s step-father, she says, “was the town drunk.” The two of them couldn’t handle the family she’d inherited, so they put Tina up for adoption.
The preacher arranged an adoption because he knew a couple who were miserable because they couldn’t have children. Tina claims that once Mother #4 saw her, “they fell in love and could not leave without me.” She was adopted formally and baptized in 1934.
Mother #4 was a delight, but she took seriously ill, went to Rochester, only to discover she had a severe brain tumor. When surgeons there attempted to cut it out, Mother #4 died. “She never came back home to us and I never said Goodby to her,” so says Tina’s wire-bound memoir.
Mother #5 was yet another grandma, 89 years old, who spoke only Dutch. Mother #6 was a sister of Mother #4, daughter of Mother #5, who moved back home to take care of their mother and this little adopted girl. When things didn’t work so well, Tina was shuffled off to another nearby farm with her second step-father’s sister, who became Mother #7, and who had a daughter five years older than Tina. Great times they had playing with old clothes in the attic, she says. It was a sweet place, that farm home of Mother #7.
Meanwhile, her step-step father began seeing a widow nearby. When the two of them decided to marry, Tina says she knew Mother #8 didn’t care much for her. Besides, Tina loved living on the farm with Mother #7. She was just five years old. Mother #8 and her second step-father gave her the choice. “Yes: I said I would love to live on the farm,” Tina told them, she writes. She returned happily to Mother #7.
That’s Mystery Having Eight Mothers. I think I got the order right. She could have used an editor.
And then she says this–her words, her punctuation, but not a separate paragraph:
“Psalms 27 verse 10 When my father and my mother forsake me. Then the Lord will take care of me. It was the Lords plan all through my adolescenced years.”
It’s a life–a real life. What we all want so badly is to make sense of things, order out of chaos.
In case you’re wondering, that wire-bound memoir has lots about the wonderful years Tina lived with her husband–62 years of marriage to a loving man on a good Iowa farm. There’s pictures, too–black and white. Lots of precious pictures. The kids too, and grandkids.
One of the books former President Obama placed on his well-publicized summer reading list is Tara Westhover’s memoir Educated, a searing testimony to a treacherous life within the tyrannical obsessions of a survivalist father convinced the final trumpet is sounding soon and very soon. For a tangle of reasons, that memoir is a very tough read, a world away from Mystery Having Eight Mothers.
I told Tina I’d bring Mystery to the college archives down the road. She couldn’t believe someone “at the college” would actually want it. I assured her they would.
I don’t know if Sunday School kids still sing “Red and yellow, black and white,/They are precious in his sight,” but it’s a line that now and then sneaks out of the vault of my memory, a old mission hymn we today file in the “multi-cultural” section of the hymnal.
When I dropped off Mystery Having Eight Mothers at the college, that old mission lyric played again somewhere in my memory because the song’s blessed multi-cultural character comes up secondary to the fact that, from Tara Westover to my friend Tina, we all have stories to tell, because all of us, every last one, as that old hymn will never let me forget, “is precious in his sight.”