By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Several years ago, actually now almost ten years, mom and I went to the Kingdom of Jordan. It was a trip she had wanted to take but I’d found it difficult to plan and put it off. In the end we travelled there in 2011. We crossed into Jordan in June and drove through Jerash first to see the Roman ruins.
At Petra mom road a horse. She was enchanted by the ruins. We drove north to Shobak the next day and then crossed back to Israel. It was a short but exciting trip. I was glad we had planned it because I knew that over the years not only did I not do enough for mom to help her plan nice vacations, but I also didn’t spend enough time with her.
I wish we’d had more time together. That is probably the usual reaction one has to death of loved ones. For me it was particularly true because I spent the last decades abroad, far from family. Mom came to visit every year or so when I lived in Jerusalem after 2004. In 2005 we took a road trip to northern Israel, to the Bahai gardens and later south to Masada. I was just learning about Israel, studying for an MA, so it was a nice way to explore together.
In 2009 we went on a trip to northern Israel again to see religious sites and historic khans (caravanserai). We stayed on the Sea of Galilee at the quiet and pleasant Pilgerhaus and went to the Mount of Beatitudes. We toured Druze sites and the Arbel cliff. Mom never liked heights, she was surely non-plussed by the cliff, much as she had felt at Herodian where she disliked the walk up. We had fun shopping at IKEA on that trip also.
In 2011 Mom came back and we took several nice trips. We searched for an Armenian village near Atlit, a castle near Ashdod (Ashdod-Yam) and went to the ruins of Ashkelon. We found old sheikh’s tombs together and other ruins. I was finishing my PhD research so she tagged along to sites I was looking for. We went to the caves near Beit Guvrin and also o the Roman aqueduct near Binyamina.
I realize now that my memories of my mom are mostly the memories of trips we took together. In the last decade those were trips in Israel. We went to the Negev and all over. She always like the desert. She wanted to go back to Arizona, where we lived in the 1990s, and to get a small apartment. That never happened.
I hope mom enjoyed the trips we took and that it was not just for my sake.
It seems as I went through the photos that she did enjoy our vacations. She cared deeply for my wife and was very supportive of us. As her health declined we did less walking. We listened to old mysteries, books on tape that are online, during our drives. We watched movies, like Tinker Tailor, the original Alec Guinness six-hour version.
It was during these trips that mom and I could talk. I always enjoyed her company, there was rarely a boring moment. She and I both liked history and politics and to discuss what was going on in the world.
Despite all those conversations I never felt I knew my mother very well. She was not emotional particularly, nor expressive of inner feelings. She was, like me, private when it came to those things. I look back now at many of our trips, folders of photos on my computer, and through those I remember our time together. But I don’t recall many deep or poignant conversations.
Mom died on May 1, 2019. She died of pulmonary hypertension, which I suppose is a way of saying that with her breathing difficulties that she had in the last years, her heart finally gave up. She never admitted to herself or us the depth of her condition, perhaps to shield us from the reality. We understood that she was sick. She had pneumonia and a stroke in the last years. We only understood the gravity of her health in 2018, and only then because she was carrying around oxygen and could barely walk a few meters without stopping to recover.
The shock of learning of her death by WhatsApp, after my aunt was unable to reach me by phone, will not leave me. But I also had this nagging feeling that one day I will get this call. I just expected it to be a little longer.
So last May I made the trip back to Martha’s Vineyard where mom lived. It was a strange homecoming. I hadn’t been back to the Vineyard for years. It was a kind of childhood home, a place I’d spent summers and where my family had lived for generations. It was intimate and familiar. That long drive down from Boston is one that is always vividly in my mind, the way the highway’s foliage changes, the trees become smaller, and the bridge to Cape Cod appears. Those little villages that dot the way as you come into Woods Hole. The bulky ferries that ply the way to the Vineyard. For some reason they had torn down the old ferry ticketing office when I got there in 2019 so I waited near a kind of temporary trailer-ticketing office.
If it was a shocking return to the Vineyard after my mom died, a trip I had to plan in 24 hours, it was also a kind of familiar and warm one. Returning to a small town from a city is a pleasant experience as things come into view that are familiar, and healing. It was cold when I arrived and my aunt Martha was there to pick me up. All of this made the trip back easier. Martha’s support gave the sad homecoming a sense of protection and warmth. At the same time the trip back seemed tragic because it was so easy. I could have made this trip 50 times in the last decades, instead of abandoning my mom to her life there, forcing her to traverse the globe to find me. Then again, I think she liked the trips she took here. She especially liked her grandchildren who she helped raise. It had given her energy and happiness in the last years. She sent video messages (see one of the here) and liked to read to them. But it still seemed intensely unfair that my mom had to face her difficulties in the last years without us around her, or to help her clean up and manage affairs. On the other hand, she didn’t like others poking around in her life or judging how she lived, so the end result may be that this is just how it had to be.
Before she died she’d called me and said that her doctor had said she shouldn’t travel anymore. She couldn’t fly at least. She’d had a stroke years before and so she couldn’t drive either, even though she had largely recovered from the stroke. So she planned to find some way to travel that didn’t involve planes. It could involve trains and boats.
My short experience on the Vineyard involved the processes that happen when people die. I went to a reading of the will. Luckily mom worked at a law office so that was uneventful. But I had to deal with some bills, credit card debt, funeral home expenses, death certificates, banks, and cleaning the house. Most of this went smoothly. What shocked me most was how little my mother had when she died. A few bank accounts, a house, but very little else. She’d sold my car a while ago. She didn’t have her own car because she wasn’t driving. She had a storage shed full of stuff. The small area of the house she lived in was spare, almost devoid of items. She’d packed most of her stuff away. Besides having a storage container moved that included some things from an old furniture business she once ran, there wasn’t much to do.
To avoid bitterness I won’t go to deeply into family issues, except to say that besides realizing I did not know my mother very well, I also didn’t know her family very well. This was strange because I had remembered them as a kid. I did collect memories from them to write an obituary (which can be read here).
It was through cleaning my mom’s house that I began to learn or remember some things about her.
Little Lyford and Arizona
I grew up at Little Lyford Pond Lodge and Camps, a sporting camp my parents ran from the 1970s to 1987. Mom and Dad had moved there when it was a sporting camp that catered to people in the summer and they had prepared it to be a year-round camp. It was isolated and snowed in during the winter. No electricity. Outhouses. Stories about their exploits can be found online (here). Their past experience in Outward Bound in Big Bend, Texas helped prepare them for running this place in the middle of the Maine woods.
What I remember of my mom at Little Lyford is a bit sparse. I helped her around the house and to prepare some of the cabins for guests. I remember that we went to the Vineyard during a few summers, although I’m not sure if it was summers in those years. I remember I was close to my mom, afraid of what might happen if she was not there. The woods are a fun place to grow up and explore. But they can also be scary, at night, or due to wild animals such as bears. An early memory I have is holding a flashlight for my father when he had to go to the chicken coop to kill a raccoon that had gotten in and was killing the chickens. I remember more of the black bear we trapped, the rooster that chased me, the plastic soldiers I lost in the stream or the fish we caught, than much of my mom in Maine.
Later we moved, first to Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island and then to Connecticut. Those were depressing years, and I also don’t recall what my parents did at that time. Dad had a brief job teaching. Eventually we settled in Seal Harbor, back on Mount Desert, in a giant A-frame house, where my mom began to work for the Town of Mount Desert in Northeast Harbor. We used to walk on the carriage trails that the Rockefellers built and which form part of Acadia National Park. Mom and I both liked those leafy, pretty carriage trails. We went to the Jordan Pond House and to watch movies. She would take me to play video games at EPI subs in Bar Harbor. Those were difficult years for mom. She worked hard and I remember leaving school and playing near her work, waiting for her to wrap up duties at the town office. Eventually when my parents divorced she also had a second hand clothing store called ‘Seconds’. I would go there and watch TV and eat TV dinners. Some nights we had pizza. We also got a new house not far from Somes Sound. We got hamsters and I remember stocking the room with toys like Ninja Turtles, Jurrasic Park, G.I Joes and later model airplanes and posters of Cindy Crawford.
In those days I was angry about the divorce, I got suspended from school, and eventually mom decided to move us to Arizona. We had previously gone out to the West by train, a nice trip on Amtrak, to see my mom’s father, Frank, who was then living in Santa Barbara. I fell in love with the landscapes of the West, the broad mountain ranges and high plains, less suffocating and warmer all year round than Maine. We also took two trips to ranches in the West, Tanque Verde and the Lazy K Bar. Mom and I liked the American West, where she had lived in the 1970s, and I went to boarding school. We lived in the town of Oak Creek but as I got older I preferred to be at the boarding school more and mom worked often, first at a hotel and then for the Town of Jerome. After I’d been thrown out of Verde Valley School around the year 1996, I spent time with her in Jerome. Then we bought a plot of land in Cordes Junction where I had a single-wide home, a glorified trailer. It was hiking distance from ArcoSanti, a weird architectural experiment in the desert nearby. It was a simple life that appeared poor. Our “swamp cooler” AC unit barely worked. I don’t know what my mom was going through in those days, the lack of money, the simple life we had. I was too young to ask.
Mom was supportive through all my difficulties in high school. We enjoyed our trips to California and she taught me to drive. From Cordes to Santa Barbara was around a six hour drive and I recall pleasantly those trips through the desert. We stopped on the way, at those border towns with California, like Needles, often to see sites and explore and I got to indulge in fast food or Mexican restaurants, sometimes sushi. We also went to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to see where the first atom bomb was detonated. We took other trips in Arizona, to places like the Petrified Forest, Tuzigoot, Bisbee, Tombstone, Meteor Crater and up to Flagstaff and areas around Sedona. Mom was always very forgiving of my relative non-success in school. She encouraged me to play Football at Orme School and take up mountain biking and other activities. She patiently waited while I spent hours in book stores. She was flexible with my friends.
At some point she decided to go back to Martha’s Vineyard, and I went to college. Around 1998 I drove all the way to the Vineyard with my Rav4 and worked there that summer. In fact I’d worked there the summer of 1997 as well, preparing for football in the fall and serving ice cream at Mad Martha’s in Edgartown. I also worked in mom’s vegetable stand. Those were times I enjoyed with mom. She had a house in Oak Bluffs and we would enjoy pizza from Papa Johns. We went out to the beach or Gay Head. We both liked to walk in the Campground and go to Harthaven, where grandma once owned a boathouse. We went up to Able’s Hill cemetery to see where our relatives were buried and to see the old “shack” the family once owned.
During University I don’t recall seeing mom as much. I did drive out to Santa Barbara for Thanksgivings at Frank’s house. Frank was my grandfather, but we called him Frank. A doctor and alumnus of UVA and Amherst, he and my grandmother Lucy Hart (Bideau) Abbot (see more about her and her family here) had divorced back in the day. Bideau died in 2009. Both mom and grandma Bideau had loved the Vineyard deeply and returned to it. Bideau in 1969 and mom around 1998.
Mom and I took at least one trip to Big Bend in Texas for Thanksgiving. I remember it because we were in Odessa, or maybe Midland, when George W. Bush went to Iraq for a surprise visit in 2003. I remember staying in some simple hotel, maybe a Comfort Inn, and watching it on TV. Frank had died in 2001 in Kingston, New York. In retrospect that is why mom and I spent Thanksgiving together in 2003 watching George W. Bush in Iraq, since we couldn’t go to Santa Barbara. Years later my own life would take me to Iraq. I didn’t know then sitting in a staid hotel room with mom that my life was on a different trajectory. At the time I was working at Washington Mutual bank dealing with mortgages, watching the days go by, drinking with old fraternity brothers, driving my Montecarlo and doing little of consequence in Tucson, Arizona. My only enjoyment in those days, besides buying books at Borders, was eating sushi and having ice coffee. Lost in life I decided to travel to Jerusalem to do an M.A. Mom didn’t object, because anyway she was on the Vineyard, far from me.
Before I went to Israel to study at Hebrew University, I flew back to see mom on Martha’s Vineyard. We took the Acela to the flight and she saw me off. That was one of the last times I would see Bideau and her brother Stan. I’d see them briefly again in 2006 after I finished my MA when I showed them my MA thesis on Arab Christians in Mandate Palestine. Mom and I also went out to Arizona to sell my house in 2005.
Once I moved to Israel I saw my family less and less. My Dad was nice enough to begin planning trips to the Caribbean and elsewhere. As for mom, she came to Israel and I saw her once on a trip to the UK and Ireland. We drove to Southampton where I had a conference and then on to Bath and Stone Henge and across Wales. We saw sheep and beautiful castles, such as Caerphilly, in the trip across Wales. We went to a small town famous for books at Hay on Wye and stayed at a hotel in Holyhead near the Anglesey ferry to Ireland where drunks shouted all night outside. We went to Dublin, saw the famous post office where the Easter Rising took place, had a Guinness and then returned.
Getting to know a family history
I grew up in Maine and then lived in Arizona. Before moving to Jerusalem and spending most of my time in Israel and the Middle East, I had briefly lived in Mexico, Russia, Italy, and the UK for various study abroad trips. I didn’t know much of my background or what I wanted in life, let alone understand my parents and their motivations.
When I travelled back to the Vineyard to clean up my mom’s house I learned some things about her. It was an exploration of a family history, neatly tucked away. Mom had been a town manager and paralegal so she was good at keeping records organized. I found among her things, her birth certificate. Born in 1945 in July 1945 in Virginia. At Woodbury High School she received a “Good Citizen Award” and it notes in 1963 that she was president of the Language Club, on the student council and a yearbook editor. She was a member of the National Honor Society.
Years later I would also work as an editor for a high school year book and serve on the student council at University. It was interesting to read about my mom’s younger life. She shared interests that I have such as history. She also lived in interesting times, coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Mom talked frequently of that era. She admired John F. Kennedy, and she spoke with some admiration for Castro and Mao, the latter of which she said she liked because he had resisted the Japanese invasion. Mom was very conscious of the changes in the US relating to civil rights during her time and other social issues. She liked to discuss these issues. I was interested in that era she had grown up. We bonded over these discussions of history and politics. She liked to listen, or at least she was a good listener. She never judged me or expressed much criticism of my choices. She always was proud, even when one wonders how she could have been proud of a son who spent so much time zig-zagging in school.
Looking through mom’s things I found her old business cards for her numerous side businesses. She sold advent calendars, ran a least two second-hand stores, a vegetable stand and also did taxes. She liked tinkering away at these things. Up until her last she sought to print and take photos. She liked crafts and small projects.
Mom had a sense of humor and she enjoyed playing games with her family, such as smashing eggs on easter or playing charades. Often it seemed though that her humor was kept inside, with almost no one to tell it to. She spent the last twenty years of her life mostly working at a law office and with her family. When we did have a remembrance for her in July 2019, a handful of people came. It was particularly nice to see my cousins, and several distant family, including those I had not seen for years. Their support was a positive in a difficult time. The remembrance showed how my mom was widely liked, but not widely known. This is a contrast for me because most of my life I spent wanting to be known, dreaming to do more, not less.
Mom’s young life seemed enjoyable from the photos I found. She lived in Texas briefly when her father was based there, and she spent time at Smoke Tree ranch. Photos show her as a child on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Those would have been the beaches I remember as a child as well. There are also photos of her in her twenties or later with Frank. Things had changed by that time. This was long after her parents had divorced (they had been married in 1942). I don’t know much about that time and mom only told me some segments of it.
I found some old photos of her time at Big Bend in the 1970s. There are photos of old houses, horses, and some youth. It must have been an interesting time. But there are few photos of mom from that era 1965 to 1975. I found a resume of mom’s that says that after being a teacher in Illinois and Maryland from 1966 to 1969 she worked at Hampshire College from 1971 to 1972. She was at Texas Outward Bound from 1972 to 1974. She also worked at Monadnock Family services from 1976 to 1978 before moving to Little Lyford. Among her possessions were many photos of her brother Kim who mom was close to. He had died in the 1980s, and this left a lasting scar. Among the other photos I found were some from dinners in Santa Barbara, a photo of White Sands, a house near Abel’s Hill, photos of her grandfather, and of the American West.
Mom also kept some photos from period I’d prefer to forget, such as when I was thrown out of Verde Valley School in 1996 and we used to stand on the road and protest the school. That was a dark period for me at least.
Mom always liked her grandchildren. I realize now that when she moved to Little Lyford she was around my age when I was moving to Israel, a bit older. She too had chosen to go far from home to Texas and then the woods of Maine. She had returned to the Vineyard in her fifties. I am happy for the time I had with my mom. It was too short.
More photo memories and remembrance video: