My mom, Clare Bauer Berding, had crystalline blue eyes, perfect bone structure, and a light-up-the-room smile. Yet she never considered herself to be pretty, let alone beautiful.
She was her parents’ third child and second daughter. They named her sister Betty—not Elizabeth, but Betty plain and simple. Mom got the downright fanciful moniker of Claremae. She told me she thought she’d been named for an opera singer; I believe that her favorite aunt, the glamorous pretty youngest sister, was also named Clara. But the kids—in this case, my mom and her siblings—couldn’t pronounce it, so they called her Lolla.
Anyway, my mom was born Claremae Clouse.
Dad always called Mom Clare, but my uncle Dave, her brother, called her Claremae up until the last time I saw them together, when he and Mom were in their 70s. I’m not sure if she switched formally at some date, but she was always Clare to everyone else. The name suited her. I never knew another Clare growing up. It means “bright,” “clear,” and even “shining” whether you spell it the French or German way, and even with Mom’s hybrid spelling, the definition was perfect.
Still, I don’t think she felt bright and shining growing up. We are fortunate in that Mom wrote about her childhood, if only briefly, in her book Some Through the Waters, which she later published with the title she preferred, Designed to Fail. But the details are sketchy. Mom did not like to speak, particularly on the record, ill of her parents. After Grandma died—another book, When I Grow Too Old to Dream, documents that—Mom would talk, tentatively and ultimately with more conviction, of her father’s alcoholism and cruelty. She managed, as a third child and a girl, to avoid the physical abuse, if not the verbal.
Though maybe she didn’t. One or two times, she mentioned a horrible encounter with a WWI veteran, who I gathered was a friend of her father’s, who insisted on kissing her. She regarded French kissing with complete disgust, and over the years, I realized that the childhood incident was at least one, if not the reason. I always sensed her father’s lurking presence; at the very least he didn’t protect her, but I came to wonder if he’d somehow encouraged it.
And then there was her mother, Meta. Mom always insisted that she was beautiful; I find her handsome and strong, but Mom was the beauty in the family, something she could never see. Meta, I think, did not believe in Mom, even though Mom always defended and believed in her.
I have never seen a photograph of my mother as a child, but I imagine she must have been especially pretty, with her white curly hair, bright eyes, and sunny disposition. In the 2 pictures I’ve seen of her as a teenager prior to her marriage to Dad at 17, she is looking away from the camera, as if blinded by the sun, with the true expertise of the introvert who has learned to hide even in plain sight.
As a kid and teenager, Mom escaped her grim environment in her love of books, stories, and music. She then escaped it physically by marrying my dad less than three weeks after her 17th birthday, despite Grandma point blank telling him that he’d be better off with Betty. Grandma had met her match. Dad fell hard for Mom. She was, I think, too young to know how to reciprocate or even process my dad’s love, but she accepted it. They were a team.
There was a sense I always got from my parents that it had been them vs. the world for quite a while. My grandmother did not like her eldest son with my grandfather, aching always for the son she’d had first with a previous husband, one that my grandfather had made a promise to accept after the marriage. He reneged, almost immediately. I’m sad for them both—the mother who longed for a missing son, and the son who longed for his present but missing mother—though in later years my dad told me that he remembered tender times with his mom, of her reading to him and his brother Charlie. Nonetheless, his mom told Dad one day that he needed to take Mom and their two daughters, my sisters Julie and Becky, away. Bob, her first son, was coming back.
They packed up and headed to California, and made a new life, with Lisa next, then me, and finally Jon, adopted after 4 valiant attempts to create a male heir. Mom and Dad both documented their journey well once they became public speakers: in Sunday school classes, at churches, at men’s and women’s groups. Those gigs came as a result of the fact that, when I was 4 and Jon barely a year old, they came to accept Christ as their personal savior, as fundamentalist church doctrine states it. Mom and Dad were both superb speakers, charismatic, funny, with tremendous timing and presence. I don’t know where they got it, though I expect they fed off of each other. They were two highly intelligent people who hadn’t been able to go to college, and they found in the Bible an outlet for study that delighted and inspired them both. I learned a tremendous amount from watching them. The content, much of it, I simply can’t agree with, and particularly since my dad died, I have been saddened that I’ve been unable to talk about my beliefs in religion or politics with my mom without a blow-up. But the tremendous style, the wit, the compassion that they expressed when they spoke: I’ll never stop being grateful for those lessons, those genes.
While my memories of my parents’ public personae dominated for years, over the decades, I’ve remembered much more—particularly about Mom. Because until adulthood, I barely knew my dad and vice versa. I recall dressing up in her crinolines—she had them for when she and Dad would ballroom dance—and pretending to be Cinderella. Mom had to play all the other parts: stepmother and sisters, fairy godmother, and even the prince, roles she played with that half attentive but sufficient engagement that busy mothers master.
And I remember once hiding a pack of playing cards under the couch; I don’t know why. My imagination tended to be pretty rampant, so I probably had some reason that made perfect sense to me, maybe to feed a lost invisible tiger or something. Mom came out with a switch in her hand, eyes blazing, to punish the culprit. My own eyes must have been saucers behind her as they met Lisa’s. Fortunately, Lisa covered for me, saying she and Beck must have done it when they were playing. Mom put down the switch without further ado and it was never mentioned again.
I’m often haunted, though, by a family movie taken on my dad’s Super 8 camera. I am probably 3, and am marching around the family barbecue, with a toy gun in my hand. Mom is deep in thought, her hair swept into a smooth French twist, her beautiful chiseled profile downcast, her eyes hooded. She holds the match to my pistol. She looks both sad and sedated, occasionally glancing over at her family with a bottomless weariness. Out of frame, I get her attention by apparently aiming at her. She shakes herself, smiles, and shoots me back.
I know now that at this time Mom was severely depressed. A friend, one with small kids even younger than some of her own, had committed suicide, something she wrote about. What frightened her was not the act. It was the fact that she understood it as a viable option.
3 daughters in adolescence at the same time with two younger kids couldn’t have been easy for anyone. But I do think we kept Mom around. And in me, the dreamy one who escaped into books, stories, and music, the deep disappointment to my father’s wish for, at last, a son, she saw herself. Mom, I believe, decided she would give me what she never had: someone who believed in me no matter what, my champion who would not see the unlikely odds of my success, but who instead believed in my greatness.
For that, I am forever grateful. I cannot change that my older three sisters didn’t have that experience. I can only express thanks for what I myself received.
Shortly after that Super 8 movie, Mom became a Christian. Her life changed. I escaped the temper that she admitted had driven her for years; she said “the Lord took it away from her.” That ended up not being true—if only it were that easy—but through her daily prayers and study, I know she gained perspective and some self-acceptance. There’s no question that I benefited from the kinder, gentler Clare.
And the six-year gap between me and my nearest sister, Lisa, also gave me a rare gift in having Mom in large part to myself through my own adolescence. Julie, Beck, and Lisa each got married at 19, escaping our move to idaho, my dad’s return fantasy fulfilled. I never realized that, much as I hated the move, Mom hated it more. She stayed positive, never telling me how badly she had wanted to remain in California, and we stuck together.
So I did not have the typical teenage angst and battles with Mom; like she and Dad so many years before, it was us against the world. When I didn’t get asked to the prom, Mom took me for a weekend to Salt Lake City so that I didn’t even have to be in the neighborhood. We rode bikes together. I played piano for her. We shopped, gossiped, dreamed, and I told her pretty much everything, even when I would cut class to go skiing.
In college, away from home, the road got dramatically rockier. Yet the storm clouds always passed; we’d end up close as ever. When I met Karl, she was happy for me. When he got sick and we had to move, she came to visit us countless times. She was there when he died so that I didn’t have to go through it alone. When I called her a little over a year later—asking if I could come live with her and Dad because I was pregnant and things weren’t working out with the baby’s father—she welcomed me home.
When I envision Mom, she is always smiling her beautiful smile. We talked at least twice a week over the last years, and I only cut back from once a day because she was so busy. I was delighted, especially once she moved to Oregon, to have her not answer; I’d find out the next day that she’d been off with friends. I can’t count the number of times over the last few years that she would tell me, almost a little breathless with disbelief, how much she loved the community of Sisters—how embraced she felt, how loved, how deep the connections were in such a short time. It’s always surprising to me that Mom was herself surprised by how warmly people responded to her. She projected friendliness, openness, even if she didn’t always feel it. My friends nearly always hugged her on meeting her; they always remarked on her youth, her beauty, and just how darn much fun she was.
And in her relationship with her second husband Drew, my mom learned how to communicate better than she ever had before. Dad would not push back with Mom. Drew would. They both had a lot to learn. They gutted it out. Game, I think, was the middle name Mom never got. She loved to learn, more than anyone I ever met, and I am so grateful that she passed that on to me. She loved stories, she loved people, and she loved to laugh.
My regrets with Mom are small. I planned to visit her now, in July; I hoped maybe we could talk in person about some of the things we disagree about, though honestly, it probably wouldn’t have happened. When I heard she’d had the stroke, I kicked myself for writing “don’t open til Mother’s Day” on the card I sent. Fortunately, Mom, impulsive to the last, ignored it; when I arrived in Oregon, there was the card, open on the table. I wish I’d called her on Sunday night, instead of waiting a day; within 12 hours, the massive stroke that took her away had happened, and Mom never talked again.
Mostly, I just really, really miss her. In talking with my sisters, brother, and husband, I’ve realized that for every 10 conversations you had with Mom, 8 would be fairly rote, with her not paying that much attention. But one would be fun, and you’d laugh. And one would be absolutely wonderful: connected, listening. The best of Mom. And that was pretty great.
If Mom could’ve written her own death, she would’ve picked the one she got. No dying slowly to painful scourges. No greater and greater lapses into Alzheimer-fog, which had taken her own mother and frightened her, even though she showed no signs of it even at 86. We’d all miss that last conversation with her, that last hug. But Mom not losing her abilities: that’s huge. The word “blessing” is horribly overused. But Mom’s death truly was one, for her, and for the people who loved her and didn’t have to see her decline. We just have to realize she’s not there. Of course it’s hard, but it’s a bargain I accept.
M y second to last conversation with her was one of the one in 10. She expressed tremendous joy as she looked out at the ocean, where Drew was flying a kite. My last conversation, while Steve and I waited to board the plane to Germany, was one of the fun ones. We spent a 32-hour day to get back to her. She was still alive when we got there, curled on her side, sleeping peacefully. I held her feet—she loved a foot rub—and then knelt beside her and held her hand. She was warm. I kissed her and whispered, “Mom, you finally get to say of course.” It was one of her favorite C.S. Lewis quotations, that our first words when we get to heaven will be “of course.” I told her to sleep well, and that I’d see her in the morning.
Within five hours, she was gone. People said she waited for me. I don’t doubt that, but I remain eternally grateful that she knew I would come.
Oh, Mom. I miss you so much. But I will see you in the morning. Which in your case, is now perpetual.
I love you.