“I Never Saw Her Cry.” Terry McDonell Remembers His Mother, Irma
“What passes between a mother and a son is not defined by her love in the moment, but later by the echoes of her motherhood.”
Terry McDonell was raised by his single mother, Irma, a war widow of a navy pilot when she was 25 and he was 4 months old. He writes that what passes between a mother and a son is not defined by her love in the moment, but later by the echoes of her motherhood.
What did she really do? Her touch. Her courage. No surprise, then, that the more McDonell moved around, got out in the world, and had sons of his own, the more he realized how much Irma, was still with him. That is what his new memoir is about.
When I think of Irma now, I think of her blondeness, and her quick blue eyes, and her white skin, translucent not pale. She had what was called a good figure. She was not vain about it, but she did not hide it either. She was slender with surprising breasts and beautiful legs like the movie stars of the 1940s she was compared to—Betty Grable and Lana Turner. She always felt soft when I was a little boy. Later, I saw the strength of an athlete. She was good at golf and tennis, which she played with Bob. She liked football because it was my sport, and hockey because Bob had played in college, but baseball was her sport.
She was good at cards, any game. She was not good at telling jokes, but she laughed easily and quietly. She read aloud with subtle inflection and beautiful emotion, unusual even for a primary school teacher. She read to children every day of the fifty years she taught. She had a pitch pipe and played simple songs on the piano. Her penmanship was perfect.
Her clothes were stylish in a department-store kind of way. She seldom wore pants. She could sew, and made shirts for me when I was in grammar school and she was still substituting. She was a good cook and took advantage of the fruits and vegetables she had not tasted before arriving in the Santa Clara Valley. She loved artichokes, as soon as she figured them out, and experimented with sauces. She became especially good at enchiladas and tacos. She baked peach pies from scratch on my birthdays.
She liked cars and drove fast and was not at all timid when the freeways came. When it was hot, she drove with her elbow out the window. Her perfume was Tailspin by Lucien Lelong. Top notes: citruses, cloves, gardenia, hyacinth; base notes: ambergris, patchouli, pine. I looked it up. She drank highballs and beer, but only wine after Norm was gone. She never smoked.
She was unhurried, although she was busy and energetic. Those around her found this calming, as I had as a child with so much energy she would sometimes ask me if my hair was on fire. Her favorite color was blue, like mine. And Bob’s, she told me. Irma loved Bob more than she ever loved anyone, even me. I know because she told me that too, to make me happy.
I never saw her cry.
From Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son by Terry McDonell. Used with permission of the publisher, Harper. Copyright 2023 by Terry McDonell.