My earliest memories of Mom are like a song

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 4, 2005

Mother's Day, May 12, 1940. Hitler's forces have invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Last-place New York Yankees beat first-place Boston Red Sox 4–0 at Yankee Stadium. Playing in theatres is The Grapes of Wrath. Pinocchio is also on the silver screen and its catchy tune "When You Wish Upon a Star" is filling the airwaves.

And in a Buffalo, New York, hospital, my mother, Edna Harbeck, is recuperating from having her fifth child only ten days earlier – me!

My primary reference to those days leading up to that Mother's Day are some entries in my Grandma Watson's diary:

May 2: "Today Warren Arthur Harbeck was born."

May 4: "Edna's baby was born at 8.40 PM Thursday night, a boy, weighed seven pounds, four ounces."

May 6: "I went to see Edna and baby. . . . The baby is a little darling."

May 9: "I went over to see Edna this afternoon..The nurse brought the baby in to nurse. He is so sweet."

May 13 (the day after Mother's Day): "Went to [Sunday School] and church Sunday. In the evening Dad and I went over to see Edna and that darling baby."

Grandma Watson made that last entry the same day that Winston Churchill, who just three days earlier had replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England, addressed the House of Commons with these immortal words: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

I guess all I could offer my mother over the next months were diapers, toil, tears, and sweat. But please note what Grandma Watson wrote about me: "that darling baby" is "so sweet."

Well, sweet or not, here it is, 65 years later, and I am profoundly grateful for the life and love my mother gave me. A friend asked me the other day what my first memories of life were. Recast in the light of Mother's Day, the question recalls some nostalgic images from my earliest years:

Playing with my toy soldiers on the living room floor while Mom tried vacuuming around me with her very noisy Hoover.

Taking long Saturday night bubble baths, then being dried off and dressed for bed by Mom, who then sat me on her lap and read to me from books like Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, and The Swiss Family Robinson.

Having me kneel beside my bed as she prayed with me: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep" – and always ending in "God bless Mommy, God Bless Daddy," and God bless everyone else I could think of, the more the better, to delay crawling under the covers.

And then there was the first time I can remember Mom weeping. A man came to the door and handed her a telegram. My brother Richard, a tail gunner in a B-17G bomber flying out of England, was missing in action. (It was months before she was consoled with the news that he was alive in a German POW camp.)

Mom left me a legacy of great values: honesty, gentleness, faith, and the joy of reading. I think she also affirmed in me the fun of giving flowers as gifts; she was always so appreciative of the bunches of dandelions and buttercups I used to give her.

She was also a great healing presence as I struggled through my youth with most of the childhood illnesses that went around: mumps, chicken pox, measles, etc.

Which brings me back to that first Mother's Day in my life, May 12, 1940. That just happened to be the 120th birthday of Florence Nightingale, the driving force behind the modern practice of nursing. May 12 is now celebrated as International Nursing Day, something which local coffee companion, musician and professional Santa Claus Leo Peters recently brought to my attention.

Recovering from cancer a few years ago, Leo wrote "Nurse Angel", a song in honour of the nurse who took such good care of him:

Nurse angel, nurse angel,
You sparkle and you're bright –
You're like the old lamplighter
Lighting someone else's light –
Nurse angel, you're so beautiful
You've got this loving heart –
You're perfect for the work you're in
Your work's a work of art –

Leo's words make a fitting tribute to my mother, too. Thank you, Leo. And thank you, Mom.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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