Some years ago, a co-worker of mine said that just about everyone could be found on the Internet. A search at the time found little trace of my mother. Every Mom should have a tribute on line, and this is hers.
Natalie Jane Bailey, who died on March 28 at the age of 85, was -- in the words of one friend -- "one of a kind." A social worker recently asked my sister Jane and me to describe her, and I jumped back more than 40 years to borrow a quotation. Jane's high school friend, Anne Frederick, described Mom in the late 1960's, as "the most liberated woman I know," an unusual way to summarize a housewife. Indeed, this was a woman who was determined to live life the way she damn well pleased, and then went about the business of doing it.
She had a great role model for that in a number of ways. Her mother, Mercedes, was a 4-foot-11 force of nature. Her nickname was "The Battleship Massachusetts," and with good reason. Once Merc (she hated the word Grandma, as in "no one is going to call me Grandma") pointed herself in a certain direction, it was nearly impossible to change her course.
Mom grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, where her father, Wendell, had a real estate and insurance company. After attending Thayer Academy and LaSalle Junior College, Mom worked in a bank. At one point in the late 1940's, she and date Stewie Brown went out for an evening with Stewie's best friend, Linc Bailey, and his date, Shirley Backstrom. Before the night was over, Linc had fallen asleep in the back seat of a car, leaving Shirley rather bored. As fate worked out, Mom wound up marrying Linc in 1950. Whenever he started bragging about his abilities as a ladies' man, she brought that story up.
Married life became quite a ride. Dad moved into the sales field in a variety of industries over the next several years, and Dad and Mom moved into a variety of homes as they moved around the Eastern half of the country for the next two decades. It was, in a sense, a classic post-war story: Dad on the road, trying to make a living, while Mom was busy raising an eventual total of two children. That meant Mom had to be Dad quite often, especially when the kids were young -- never an easy task.
If the kids needed a lift somewhere, Mom went behind the wheel of the station wagon. If the kids needed help on some of their homework, Mom was willing to do what she could to assist. If the kids got hungry, Mom was ready to ... um, drive to the nearest burger stand. She always said cooking wasn't her strong point, although she was better than she thought.
Mom was put in charge of the checkbook somewhere along the way, which probably was unusual for a housewife at that time. The joke was that she signed Dad's name to so many checks that the bank wouldn't recognize his own signature. Jane remembers that Mom used to talk to her mother for hours, resulting in a long distance phone bill of hundreds of dollars. How to hide that from Dad? Write "New York State Electric and Gas" in the checkbook, of course. Then Mom pleaded ignorance when Dad wondered why the heating bill was so high.
Along the way, Mom became a football fan -- the biggest in the family. The Baileys had season tickets to the New York Giants in 1962 and 1963. It started a love affair with the sport that lasted 40 years, even if the object of her affection switched to the Bills when the family moved to Buffalo in 1970. This is a woman who paid to see exhibition games. That's a fan.
Life settled down after the move to Buffalo. The kids were on their way toward adulthood (notice that the word "maturity" wasn't used), leaving Mom and Dad more free to take some fabulous trips. Indeed they went to some spectacular places in the years ahead. For the record, Singapore was the most beautiful place on Mom's list of destinations, but England was her favorite.
Dad retired early in 1988, and the couple headed to Florida for what they hoped was a long and happy retirement. Fate got in the way, though, when Dad died suddenly in December 1988. Mom simply went about the business of putting together a new life in a new part of the world. Again, that's not easy. But she was happy to stay in one place for once in her life, and resisted offers of moving closer to her children with "Why would I want to leave here?" Mom could make casual friends easily, but some might be surprised to know that she had few truly close friends over the years. Those special ones, though, were cherished.
Eventually, her health problems started to mount. They started with kidney, diabetes and cholesterol issues. Then Mom had a heart attack in the emergency room of a hospital in 2001. If it had been anywhere else, her life probably would have been over right there. Mom started to slow down after that, preferring to watch the Bills on television at home instead of going to a sports bar. Most weeks, she reviewed the game with me the next day on the phone. Aren't all mother-son relationships like that?
Three years ago or so, she developed kidney failure that sentenced her to dialysis for the rest of her life. More health obstacles came up in the years ahead, but she still managed to live at home (with an aide) where she was happiest. When she came home from yet another rehab session in February, she was weakening but it was still easy to wonder if anything could completely stop her.
We eventually found out the answer to that. Earlier this month, she was hospitalized with another problem, a blood clot. Mom looked at her situation objectively, believed her quality of life was poor with a total dependence on others and no chance of improvement, and decided to make one last independent action. She signed a do not resuscitate order, refused food and water, and stopped answering the phone. It wasn't the coward's way out, but was certainly in character. After one last good chat with her children, with equal parts love and laughter, and calls from her two grandchildren, she lapsed into unconsciousness and died peacefully two days later.
Mom used to say that she thought death would merely bring eternal sleep, which was her idea of heaven. In that case, her children can only say what she used to tell them every night: "Sweet dreams."
(In lieu of flowers, etc., donations can be sent to the Lincoln C. Bailey Scholarship Fund, Industrial Safety Equipment Association, 1901 N. Moore St. Suite 808, Arlington, Va., 22209)