“Dream when the day is through,
Dream and they might come true,
Things are never as bad as they seem,
So dream, dream, dream.”
“Dream (When You’re Feeling Blue),” 1944 song by Johnny Mercer
My mother passed away last night at age 99. She was born Mary Virginia Metzger on June 27, 1916 in Easton, PA. Her father Elwood was a buyer for a department store; her mother Stella was a dress designer who frequently commuted to New York City until Midge was born and died of pneumonia in the late 1920s. During the Depression Elwood lost his job, and Midge went to live with her grandmother Grace Frace (who lived well into her 90s) and her Aunt Ida. Thanks to an Aunt Mamie in Erie, PA, whom Midge was named after, she attended Grove City College, where she performed in plays and met her first serious boyfriend and several classmates who became lifelong friends. Back in Easton, she found work as a proofreader with a publishing company and started dating my dad, a chemist from McKeesport, PA, Victor Cowan Lane.
In 1950 when I was 8 our family moved to Fort Washington after Penn Salt Company transferred Vic to a Philadelphia office. Midge substitute taught and later became a French teacher. She also tutored a succession of troubled kids to whom she grew very attached. Whatever her hang-ups, she had a soft heart. She and Vic had really cool friends both in Easton (whom we continued to see summers) and in Fort Washington. When they’d party at our house, I’d sit atop the stairs and listen to adults letting their hair down. They were best friends with Gussie and Ted Jenkins, parents of my best friends Terry and Judy; several summers the two families shared a cabin at Lake Minneola in the Poconos. Gussie and Midge would scour the place clean upon arrival and again before we left. In 1965 Midge and Vic visited us in Hawaii and paid for several wondrous days in Kauai. One evening back in Hololulu we were having such a good time that we were asked to tone it down.
In 1967 Vic died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 right after buying property in the Poconos for a summer cabin. Midge subsequently bought a townhouse, had several suitors, and started working in a dentist’s office, where she met Howard Roberts, CEO of a law book business, whom she married in 1970. Unlike Vic, Howard loved to travel, and after he retired, they took numerous trips to Europe and South America. They lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Erdenheim and wintered in Bradenton, Florida, before settling there permanently. Howard played tennis and golf well into his 80s (Midge gamely joined him on the links) and died in his ninety-ninth year; the secret to their happy marriage, he once told me, was Midge’s one rule: don’t go to bed mad at one other.
After Howard passed away, Midge moved to an assisted living facility in Rancho Mirage, California, next door to the Betty Ford clinic and not far from my brother. I visited three or four times a year, most recently for Midge’s ninety-ninth birthday; she was lucid and able to enjoy a festive lunch with family and friends. Having lived a good life, she had been ready to die for some weeks now. A hospice nurse recently told me how sweet she was, never complaining, and that they recently looked at photo books together, something we’d do as well. Each time I’d learn something new about her life. The last few days, she slept all but a few hours a day, occasionally saying a few words as if she were dreaming.
Right now I’m rather numb but recall random memories: her taking to me to college (Bucknell), missing two straight turnpike (toll road) exits because she was distracted, and wanting to hang curtains on my dorm window (I couldn’t wait for her to leave). She rented condos at Anna Maria Island, Florida, for the entire family to be together on her eightieth birthday. That was followed by memorable August get-togethers in Michigan as recently as eight years ago. Growing up, I could be a brat: once she left the house for a couple hours after a heated argument, and she could never get me to keep my elbows off the dinner table. We’d tease her about interrupting our poker games with Vic to call us to dinner when food wasn’t yet on the table. Mad as I could get her, as when I came home from grad school with a beard, she never hit me nor made me think she loved me less. In 1980, back for a high school reunion, I groused when she disparaged my outfit, but then she bought me a pin-striped suit that lasted over 20 years.
During recent visits she was eager for me to do something fun yet worried when I went to Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown, a family-oriented, mellow watering hole with live entertainment. Everyone at Mirage Inn had good things to say about her. Corey, the dining hall manager, took her death hard. Last December when I addressed her a dwindling number of Christmas cards, she told me she was ready to die, especially after the death of her 100 year-old buddy Shirley. I’m relieved she went peacefully but miss her already. She helped plan her memorial service with us in June, after which my brother and I will spread her ashes at our dad’s gravesite near the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border.
In Nicole Anslover’s American history class yesterday I talked about the post-WW II years and mentioned when Midge and Vic purchased our first TV, a black-and-white 12-incher with an antenna you fiddled with to see a picture through the “snow.” Because I was so skinny Midge forced me to take cod liver oil and took me to a Dr. Brinkler, who doubled as some kind of faith healer. During a trip to see Vic’s relatives in Pittsburgh, they took me to meet Santa Claus in a huge department store. My parents liked Spike Jones and Louis Armstrong and romantic ballads by the likes of Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer and Nat King Cole but not rock and roll. A few years ago Midge complained that Friday entertainment at Café Mirage consisted of a guy playing rhythm and blues records. She said, “I didn’t like that stuff when you played it and still don’t like it.”
Our “colored” cleaning woman, Ada Jenkins, took in foster kids from Philadelphia. Midge gave Ada used clothes, and I’d see classmates dressed in my old outfits. An elderly man wearing a garish pink hat I had bought in Ocean City frequently walked past our house on the way to a tavern. When I was 13, we moved to Beverly Hills, Michigan, near Detroit. Aunt Ida – I called her Aunt Potato, short for Idaho Potato Patch - went with us, and Midge got her kicking and screaming (as they say) to a senior center, where she met ladies with whom she played bridge – first at the center and then at each others’ homes. Aunt Ida frowned on alcohol, but before her turn to host, she sheepishly asked Midge to buy a bottle of wine. Having taken care of elderly Aunt Ida, Midge vowed never to burden her boys in old age. She wasn't.