By Frank Deford
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $25.95
The summer after my mother found out that she was dying of cancer, she asked me to come visit and watch the Olympic swimming on television with her. It was 2004, when the Games were in Athens. Mom had been on the United States swimming team in the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when she was eighteen. While she never talked about that experience — she was, in fact, mysteriously silent on the subject — she would say, "That's the only thing of any real consequence I ever did in my life." That wasn't true, but it was very much like her to speak so modestly. To put this in perspective: my mother was one of these people who gave much unto the world, brightened the lives of those around her and left us all better for her having been here among us.
You can be sure I understand if you think I am prejudiced, and I am, but nonetheless, that all happens to be the God's truth.
Of course, she also could be herself, which was a handful.
She was an awful lot of fun; she had a way about her. Unlike most old people who seem to withdraw unto themselves, she became more expressive and confident of herself (and her opinions) as she grew older. She had developed an uncommon facility about the past, wherein she discussed herself back then with a certain outofbody quality, as if that girl was someone else altogether. And while she certainly maintained the courtesy and graciousness that had always marked her, she felt less compunction to suffer fools. In particular: woe to the poor person who called her a "senior." Mom, I think you could say, went out — well, if not with a bang, then certainly with a lot of sizzle.
I was, then, not altogether taken aback when, after I told her that I'd be delighted to come see her, she said, "I'll have something in the nature of a surprise for you, Teddy." But, although I pressed her in a good-natured way, she wouldn't tell me what it was, and I had all but forgotten about it until I arrived, a few weeks later, at her garden apartment in Eugene, Oregon. After Daddy died and she sold the house in Montana, she came to Eugene because she had heard it was a nice place to live, and it was a college town, and while she wanted a more benign climate, she didn't want to go to the Sun Belt and "play bridge with a bunch of old hags like myself."
She made a lot of good friends in Eugene and enjoyed her years there, stirring the pot. She told me she was accepting of death, although her one wish was that she would not die while George W. Bush was the president of her country. Unfortunately, much to her chagrin, she would be denied that hope.
Mom, whose name was Sydney Stringfellow Branch, threw off her mortal coil, going on eightyseven, on January 11, 2005. "Well," she said, a few days before the end, when the die was cast, "at least I won't have to be around for that damn fool's second inauguration." And she added: "You know, Teddy, I've always wondered what comes next, but at least I can die positively knowing that as long as Bush is president here, I'm guaranteed to be going to a better place."
Anyway, it was the previous August when I visited her. I came by myself, for although Mom adored Jeanne, my wife, I could tell that she wanted to see me alone. So I'd left home, left behind Jeanne, left our empty nest (well, save for our dog, Elsinore), and come to Eugene at the time when the Olympic swimming started. Mom and I would watch it every night. She adored Michael Phelps, all the more so that he came from Baltimore, because she had grown up nearby, across Chesapeake Bay, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. "I wish he'd swim in the backstroke," she said. That had been her specialty.
"You can't swim everything Mother."
"He can. He's amazing."
"I never asked you: why did you swim backstroke?"
"You really wanna know, Teddy?"
"Because when you're on your back you don't have your face stuck in the water. You can see the sky. I liked that."
"Who woulda thunk it?" I said.
"Now, it's not so good when you're in a race in an outdoor pool, because if the sun's out, it's in your eyes, but me just swimming the backstroke in the river, why, if the sun got in my eyes, I just turned over for awhile.
You've got to remember, in the beginning, I just swam for the hell of it because the river was out our backyard. I imagine if I'd lived in Nepal, I'd've climbed mountains and been a Sherpa."
"Aren't the Sherpas all men?"
"For God's sake, Teddy, don't be so literal. Is this any better: if I'd grown up in Las Vegas, I'd've been a whore."
Mom made certain to find out when the women's hundredmeter backstroke would be shown. That had been her event when she'd made the U.S. team. "I want to tell you all about that," she told me.
Excerpted from Bliss, Remembered by Frank Deford. Copyright 2010 by Frank Deford. Excerpted by permission of Overlook Hardcover.