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My World: Remembering she who called me Sunny

Having just celebrated yet another Mother’s Day, I think back to my earliest thoughts of my own mother. Not recollections in a concrete sense, but impressions that went deep into my world, recollections of security and place, recollections of an abiding presence that would not abandon me.

I was perhaps 3 years old or so when I first sensed her presence as someone other than myself. Until then, she was simply part of me and not of the external world. Gradually, I came to recognize our separateness and our distinctiveness. In some ways that was painful.

I never went to Kindergarten, there being none offered in our little town. As a result, I was with my mother 24 hours a day most days, at least until I turned 6. Separations from her were few. As the wife of the local minister, she often had duties at the church during the week, attending and participating in women’s functions, the Ladies Aid Society and other such groups. Sometimes I would be with her in the lower hall of the church, where the women gathered to prepare mincemeat to sell to raise money for missions, or they knitted socks and scarves for the World War II troops fighting in the South Pacific or Europe.

I remember vividly the smells of meat, apples and spices cooking and steeping in preparation. At such times, I played, mostly by myself, in the playroom next to the church kitchen, maintained as a place to entertain the small children during the church services on Sunday mornings, but quiet and empty most other times.

Why there were never other children there, I don’t know, but I suspect it was because my mother, there more out of duty than desire, was always so much younger than the other women in those organizations and their children would either be in school during the day or were already grown. I think the other ladies loved my mother’s youthfulness.

On certain occasions, when my mother was away at a meeting I could not attend, I might sometimes be babysat by my sister, Merlyn, who was five years older. I don’t ever recall being cared for by anyone outside the home, a stranger. I liked being with Merlyn, too — Merlie Ann as we called her — as she opened up my world to all the books and stories she so loved. But still I would miss my mother terribly and would often sit by the front window in the late afternoon on the padded window box seat and anxiously wait for her to return.

If she was later than she had said she would be, I fretted until at last I would see her coming up the front steps, the pheasant feather on her small, pillbox hat bobbing up and down as she smiled at me through the window.

The most painful separation came when it was time for me to start school and I was to be apart from her for entire days. I can still remember the first day of school, first grade, my father driving me the short distance to Ackerman School up on the hill above our house and enrolling me. As I watched the old black Plymouth sedan rolling out of the school parking lot, leaving me alone and to an unknown future, I panicked and ran, chasing the car back down the street, back down the hill to 7th Street and home. I arrived not long after my father and the old black Plymouth, and he patiently put me back in the car and returned me to school and into the arms of Miss McAffee, my first-grade teacher.

I can recall my mother’s stricken face as she stood helpless in the window, watching as my father guided me back into the car. Looking back now, I suspect the separation was as difficult for her as it was for me. I was the last child. She could have no more. But it never occurred to me to ask, and I never did. It was years later, when my own youngest made his way off to school for the first time, that I sensed what it must have meant to her.

Slowly, childhood activities took over and my separate life took hold. My world expanded and my mother, still important and central, became less and less a magnetic presence. I acquired new friends, found new allegiances with teachers and other adults, and grew out of the narrow confinements of our home. But still there was no presence in my life to match my mother and her soft Scottish brogue.

No one else called me “Sunny” with a “U.” No one else accepted my innocence and my lingering babyhood as she did. No one else would hold me close, for example, when, at about age 5 or 6, a sudden attack of diarrhea caused me to soil my pants and I was mortified by having done so. She didn’t rebuke me. She just held me, wretched and smelly as I was, and said it was all right, that those things happened to us all.

In looking back after almost 80 years into that past of murkiness and comfort, I can still sense her presence. Not as she became in later years, when a severe stroke and general bad health took her slowly down, but as the young woman she was, the young woman who would sit with me on the wide window box seat in the front room of the manse and read the Burgess Bedtime Stories, and then carry me to my bed and fold me into it. The woman with whom, as I grew older, I would take our daily tea time together in the late afternoon after school was out, and discuss in amazingly adult terms the events of the day. What had I learned? What had I seen and done?

She is long gone now. But never entirely. No, not ever entirely. It has been so many years, however, since anyone called me “Sunny.” And that was “Sunny” with a “U.”

Lake Oswego resident Ronald Talney is a retired trial lawyer, writer and poet. In 1985, he wrote the official dedication poem for the statue Portlandia. Look for his column, “My World,” on the second Thursday of every month in The Review.

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