The Universal Notebook: My mother was a mystery

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For many years I made the mistake of thinking I knew my mother well, that she was a one-dimensional being, her existence predicated primarily on being the mother of three sons, secondarily on being a mate for my father, and in any free time after that on dabbling a bit in watercolors, golf and bridge.

But when I reflected on her long life as she lay dying, it began to dawn on me that she was a far more interesting and complicated person than I had ever given her credit for.

Mom was born on Dec. 14, 1922, but as far as she was concerned her life started at age 4, when she was adopted by Paul and Mildred Gibson. Though Nana Gibson at her death in 1972 left Mom a note and her adoption papers, in case she wanted to know something about her birth parents, as far as I know Mom just looked at them and never followed up. She felt that it would be disloyal, a betrayal to the mother and father who raised her, to express any interest in the mother and father who had to give her up for adoption.

Mom’s birth parents were a couple from Bath. Her father was a ship’s carpenter who fell off a wharf and drowned in September 1922, just three months before little Bertha (her original name) was born. The carpenter’s widow already had three children to feed and care for, and she struggled on for four years before making what must have been an incredibly painful decision to put her daughter up for adoption.

Paul Gibson and Mildred Gibson had given up on having children of their own, but they had a lot of love to give and they gave Betty Ann a very happy home and childhood. My mother was never as cheerful as when she was talking about mother and father.

The hand-written note that Nana Gibson left Mom at her death was dated April 21, 1954. In it she told her daughter that in addition to her worldly possessions “I am leaving you in God’s hands, knowing that the guidance your father and I have tried to give you during our lives together will carry on. Remember the sterling qualities of your Dad and live as he and I would have you.

“In the safe in a small compartment … you will find your adoption papers. You may want to know who your real parents were but they will never love you more than Dad and I have. We were both very proud of you, keep our faith in you. If you never want to look into the past life where you were born, burn the notes attached to the adoption papers and go on from today. It’s not what you were or have been that really counts, but what you are today and will be tomorrow. With all my love, Mother.”

So now our mother lies with her mother.

Over the course of 90 years, little Bertha became Betty Ann Gibson and then Betty Beem, a woman as simple and complex as her name, her identity forged in the parental love of Paul and Mildred Gibson, shaped by 65 years of love and marriage to Allen Beem, and brought to fruition in her three sons, her seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Many of us who stood at her grave in Pine Grove Cemetery last week had our lives through her.

My mother’s life was a testament to the transformational power of love. It is love that makes us who we are. It is love, not death that defines the human experience. And it is love, not blood or laws, that makes us a family.

Bless you, Mother.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.