The light flickers

When I think about my childhood, I founder on the fact that memory is not linear, it’s not complete, and most of what remember is a wash of general feelings and confabulations anchored by brief, vivid flashes of specific moments that are lit up by unforgettable events. I was fortunate that much of that vague blur of background events was made up of kindness and love, of a stable and affectionate home, but that also means that the specific memories are scarce and hard to salvage from the general wave of goodness, and are difficult to place in a clear sequence, unless they’re attached to a recorded historical event.

One such memory is from March of 1964. I was seven, attending Kent Elementary, and I was alone, walking across the playground, which was conveniently across the street from my house. I was alone because I had no friends; we had moved to a new house and a new school, which was a common event, since my parents were struggling economically, and we moved roughly once a year, as they tried to simultaneously move out of the poor places they were trapped in and build a stable home for their family. That’s part of the background noise of my childhood memories, trying to remember which house we were living in when some more interesting thing happened. My memory warehouse is built of one rental after another, creating a ramshackle sequence that stitches events together.

The bright moment that illuminates this one memory is the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964. I was walking, alone, when suddenly my legs were swept out from under me, and I was on my knees wondering why I was still wobbling and how the earth beneath me wasn’t stable anymore. I looked up at the school and saw a crack had formed in its south wall. I looked to the right at my house, and saw a few bricks fall from the chimney. That was all — this was near Seattle, far from the epicenter — so damage was light, and maybe the worst of it for me was the abrupt loss of certainty. Not even the Earth could be trusted.

That house, though…

There is another moment picked out by my strobe light of remembrance. I know we were feeling a general anxiety — Dad had lost another job, we’d had to move from a fairly nice housing development on the hill to an older, smaller house in town, and Dad was often absent, because he’d be working two jobs to make ends meet. Mom was holding the family together, and we kids felt secure no matter what, because she took care of us. There was me, the oldest, my brother Jim who was about a year younger, and then in rapid fire sequence, my sisters Caryn and Tomi. My little brother Michael had been born recently, I think — he was a small bundle of babiness without a personality yet. My mother was a paragon of maternal devotion. She loved kids, deeply and sincerely, later in life she would just melt into a beaming beacon of pure love when she would hold her grandkids. It was the same in our childhood and in her youth (she married young, and was only in her twenties at this time), and she was always quiet and tolerant and treated us little beasts kindly. There was discipline, but it wasn’t by violence or anger or yelling. We all knew that the worst thing we could ever do is disappoint Mom.

There was stress in the household, though. Mom and Dad would sometimes argue, quietly. I know that over the years Mom would suggest that she could help by taking a part-time job, which would also allow her out of the house and that swarm of littles she was caring for, but my Dad did not like that idea. I think that he felt his role as the breadwinner was a key part of his identity. The patriarchy, you know.

This one painfully sharp memory from that time in that house…I was sitting on the sofa in the living room, reading a comic book, and Jim was sitting next to me, watching TV. It was quiet and calm, my parents and my sisters were somewhere in the back of the house. Suddenly there were shrieks from my little sister, and they ran into the living room, jumping up and down and waving their arms in hysterics, screaming in their piping little voices, “Dad hit Mom! Dad hit Mom!” over and over again.

This was unimaginable. If there was anything we knew, it was that Mom and Dad loved each other and loved us, and that good people didn’t hit. This was worse than the earthquake.

A few minutes later, Mom swept into the living room, where we kids were stunned and paralyzed, carrying a suitcase and the baby. She took my sisters, went out the door, and walked away to stay with her parents. She didn’t say a word to us boys. A little later, Dad came out and took us away to his mother’s house.

It was a confusing situation. I remember being oddly proud of Mom for standing up for herself so decisively, for being so damned strong and fierce. Mom was always quiet and shy, but she had lines you did not cross, and that’s how you do it, with unhesitating confidence. That was strength.

But at the same, the little boy in me was wondering…why didn’t she take me or Jim? How had we disappointed her? What did I do wrong?

That began the worst period in my life. We lived with Grandma Myers, who was wonderfully generous in her sympathy and kindness, but what I remember of that time was that it seemed to be constantly raining and the skies were made of lead (it was Seattle, after all) and I was trudging from Grandma’s house to school and back again with the rain to hide the tears erupting from my face. I could walk over to visit Mom now and then — my two sets of grandparents lived only a few blocks apart — but Dad was mostly missing. His response to embarrasment or shame was always to draw apart and hide in his work.

(huh…I wonder where I got that trait from?)

The story has a happy ending, at least. This is another crystal clear moment in my memory.

One morning, we walked over to visit Mom, and Grandma Westad was in a fury — we heard the “Nehmen!”s and angry sighs of exasperation as we walked in the door. Mom was sitting at the dining room table while Grandma was waving a pair of men’s underwear and berating her: “I found this on the stairs! Has that boy been sneaking over in the night?!?”

Mom didn’t say a word. You should have figured out by now that my family was just generally quiet and didn’t need to say much. But she looked up at me and gave me a small smile, a Mona Lisa smile, and looked so happy. I knew. Mom and Dad still loved each other, the world had stopped shaking, we were going to get back together again.

Reconciliation wasn’t instantaneous. In years to come, though, Mom would learn to drive. She’d get her GED. Later still she’d get a job, finally, working at Boeing and wiring planes and assembling missiles, the most un-Mom job I could imagine. And most importantly, Dad learned to always control his temper with Mom and the rest of us. All was well again.

Another flash of memory: Dad died in 1992. I’m at the funeral home. Mom is in tears. I went to the room with his body. I tried to give him a hug, something we never did often enough. So cold, so hard, his barrel chest felt huge, like I was trying to hug an oak tree. I walked back to Mom, who was concerned and asked if I was OK. She was wrecked, but she was asking about me? Mom, I learned to be strong from you.

I rarely made it back to the Pacific Northwest after that, work and my family kept me away. If I had any doubts about my chosen life, it was that it prevented me from seeing those people I grew up with. Every few years I’d get back for a too-brief visit, like this one just thirteen years ago.

She was looking good! I was back a few years later, and got together with all the surviving members of the family.

Tomi, Mike, Jim in back; Alex, Mom, Caryn, me in the middle; Bebe front.

Jim has since died, as has Bebe the dog. Mom checked herself into the hospital earlier this week, not feeling at all well. Yesterday, she wanted most of all to just go home, to the house she’s been living in for the last 40 or so years. She told the doctor she wanted to see her dog again.

She died quietly, peacefully in the hospital. She didn’t get to go home or see her dog.

The strobe flashes one more time, and I remember my earliest specific memory of my mother. We were living in an apartment in Kent, which places this, near as I can guess, around 1960. I was three, Mom was twenty. She’d bought a little toy microscope at the Goodwill store, and was showing me how to use it. It had a mirror in the base, and while we never got a memorable image on that thing, we had a good time moving around trying to find the best beam of sunlight to focus on whatever specimen we had. She told me we had to chase the light and catch it.

Good advice, Mom. Chase that light. Thank you for everything.


  1. rabbitbrush says

    Beautiful remembrance, beautiful words. I’m so sorry your Mom is gone.

  2. databoy says

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for posting something so eloquently and evocatively stated.

  3. whheydt says

    The final bit reminds me of my late wife. She was in the hospital for about 2.5 weeks. She told the doctors–one word or a few syllables per breath–that she wanted to die at home. The doctors had to sit quietly and listen carefully to hear and understand her. She was sent home on Monday, 27 June 2022. She died around 6 PM the next day.

    I’ve taken care of one of her three last wishes–arranging a memorial Mass for her (she was Catholic, but not pushy about it)–but the other two are simply a matter of time–taking care of the cats for the rest of their natural lives, and being around for all of the grandchildren until they are adults. The youngest grandchild is 3, so another 18 years.

  4. Larry says

    A wonderful tribute to an exceptional woman. I wish I could have written something as eloquent when my mother passed so many years ago. Sorry for your loss.

  5. thewolf says

    thank you for sharing some of your memories of her, and of your origin story, with us here. I am feeling a lot of respect for your mom, and can only imagine what a big loss this is for you. take care.

  6. cartomancer says

    Loss is the price we pay for love. It is a hard price to pay.
    Deepest sympathies.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    I am so sorry for your loss.
    Silver lining: your mother retained her faculties to the end.

  8. taxesmycredulity says

    Beautiful tribute! Our hearts go out to you. More memories of your mom will arise over the next weeks and months that can provide even more insight and appreciation anew. Condolences to you and your family.

  9. bodach says

    So sorry for your loss.
    We sat behind your Mom (and sister?) thirteen years ago or so when you gave a talk in Seattle. After our introductions, all she said was that she was so very proud of you. We were very happy to have met with that part of your family.

  10. SchreiberBike says

    I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for the story told so well. It’s your strength to concentrate on words to distract you from your pain on this and other subjects. Thank you for that.

  11. Douglas Brown says

    I am so sorry for your loss. She sounds like a wonderful person and mother. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Hemidactylus says

    I’m so sorry PZ. I lost both my parents within a few years of each other just over 20 years ago. My dad had the COPD into emphysema and was using inhalers and the oxygen enhancing machine. He’d have annual bouts with pneumonia in winter, the final time in 2002. It was actually a UTI that got him though from catheterization. My mom died a few years earlier from lung cancer so I can feel what you’re going through now. Ughhh!!!

    We are all here for you.

  13. stwriley says

    Deepest condolences, PZ. It’s never easy to lose a parent at any age.

  14. says

    Mom was holding the family together, and we kids felt secure no matter what, because she took care of us.

    This in my mind is probably the best compliment you could ever give her.

    Well said, and thank you for sharing.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    I hope your siblings and you can share the practical arrangements so you don’t get overloaded. But the tasks also help a bit when getting through the immediate wave of grief.

  16. says

    Sorry for your loss. I have my own memories of my parents. The worst of their struggles were over by the time I came along apart from the PTSD my father suffered from his service in WW2. That periodically put pressure on all of us. My parents loved my sister and I and pushed and advocated for our education. They were both bright intelligent people but poverty prevented them from going as far in their education as they could have. My mother left school at 14 and my father at 16. Despite this my father persisted and did well with a permanent job with well-earned promotions. This stability meant my sister and I were the first in our family to attend university. I was overseas when both my parents died and I have regretted that ever since even though it wasn’t for want of trying to get back to them. I treasure my memories of them. Thank you for sharing the memories of your parents they sound like wonderful people.

  17. fredbrehm says

    I’m sorry for your loss. The fact that it’s normal to see your parents die is not much comfort. The best comfort is remembering the love and kindness that they gave you. Take care and give my love to all your family.

  18. fredbrehm says

    I’m sorry for your loss. The fact that it’s normal to see your parents die is not much comfort. The best comfort is remembering the love and kindness that they gave you. Take care and give my love to all your family.

  19. fredbrehm says

    I’m sorry for your loss. The fact that it’s normal to see your parents die is not much comfort. The best comfort is remembering the love and kindness that they gave you. Take care and give my love to all your family.

  20. fredbrehm says

    I’m sorry for the multiple posts. It didn’t like anything was happening for a while

  21. chigau (違う) says

    My mother died about two and a half years ago. She was a couple of weeks shy of her 93rd birthday.
    I did not weep for her because she really did not want to be alive any more.
    This morning I wept for PZ’s mother’s passing.

  22. John Morales says

    Powerful elegy.

    Worth a tear or two, and made me remember my own mum.

    Obs, condolence.

  23. grovergardner says

    Boy, that’s a powerful bunch of memories, and a beautifully written post. My sincerest condolences.

  24. Bad Bart says

    So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your memories of your mother and the lasting impressions you have of her.

  25. badland says

    My last living grandparent died this January, she was almost 98 and ready to go. She was the final child still alive from all four of my grandparents’ families, their generation is entirely gone now. Every time I think of her I’m astonished by how much I grieve for her.

    I’m sorry for your loss PZ.

  26. rietpluim says

    Goodbye, Mom of PZ. His stories tell you were a wonderful person. Glad to hear it worked out with Dad.

  27. StevoR says

    My deepest condolences for whatever little worth they are. So sorry to read this, PZ Myers and can only begin to imagine how you feel.

  28. fernando says

    My condolences, PZ.
    May the memories of the times you passed with your mother, bring you hapiness and strength in the future.

  29. raven says

    Sorry for your loss, PZ.

    You can’t stop death as I’m finding out often these days when it comes for my friends and family. I always tell it to go away and it never works.

  30. carter says

    PZ – Wonderful. Over the years of reading you every day, I’ve been privileged to be granted windows into your families’ lives. Thank you. When my Mom died in 2020 as her retirement home went into lockdown from Covid we, her three remaining children, couldn’t hold a memorial so we got together on zoom and wrote a 24page remembrance, stuffed it full of photos and sent it out as a pdf email attachment to the people who had been in her life. It was deeply fulfilling to collaborate with my siblings and then to get responding emails and photos from her extended community. Peace to your Mom and to you.

  31. says

    Dear PZ, we send our condolences to you and your family at the loss of your mother. Thank you for sharing all those important things that should be remembered.
    — best wishes to you and whole your family

  32. terminus est says

    Beautiful and touching eulogy. Mom’s are the best – thank you for reminding us to chase the light.

  33. says

    That was a great tribute to your mother, PZ. I feel like I knew her a little bit because you added such telling details to your remembrances. You are lucky to have had such a good, strong, and loving mother.

    I’m glad that you have good memories of her.

  34. hillaryrettig1 says

    I’m so sorry, PZ. What an amazing remembrance. Thank you for sharing.

  35. garnetstar says

    PZ, please accept my deepest sympathy for you and your family.

    What you’ve written about your mother is a beautiful remembrance that really portrays what a wonderful person she was.

  36. magistramarla says

    I’m so sorry for your loss, PZ.
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories of your mother with all of us. I feel privileged.
    Those memories will get sweeter as the years pass.

  37. says

    The pain grows. I’m the executor for her estate, and I have no idea what I’m doing.
    First step, apparently, is to get a lawyer who does.

  38. asclepias says

    Sorry to hear this, PX, although sorry never seems like quite the right word to convey a plethora of feelings. I’m also sorry to hear of the executor woes. I took probate my first year of paralegal courses, and although I don’t remember a lot, I do recall that someone dying intestate creates a huge mess (though I imagine that your family is less interested in what it stands to gain than in the collective loss, and that’s a very good thing!). It’s still a mess, granted, but less of one than it might be otherwise. My sympathies and condolences.

  39. stuffin says

    You were a fortunate man to have had such a marvelous influence in your life. May the memories of her out weight the sadness of her loss.

  40. David C Brayton says

    As I was reading this my thought was, “Why can’t I meet a male friend like this? Someone to simply talk to, recall good times. Someone that is thoughtful and generous.” Then I was shocked upon reading your mother died. Rarely do I want to simply hug someone, but after reading this, I’d like to give you an e-hug.

    What a powerful, poignant, well-written blog post.

  41. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    So sorry for your loss. My mom is the last of that generation in the family, and I’m going out to PNW to see her for the first time in almost 2 years, every time wondering if it would be the last (she’s 84). I’ve been reminiscing for a couple weeks, but that post opened some floodgates.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  42. says

    Not intestate — Mom left a very thorough will. The fun part will be getting all parties to consent to the terms and resolve any divisions, but my siblings are all fairly laid back.

  43. Jazzlet says

    Sorry for your loss PZ and I hope you find a good lawyer to ease you through probate.

  44. Le Chifforobe says

    I’m so sorry for your loss, PZ. I hope you and your family are sharing these and many other beautiful stories right now.

  45. firebirdkat says

    I am so sorry for your loss!
    Thank you for the memories you shared. As so often before, your blog causes me to sit back and think, and to work to better my self. It seems to me your mom had the same influence on people around her. My sympathies and condolences.

  46. rrutis1 says

    PZ, I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story about your Mom. I just found out my Mom has Alzheimers…this post has helped me remember some of the good times and feel a little bit better . It has also inspired me to write down some of my memories to share with her before things get worse.

  47. raven says

    David C. Brayton:

    As I was reading this my thought was, “Why can’t I meet a male friend like this?

    Your brother Ed Brayton would easily qualify.

    I’m sure a lot of us remember Ed and Dispatches from the Culture wars.
    And, still miss them.

    I just looked it up. Ed died in August, 2020. It seems a lot longer ago.

  48. Paul K says

    I’m sorry for your loss, too, PZ. And I’m grateful to you for sharing the story of the love your family shared (and shares). Not all of us have that with our parents, but we all are better for knowing those who do, and their stories.

  49. says

    Right, memory as “a wash of general feelings and confabulations anchored by brief, vivid flashes of specific moments that are lit up by unforgettable events” sums it up nicely for me. Why an event is unforgettable is sometimes a puzzle. I remember the moment I learned of the 1964 Alaska earthquake vividly right down to the texture of the cloth of the sofa I was sitting on, but all I was doing was watching an episode of That Was the Week That Was. In my mind it’s connected with the Kitty Genovese murder, my father’s remodeling projects, my mother getting around on crutches when her leg was in a cast, a WWI era book called Malice in Kulturland that turned up at a used bookstore–too many random images to process.
    Anyway, put the probate in the hands of a lawyer who handles that sort of thing. Even a straightforward will can have pitfalls. One of my great-uncles, unmarried and childless, left his estate to be split equally among his brothers and sisters–but had neglected to provide for the possibility that one of his heirs might predecease him, and so accidentally disinherited two of his nephews. Even with the entire family in agreement about his intentions there was paperwork needed apparently to keep things on the level. When I was executor of my father’s estate I had to close accounts, return Social Security paid to him after his death, locate the actual holder of the mortgage on his house (which had mysteriously changed hands after his death), post public notices of probate, and do a variety of other things I knew nothing about. Having a lawyer telling me what bases to touch was reassuring–though most of it was handled by his assistant.
    Not that it’s worth anything, but you have my sympathy. And also I still miss Ed Brayton’s internet presence.

  50. drivenb4u says

    Condolences. You’ve shared so much about your family before, and the losses when they happen, that I feel like I know them too. Peace to you and your family.

    PS I miss Ed too. Followed him on Facebook (maybe sometimes it’s good for… something?) and it was hard reading his last posts.

  51. says

    All the nicest, kindest, emotionally smartest men (and women) I know seem to have had awesome mothers. Thank you for sharing memories of yours.


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