Fitje Pitts was a mother, a traveler, an adventurer and a comedian. She knit, she read, she loved animals and her family. She was tender, had a temper, swore like a teamster and was as stubborn as a mule. She was a philosopher, a philanthropist and a life long learner. She was all this and so much more.
Stewart Alsop wrote that, “…. a dying man needs to die like a sleeping man needs to sleep. There comes a time when it is useless and impossible to resist.” My mother, who probably never read Alsop’s book, was in her element when she was resisting. We didn’t call her Fightin’ Fitje Pitts for nothing. She loved life, was so fascinated by life that, leaving before she was ready was not really an option. To the end, she resisted the inevitable. She really was, as my sister-in-law, Lisa, called her, The Energizer Bunny.
I must have been about 14 when, in a moment of extreme exasperation, my mother poked a finger in my chest and said, “…. I just hope I live long enough to be a burden to you.”
Fortunately as the years progressed, we mellowed. Over time, our relationship was less that of mother and son and more that of two old friends. As I reflect on our relationship I realize that I learned a great deal from my old friend.
My mother taught me the importance of humility.
During the winter of 1944/45 as war raged in Europe, Mom, a Red Cross volunteer, lived in a barn in a small town near Paris where she was attached to the 386th Bomb Group. She returned to the town a few years ago and was honored at a luncheon, given a medal and made an honorary citizen of the town by the mayor. It was an extraordinary affair – bands played and speeches were made as the grateful citizens of Beaumont-sur-Oise treated my mother like an honored member of their family. In many ways, I guess she was. After lunch, as we drove back to Paris, she said, with all humility, “Wasn’t that wonderful? All those kind people stopped what they were doing just so they could have lunch with me.” After a brief pause she added, “They must lead terribly boring lives.”
My mother taught me the value of a good education.
A Smith College graduate, she was, on one memorable occasion, having an argument with my father, a high school dropout. Having finally had enough she exploded. “Tilghman, you just don’t realize how smart I are!” My father wrote it down and made her sign it and for weeks afterwards, showed to anyone who was remotely interested.
My mother taught me the importance of perspective.
A few years before we accompanied her to France we returned to her wartime haunts in England. As we walked what was once the site of the 9th Bomber command near the town of Great Dunmow in East Anglia, my mother paused, and stared at ditch by the side of the road. She told us of the time she was watching a lone German bomber fly over the base. Just as the bomb bay doors opened and the bombs started to fall, she was tackled from behind and thrown into the very same ditch by one of the GIs. As she explained it, she was afraid that the man had less than honorable intentions. When I asked if she had considered that he was only trying to protect her from becoming a casualty of war she said, “Don’t be silly, I wasn’t scared — they were only little bombs, you know.” Only little bombs, indeed.
Finally, my mother taught me to appreciate irony.
About eight months ago I visited Mom at Copper Ridge. Now you need to understand that visiting a person with Alzheimer’s is about connecting the dots. It involves explaining who they are and how they relate to other individuals in their life, both past and present. On this particular visit we talked about family. She asked me about the man whose portrait hung in her room – her late husband, my father. She wanted to know if we were related, she and I — and I did the best I could to assemble the family tree for her. At the end of our visit I remarked that I’d bring some vodka the next time I visited. “I wish you had brought some today”, she said wistfully, “I sure could use a drink right now.”
“Why”, I asked, unwittingly taking the bait.
A sly grin came to her face – “Because I just found out that I’m your mother.”