I met my friend Tilly — and her mother Peggy — the first day of Kindergarten. Peggy recognized my mom among the crowds of mothers and clutching five year olds. “Are you Karla Olsen?” she asked. “I used to be,” my mom answered. “I’m Karla Lutz, now.” From behind my mom’s skirt, I saw a pretty, round-faced golden-blonde girl leaning into a solid brown-haired woman with a warm, take-no-bullshit smile.
My mom had babysat for Peggy’s two older kids as a high-energy skinny fourteen-year-old who roller skated down the San Francisco hills, called herself “Jo” after Jo in Little Women, and carried white mice in her pockets. Now, decades later, Peggy was enrolling her new, late-life, second-marriage child in Mrs. Wood’s morning class at McKinley School, and my mom, now in her early thirties, was enrolling her first child — me.
Partly because our mothers knew each other, Tilly and I became friends. Tilly was big and I was little. She liked things certain ways, while I rarely noticed details. She was great fun, when she wasn’t being too bossy — we played elaborate games, laughed, and watched TV (which was not allowed at my house). Tilly dragged me around in her little red wagon until I asked my mom to ask Peggy to tell Tilly to stop.
For years, Peggy was just my mom’s friend and Tilly’s mom: funny and wise, old enough to be Tilly’s grandmother, with the relaxed feel of having weathered it all before — our stages and our troubles. Unlike some of my other friends’ moms who treated me like a fragile doll (because I was short and “feminine”), Peggy treated me like one of the rest of the gang.
Some summers I stayed at Tilly’s house for days at a time, then she’d stay at my house, and we’d switch back and forth until I was sick of hearing Tilly talk and lay zoned out in Peggy’s big recliner in the A-frame living room reading, Tilly’s father Dave watching TV in the big green leather chair next to me, Tilly bored out of her skull because I was ignoring her. There were always great books at Tilly’s house. Peggy was a great reader. And, as I found out later, a writer.
I loved her apple pie and her gravy — exotic dishes for me. I’d never eaten gravy before. I was used to shredded raw carrots and brown rice casseroles over long dinner discussions about Adele Davis and vitamins. At Tilly’s house, we talked about sports, cartoons, family gossip. Once they had an actual food fight — started when Peggy lobbed a glob of mashed potatoes at her granddaughter. I sat in shock, loving it.
And Peggy was the best mom to be around when you were sick — no-nonsense and stress-free. I loved curling up with a blanket on her couch. I felt so taken care of.
Girls need more than one mother, somebody else to provide those things their own mother can’t, to demonstrate other parenting styles, to accept them unconditionally. Peggy was my Other Mother.
Where my own mother was a dancer, involved in the San Francisco belly dance scene in the late-1960s, Peggy wore shapeless smocks. She was overweight and vanity free. My own nature-and-art-focused mother was careful and sensitive, and our house was quiet. Peggy, large-laughed and opinionated, was the first person to notice I was funny. She smoked King Edward Tiparillos (which I furtively sampled as a teenager), oil painted gloppy flowers and landscapes on canvases and furniture, put yarn-crocheted hats on the toilet paper. She was wise without sophistication, classy, polite, and very well read. Peggy, Tilly, and Dave were a real California family, liberal San Francisco Democrats who fished for salmon on the Klamath River. They camped in Hendy Woods. Often, they brought me along. They laughed loudly, yelled, farted, played games together, and adored me.
And slowly I started coming to Peggy for advice. When I was in my mid-twenties and a close family member of mine expressed extreme reservations about my marrying Bill, a man with a recent ex-wife, lousy finances, and two teenaged kids, I listened silently. Then, devastated, I went to Tilly. She looked at my red-eyes, listened to my incoherent blubber. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, desperate to help me. Then, determined, she grabbed me by the hand. “Let’s go talk to Mom. She’ll know the right thing.”
“Do you love him?” Peggy asked.
“Yes!” I cried at her.
“Then marry him. He’s a good man.”
So I did.
“Mommy, are you okay?” Annie asked me several weeks ago. We were hiking in the redwoods with our dogs. I hadn’t realized I was crying. “Yes, yes I am,” I told her. “I’m sad, but I’m not unhappy.”
In recent years, I hadn’t seen Peggy much. Tilly and I grew up. Dave got sick and died. I saw Peggy at parties and funerals. We exchanged emails where she asked my advice about her writing career — she’d written a couple of novels, one of which I gave her feedback on. Tilly married a wonderful man but stayed closely involved with her mom, talking to Peggy at least twice a day. Bad legs, high blood pressure, dizziness, forgetfulness; Peggy was afraid of falling, moved into an assisted-living community, worked on revising her novel, and maintained her sense of humor, community involvement, and love of reading.
“Mommy, are you sure you’re okay?” Annie asked again.
Peggy was in the hospital, paralyzed by a sudden stroke. She had just turned 89.
Two weeks ago, Tilly and I sat together, listening to Peggy’s ragged breathing and holding her hands. Her son and grandchildren visited, great-grandchildren, dear friends. “I’m just so mad Peggy’s novel has never been published,” I said. “It’s not fair.”
A few days later, Tilly and I sat together with Tilly’s husband and niece, smoothing Peggy’s newly-dead forehead. Cutting three locks of her fine gray hair for the family. I was so thankful that Tilly wanted me there at my Other Mother’s death bed — that she needed me, that I could be there, un-conflicted, in a way I can’t always be for my family. Nothing scary in sitting bedside until the Neptune Society came to take her cooling body away.
My heart filled with the same emotion I’d felt hiking in the redwoods. Sadness, but not unhappiness. Pride. I was so proud of her. “Brava, Peggy!” I wanted to shout. “Job well done! Life well lived!”