Fiddich Review Centre

Churchill: A mother named Jeffrey

ATTLEBORO, MASS. — The first thing I should tell you about my mother is that her name was Jeffrey.

That unusual name, for a woman at least, was my grandmother’s idea, and it was either a stroke of brilliance or an act of cruelty. My mother’s view on the matter seemed to shift depending on the hour.

Either way, her name had a profound impact on her life. All the questions, smirks and raised eyebrows could not have been easy, although my mom developed a pretty good sense of humor about it all. And she did love to tell people about the Vietnam draft notice she’d received and the effort required to clear up the military’s confusion.

Her unusual name made my mother, a spirited feminist, keenly aware of gender perceptions and biases. Potential and seemingly enthusiastic employers would have a sudden change of heart, she often said, when they realized that this particular Jeffrey was not the fellow they were expecting. In a way, she was a walking, talking sociological experiment.

I suspect that going through life as a woman named Jeffery helps explain her willingness to make so many unconventional decisions. She was not a person who did the usual or expected thing. She seemed to have an aversion to the easy path.

One example: My mother left my father when she was pregnant with me. I’m not exactly sure why she did so, but I’m certain that the prospect of having a baby all on her own must have been terrifying. Yet that’s the choice she made.

She never remarried. She never moved in with a boyfriend. She never had another child. It was just the two of us. She raised me to adulthood by herself.

We had some adventures. When I was 4, we loaded up the family Opel, drove from New Hampshire to San Francisco and landed in a two-room apartment a few blocks from Golden Gate Park. We returned four years later, when my mom decided New England was a better place for a kid to grow up.

Like many households headed by single moms, we were often poor, sometimes desperately so, with the demands of caring for you-know-who taking a toll on my mother’s career prospects. But in truth, she also didn’t make it easy on her employers. She didn’t like being told what to do, was willing to tell her bosses where to stick it and gravitated toward jobs that offered at least a sense of freedom.

I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in school whose mother, for a time, was a cab driver.

She did her best and loved me dearly, which is all a son can ask, but living in so small a family wasn’t easy. I remember being 9 or 10 years old, home by myself and staring out the window, anxiously waiting for my mother to return. I always worried that she’d be killed in an accident and that I’d be left alone in the world.

To quell my fears, my mother made a promise: She wouldn’t die until I was old and strong enough to handle it.

Decades later, I guess I’m finally there.

Jeffrey B. Churchill passed away on Oct. 14 in a hospital in southeastern Massachusetts. At 76, she’d fallen suddenly ill a few weeks prior, only to learn that her kidneys were failing. Afterward, she mostly refused treatment — another of her unconventional life decisions, perhaps.

No therapy was worthwhile, she told the doctors, if it meant giving up a sliver of her treasured independence. She wanted to live life on her terms or not at all. She hated lying in that hospital, growing weaker by the minute, even as she amused its nurses with stories about her life and the cantankerous, singular way she’d lived it.

She was an avid reader and a Twitter warrior. She loved the ocean, dogs, nature and long country drives. She liked to debate politics and (in her view) the deteriorating state of the world, but she got ticked if someone (me, in many cases) dared disagree with whatever strong opinion she had.

When she stopped working, my mother became an artist, which is probably what she would have done all along if making money hadn’t been a requirement. My inheritance includes a hundred or so of her paintings — along with Yo, the flatulent, wheezing, mostly blind and deaf pug that she adored and walked all over town. He’s snoring at my feet as I type this.

Mostly, though, I’m left with memories of a mother who was unlike any other, a mom who carried more than her share of pain, was honest to a fault and traveled her own path.

“She was a character,” a nurse told me minutes after Jeffrey took her final breath.

Yes, she really was.

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