Sunday, January 20, 2013

Olive A. "Sue" Dobbs 1924 to 2013

My mom and me when I was probably two years old.

What my brother and I have gone through in the past several weeks is in the big picture nothing special. Every second of every day someone loses a parent.

It’s the hope of most people that they do not have to go through this event until they are in their middle age, but too many of us face such a loss when much younger.

My mom died in the morning of Jan. 9 at the age of 88. I’ve written about my father from time to time, but in our family there was no one more important in many ways than my mom.

She and my father, Gordon L. Dobbs, had a relationship, that least to me seemed pretty typical of the time during which they were young: my father had the career and my mom stayed home. It’s fair to say, though, what my dad wanted for his life could not have been possible without my mom.

My dad died in 1996 and while his death was a blow to me, there wasn’t the more profound sense of finality until my mom passed. Now, my brother and I are the oldest in our small family. Will our kids look to us as we looked to our parents? I doubt it. It’s a different time and place and we are all different people.

My mom came from pioneer stock and hers is a very American story. For instance, her great-maternal grandfather was a Dutch shipping heir who secretly left his vessel in San Francisco harbor when he learned of a plot against his life. He went into the gold fields of northern California and met a young Bavarian woman who had come to America with her sister. Her sister was married and the brother-in-law knew what a commodity he had in gold country: a single young woman. The Dutchman, as my grandmother Edith Gage would say, married this girl to keep her from living the life of a prostitute.

There is much more to this story and to others in my mom’s history. I know relatively little about my father’s family, although I now have a book on the Dobbs side that I will read.

My mom grew up in small towns and communities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California where the Feather River played a prominent role cutting a zigzag through the mountain canyons. Her father, Shirley Gage, came from a hardscrabble family in Texas and my mom used to say that he was born a century too late. He was an outdoorsman who spent much his life working hard jobs: lumber and mining. He loved to fish and hunt and there are many family photos showing him in the woods.

Although my mother said she never thought her family was poor as a child growing up in the Depression, she spent considerable time living with her mother’s family in Oroville, Ca., simply because her dad was having trouble earning enough money or finding a place for his small family – my mom was an only child – to live.

Mom in Oroville with a favorite doll.

Oroville was a big city compared to the hamlets here she lived. Her maternal grandfather, Emil Kessler, who was often described to me as “bantam rooster,” adored her. Emil was from Switzerland and had a well-known temper. He had nasty nicknames for many people, but for my mom he was a pushover.

When she was born, she was named for one of my grandmother’s brothers, Oliver. Her birth name was Olive Adell Gage. My great-grandfather, though, looked at her and declared, “She isn’t an Olive; she’s a Sue.”

From that moment on, the only people who called her “Olive” either didn’t know her well or was referring her in an official sense. She was “Sue” for the rest of her life.

Following graduation from Greenville (Ca.) High School in 1942, my mom attended a secretarial college in Chico, Ca., where she met my father who was training to be an Army Air Corp pilot. They were married in 1944. Days later, my father shipped out to Europe commanding a B-17.

My mother not long after her marriage.

My dad stayed in the Air Force for 26 years. He flew bombers over Korea as well and, after a serious injury, could no longer fly but switched to the maintenance side. He ended his career at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.

My mom sat out three wars, the last of which with two kids. That was not an easy thing to do. I never heard her complain. I never heard a regret.

If there were issues at that time, I never knew. My parents wrote frequently to one another but those letters were destroyed. I came across several as we cleaned out her home, but I didn’t look at them. It would have been an invasion of their privacy.

My mom also supported my father in his vocation as a furniture maker. My admiration for my father’s skills is immense. He could look at an antique, make a few measurements and notes and reproduce it. These skills, along with what he accomplished in the Air Force and as a high school teacher, have long put my own ambition into perspective.

He couldn’t have done it without my mom, though and he knew it. When my brother and I was moving a piece of furniture he built late in his life, there was an inscription on the back written by my dad in marker. It detailed how my mom saved his life and made things, such as the furniture, possible.

Here is my father in his crowded shop in the basement of our home at 104 Navajo Road in Springfield, Mass. in the early 1960s.

My parents were not perfect and neither was their relationship, but they gave my brother and me a great childhood. My dad never understood my interest in movies, but bought a wonder Super 8mm Bolex camera for me to make my own films.

My mother, although a movie fan as a kid, never appreciated my love of horror moves, but she gladly typed the printing masters for my fanzine Inertron.

Although my dad did have a plan for me – I was to be a schoolteacher – he only gave a small amount of resistance to me bring a writer. He never cared for my choice, although my mom said he was proud of me. I hope so.

My mom had much artistic talent, although she always downplayed it. She was a shy woman who made friendships for life. Although not a churchgoer, she read many books on religion and spirituality and was intrigued by true mysteries of the universe.

Mom was one of biggest animal lovers I ever know, aside from my dad who often declared he would rather be around animals than people.

We had a small farm in Granby, Mass., and my mom loved her herd of goats. My brother Patrick, a very talent photographer, took this photo.

They were both museum people and book people who held education very dear. In high school, I would be quizzed about how I did on a test and once I revealed the mark, if it didn’t meet Mom’s standards, she would reel off the names of my friends and asked what grade they received. She could be tough.

My mind is a jumble right now as memories come flooding back. Mourning is a surreal activity. One moment everything is fine, while the next is a mess. I know that I will think of her, as I’ve thought of my father, every week for the rest of my life.



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