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My Mother’s Garden

Nurturing the flowers of love and service
Left: My maternal grandmother and my mother about the time my mother graduated from medical school, 1947. Right: Back row from left are my paternal grandmother, my mother and my daughter Gina. In front row are my daughter Lisa and me, 1980.

My mother, Virginia Eivers Gorton, was raised in The Rose City amid Portland’s lush beauty, but her garden was always more of a dream. While she delighted in the natural beauty of flowers, that love never extended to actual hands in the soil. If truth be told, perhaps the interest in gardens was more my interest and although I championed the joys of gardening through the years, she was always otherwise engaged. In 1917, Mother was born into a family of hard-working and accomplished women. Gardens, tea parties and the like were not the customary pastimes of these women. My paternal great-grandmother emigrated from England at age 19 in 1864, bore 12 children and became one of the first nurses at Portland’s St. Vincent’s Hospital. She later owned and operated the Rose City Sanitarium, where my maternal grandmother came from the wilds of Gresham to Portland in 1910 to enter nurses training at my great-grandmother’s hospital. Upon completing her training and marrying my great-grandmother’s son, she owned and operated a small maternity hospital in Portland until the Great Depression forced its closure. Mother was raised in that hospital, where she first assisted her mother with a birth when she was 12 years old.

Not surprisingly, my mother and her sister became nurses; my mother as one of the first four-year degree nurses in Portland. Her sister joined the military service and nursed overseas during WWII and continued her nursing career in Chicago after raising seven children. After nursing for five years, Mother applied to medical school in Memphis at the recommendation of a doctor who told her “what you don’t see in a Memphis ER on a Saturday night, you don’t need to know.”

In the bad old days of 1944, women had to achieve a higher score on their entrance exams to be admitted to the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. With her exceptional mind, Mother easily did so. With her mother in tow (her father having since died), Mother entered medical school as the oldest student, the only woman and the only working student. She and my grandmother worked as nurses through most of her school years to pay her tuition and support themselves. At one point, a professor nominated Mother for a Kellogg’s scholarship which she won. During our childhood, she liked to joke that is why my sister and I had to eat so darned many cornflakes! 

While in medical school, Mother was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss and was advised by a professor to restrict her practice to pathology. In her undaunted way, Mother instead chose the specialty of psychiatry, where her role was to listen to people talk! In those early days, hearing aids were about the size of a 5-pound block of cheese and were worn strapped to one’s thigh. Mother carried on with seldom a complaint. She faced this challenge, as she did all of the challenges in her life, with courage and grace; I don’t remember her ever indulging in self-pity. 

Mother married a fellow student and I was born in 1947, three months after they graduated. My mother graduated first in her class; my father was seventh. Following their graduation, my parents trained as psychiatrists and began their first jobs at a state mental hospital: My father was appointed chief of medical staff and my mother was given a staff psychiatrist position. I recently heard Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor relate how she was denied a job interview by 40 law firms advertising for new lawyers following her graduation from Harvard. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has related a similar experience. It seems my mother was fortunate to be given a staff position! Today, my most precious possession is my mother’s Honor Society ring in which my mother had her mother’s engagement diamond inserted after her mother’s death.

 

My mother’s long career was filled with success and failure. Although she was a gifted doctor, she faced many challenges in her personal life. Mother, like Janis Joplin, “preferred handsome men,” and this predilection, together with various misadventures, resulted in a tumultuous life. My sister and I were raised by “benign neglect”; we were well loved, but sometimes not well cared for. As I have aged and gained some perspective, I have compared our childhood to that of friends who were well cared for, but not well loved. I think I prefer my mother’s way. On occasion, I missed the clean socks and home-cooked meals, but my sense of self was enhanced by her love and her example of a woman’s worth. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully realized that most folks deemed women less intelligent and capable than men. That was my mother’s gift to her two daughters: her example.

Out of necessity, Mother restarted her career on several occasions during her life. This was another lesson: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep on moving. Mother spent her career working in state mental hospitals and clinics. As a greedy teen I once asked why she didn’t start a lucrative private practice. She replied that she worked in mental hospitals because “that’s where the sick people are.” During those busy years of caring for mentally ill people and raising two daughters, there was little time for a garden. When I think of her during that time, I remember an energetic, intelligent woman rushing from obligation to obligation at a frenetic pace, interspersed with hugs and kisses for my sister and me. 

 At age 63, following a lengthy illness, she began again, volunteering as a psychiatrist in a mental health clinic in Alaska. Within a few weeks, she was on staff, becoming an expert in Alzheimer’s and other afflictions of the aged. An excellent public speaker, she spoke well and often on all facets of elder mental health. Much to the chagrin of her daughters, she especially enjoyed speaking on the ability of elders to enjoy a full and active sex life!

 

Mother practiced medicine until mandatory retirement at age 70; she then retired to her native Oregon and lived in Waldport until her death. During these final years of her life, she gave us her final lesson: how to live happily as an elder. Due to a lifetime of cigarette smoking, Mother suffered from various breathing afflictions that limited her activities, so she simply enjoyed what she had and didn’t lament her restrictions. When I remember her, I think of her joy in her pets, books, TV shows, cookies and, always, my sister and me. Although her life had grown smaller in scope, she refused to accept any diminution in her enjoyment of it. 

Although she talked about it from time to time and gracefully accepted the plants I occasionally gave her, Mother never did plant her garden. I think her garden was one of ideas and serving as an example to all of the women who knew her and especially to my sister Judy (the first woman firefighter for the city of Salem) and me. Today, our family tends a somewhat wild, but lovely, garden surrounding her grave, high on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean on her beloved Oregon Coast. I think this would please her.