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The Class Valedictorian

Forgiveness was not my mother's long suit.

Liz Morris. She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam.
Liz Morris. She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam.

We were buds, my mom and I -- until I hit puberty and became sullen and hostile -- a team, us against the world, a pretty blonde girl and a redheaded kid, walking among strangers. There was a housing shortage during World War II, and from December 7, 1941, until VJ Day we lived at seven different addresses, most of them a single room for the two of us. Then we graduated to apartments and houses in strange and unfamiliar neighborhoods.

My mom was born Mildred Elizabeth Spurlock, the youngest of three children of Frank and Nancy Spurlock of Ava, Missouri. She grew up on a farm, but my grandfather never farmed it. He was a maker of deals. Of him it was said that he could trade a jackknife into 160 acres and 30 head of cattle in four revolutions of the town square, swapping as he went.

My grandmother was a tall and imposing woman. Tyrannical, I think, is not too strong a word. He had a lot of reason to go to town.

The defining incident of my mother's life came when she graduated from high school. She was class valedictorian. My grandfather flat refused to let her accept the four-year scholarship that went with the honor. He knew what men were like in the city.

It never crossed his mind that a woman could burn with ambition. Until then, as his favorite child, she was secure in his love. She never got over it and never forgave him. Instead she married young, to the first handsome guy with a decent job who came along.

My mother and father were monumentally, epically unsuited to each other. She was practical and hardheaded. He was a prisoner of impossible dreams. The marriage lasted two years. We were at my grandparents' -- my grandmother was dying of terminal cancer -- when he sued her for divorce. In 1939 that was a huge and public disgrace, and she never forgave him. Forgiveness was not my mother's long suit.

After my grandmother died I stayed at the farm for the next two years, while my mom went to business school and got a government job in Washington, D.C. There she married again, another handsome guy, though bespectacled. My granddad and my great-aunt Nora drove me to the suburbs of Washington, where we lived in a small cottage for a few months.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and my stepfather went into the Army Air Corps, never to be seen again.

I believe my welfare was my mother's highest priority, but she did make some miscalculations. Once, when we were living in Oklahoma City, she got a job as executive secretary to the president of the Phillips Petroleum Company. She had to move to Tulsa in the middle of a school year. So I was left with a presumably kindly older lady. By the time I contemplated suicide she realized her mistake, quit the Tulsa job, and moved back to OKC.

The lesson here is that this highly ambitious woman sacrificed the best job she was ever likely to get for me.

My mom was divorced and widowed before she was 25. She didn't risk another serious relationship for ten years. But she dated some pretty neat guys in the meantime, and they all knew that the best way to make a hit with her was to do something nice for the kid. A couple of them taught me things that stayed with me my whole life.

The greatest thing my mom did for me was to never question my career choices. Most mothers would attempt to dissuade a son who wanted to be a writer. She did not. She probably didn't know what a crazy, chaotic lifestyle it is, but even if she had she would have said nothing.

She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam, and she never said a word, not even as I went back for thirds when I already had three Purple Hearts. That's the kind of guts she had and the kind of respect for individual choices.

In her 40s she left secretarial work, and she and my stepdad, Bill Morris, became the Nick and Nora Charles of Oklahoma City real estate. They were a sight to behold in those days, suave and assured, prospering in a worthwhile enterprise. They made me proud.

On March 15, 1997, ten days short of her 80th birthday, she got up and had a nice breakfast with Bill, then went to get dressed. She yelled down the hall, "Bill, I can't get my arm in this dress." Those were her last words. She lay in a coma for three days, long enough for me to get there and be with her when she died.

I was sick that night, with intestinal cramps, the worst pain I've ever experienced. It was more than grief; it was an amputation.

But in many ways it's as though she's been given back to me. Now I don't think of her as an old lady in Oklahoma City, but of all the ways she was, young and beautiful, courageous and dear.

My favorite memory is one evening when I was home from college, and we were doing the dishes. The radio was playing, and she danced in the kitchen, laughing and doing pirouettes as she dried a dish and took it to the cabinet. She didn't cut loose like that very often; it was beautiful to see.

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Liz Morris. She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam.
Liz Morris. She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam.

We were buds, my mom and I -- until I hit puberty and became sullen and hostile -- a team, us against the world, a pretty blonde girl and a redheaded kid, walking among strangers. There was a housing shortage during World War II, and from December 7, 1941, until VJ Day we lived at seven different addresses, most of them a single room for the two of us. Then we graduated to apartments and houses in strange and unfamiliar neighborhoods.

My mom was born Mildred Elizabeth Spurlock, the youngest of three children of Frank and Nancy Spurlock of Ava, Missouri. She grew up on a farm, but my grandfather never farmed it. He was a maker of deals. Of him it was said that he could trade a jackknife into 160 acres and 30 head of cattle in four revolutions of the town square, swapping as he went.

My grandmother was a tall and imposing woman. Tyrannical, I think, is not too strong a word. He had a lot of reason to go to town.

The defining incident of my mother's life came when she graduated from high school. She was class valedictorian. My grandfather flat refused to let her accept the four-year scholarship that went with the honor. He knew what men were like in the city.

It never crossed his mind that a woman could burn with ambition. Until then, as his favorite child, she was secure in his love. She never got over it and never forgave him. Instead she married young, to the first handsome guy with a decent job who came along.

My mother and father were monumentally, epically unsuited to each other. She was practical and hardheaded. He was a prisoner of impossible dreams. The marriage lasted two years. We were at my grandparents' -- my grandmother was dying of terminal cancer -- when he sued her for divorce. In 1939 that was a huge and public disgrace, and she never forgave him. Forgiveness was not my mother's long suit.

After my grandmother died I stayed at the farm for the next two years, while my mom went to business school and got a government job in Washington, D.C. There she married again, another handsome guy, though bespectacled. My granddad and my great-aunt Nora drove me to the suburbs of Washington, where we lived in a small cottage for a few months.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and my stepfather went into the Army Air Corps, never to be seen again.

I believe my welfare was my mother's highest priority, but she did make some miscalculations. Once, when we were living in Oklahoma City, she got a job as executive secretary to the president of the Phillips Petroleum Company. She had to move to Tulsa in the middle of a school year. So I was left with a presumably kindly older lady. By the time I contemplated suicide she realized her mistake, quit the Tulsa job, and moved back to OKC.

The lesson here is that this highly ambitious woman sacrificed the best job she was ever likely to get for me.

My mom was divorced and widowed before she was 25. She didn't risk another serious relationship for ten years. But she dated some pretty neat guys in the meantime, and they all knew that the best way to make a hit with her was to do something nice for the kid. A couple of them taught me things that stayed with me my whole life.

The greatest thing my mom did for me was to never question my career choices. Most mothers would attempt to dissuade a son who wanted to be a writer. She did not. She probably didn't know what a crazy, chaotic lifestyle it is, but even if she had she would have said nothing.

She was awake at 3:00 a.m., throwing her guts up every night during my first two tours in Vietnam, and she never said a word, not even as I went back for thirds when I already had three Purple Hearts. That's the kind of guts she had and the kind of respect for individual choices.

In her 40s she left secretarial work, and she and my stepdad, Bill Morris, became the Nick and Nora Charles of Oklahoma City real estate. They were a sight to behold in those days, suave and assured, prospering in a worthwhile enterprise. They made me proud.

On March 15, 1997, ten days short of her 80th birthday, she got up and had a nice breakfast with Bill, then went to get dressed. She yelled down the hall, "Bill, I can't get my arm in this dress." Those were her last words. She lay in a coma for three days, long enough for me to get there and be with her when she died.

I was sick that night, with intestinal cramps, the worst pain I've ever experienced. It was more than grief; it was an amputation.

But in many ways it's as though she's been given back to me. Now I don't think of her as an old lady in Oklahoma City, but of all the ways she was, young and beautiful, courageous and dear.

My favorite memory is one evening when I was home from college, and we were doing the dishes. The radio was playing, and she danced in the kitchen, laughing and doing pirouettes as she dried a dish and took it to the cabinet. She didn't cut loose like that very often; it was beautiful to see.

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