It is a curious old photograph, a black-and-white 8×10, taken professionally, perhaps, for some publication decades ago.
The photo is of a young nurse tending to a patient in a hospital room. She is dressed in a traditional nurse’s white uniform. A starched nurse’s cap is affixed atop her tousled, shoulder-length dark hair.
Her smile is gentle, her bespectacled gaze comforting. Her hand rests on the patient’s outstretched right arm as if she is about to administer an injection or check a blood pressure. A beam of sunlight shines down upon her like an ethereal ray from the heavens.
The young nurse is Angeline Gutierrez, my mother, and this photo has long fascinated me because I know so little about it – and so little about her because she was in my life for so short a time.
Too short a time.
My Aunt Josephine, my mother’s older sister and the last living member of their nuclear family, gave me the photo in 2010, but she couldn’t tell me much about it then. She is now two weeks from turning 98 and remembers even less about the photo.
Those of us who lost our mothers young, either by death, divorce, adoption or alienation, always have that hole in our hearts that we try to fill with details of the woman who brought us into the world. On Mother’s Day, that need becomes acute.
So, I look at that photo and I wonder.
As best as I can figure, the photo was taken some time after my mother’s graduation in 1942 or 1943 from St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls Catholic school a block from the house she – and, much later, I – grew up in near Sixth and Lomas NW.
From old Albuquerque Journal news clippings, I’ve learned that, after graduation, she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps, a federal program created in 1943 that provided nursing training for women, especially minorities, like my mother, to fill a critical need for nurses whose ranks were stretched thin by World War II.
Her training took place at St. Anthony Nursing School in Denver and received her diploma there on July 11, 1946. She would have been 21.
The article states she planned to continue working in Denver, but, at some point, she returned to Albuquerque to work at the veterans hospital, the likely location where the photo of her and the patient was taken.
She started a family later in life than most women of her era, marrying my father, Don Krueger, in 1956 when she was 31 in what another Journal article called a “quiet ceremony” in Las Vegas, Nevada. By then, she had cut her shoulder-length hair into the boyish pixie style I had always known her to have.
I was born a year later. In quick succession came two sets of twins. Being a mother became her full-time job and she was fierce about it. She drilled us after school with flash cards she made on the back of cut cigarette cartons, entered us in all make of competitions, from piano recitals to essay-writing and talent shows, whether we wanted to or not.
She urged us to read voraciously and write honestly. She wanted us to do good and be good, and expected nothing but the best from and for us.
She was steel, not soft. She was not affectionate in the huggy-kissy way, but in how she was always there when we needed her.
Until she wasn’t. She was 45 when she died in 1971, five days shy of Christmas, and after an excruciating and calculatingly secretive battle with cancer that she and my father had gone to great lengths to hide from us children. We were told only that she was sick and had to live next door with our maternal grandparents so they could take care of her. We were told that my father’s red eyes, which he often hid behind sunglasses, even during dinner, were the result of a corneal irritation.
My parents didn’t know that I knew the secret all along, having overheard her doctor’s dire prognosis as he broke it to my father.
I was 13 then, and I learned to think of the secret as more blessing than burden because I knew not to waste what time I had left with her.
I spent our moments after school telling her all about me, believing that the best thing I could do for her was to let her know that she had raised me to be as strong as she was, and that she need not worry because I would be OK without her.
How I wish instead that I had spent that time hearing all about her, what she was like as a girl, a teenager, her hopes and dreams, if she was funny, if she was wild, if I was like her.
I don’t know the woman she was. I don’t know the young nurse with the gentle smile and the tousled hair. I don’t know the friend she might have become once I was old enough to appreciate that. I’ve never known if I was OK, really OK, without her.
My mother has been gone 50 years now and remains as mysterious to me as that photo of her. As more years pass, I fear I have forever lost the chance to know who she was.
And, then again, I know the most important thing about her: that she loved me and my siblings in her own way. And that I am very much like her.
If you are fortunate enough to still have your mother in your life, remember her not just on Mother’s Day. Call her. Now.
If you are a mother and fortunate enough to still have your children in your life, allow them to know you as a person. Don’t be such a mystery.
And if you no longer have your mother, know that she is still there in and around you. She influences who you become, whether she was good at motherhood or there long enough to see you to adulthood. She is there, like a gentle smile, like an ethereal ray from the heavens, in her own way.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.