In 1903, Mary Anderson invented the first windshield wiper blade. Five years later, housewife Melitta Bentz patented a coffee filter system. In the 1950s, bank secretary and single mom Bette Nesmith Graham created Mistake Out (later patented as Liquid Paper®). And for most of her adult life, my mother, Bernice Lueders, was an innovator in bending when life says break. She lived out the antidote for a weary heart, freely dispensing two invaluable ingredients: courage and laughter.
March is Women’s History Month, and I think every woman deserves a salute for helping shape history with her own rendition of courage and laughter. Let me give you a brief backstory on my courageous, quick-to-laugh Mom.
Born in the Depression era of the 1930s, Bernice learned to appreciate the simple things in life, and she loved connecting with people. Yes, like me, even complete strangers. Mom melded her talkative nature and documenting history with her passion for storytelling, photography, and books. I am my mother’s daughter.
But somewhere along the way in Bernice’s late teens, a mysterious medical condition threatened to augment her carefree, adventurous spirit. Incorrectly labeled with schizophrenia and “being crazy,” Bernice endured hospitalizations, shock treatments, and whispered ridicule for not being able to counter her mood swings. I value Mom’s courage to keep optimistic and blend in well with the rest of us.
After almost fifty years of living undertreated for bipolar disorder, Mom finally connected with the right doctors and lived in stable freedom. Until … glandular skin cancer raged inside Mom’s beautiful face and chin.
The surgeon’s knife left my mom with lengthy face and neck scars, and radiation eventually crumbled her teeth, but Mom never complained about the harsh realities of her cancer. Although the medical treatments compromised her body, Bernice never let her limitations squelch her joy and inner strength. She still made it down to the gas station and grocery store to share her upbeat stories. She chuckled at the daily comics and had us all chuckling with her. Bernice knew just how to invite mirth in others.
Sixteen years before Mom was born, socialite Mary Phelps Jacob fashioned a revolutionary undergarment, a “backless brassiere” out of two silk handkerchiefs, pink ribbon, and cord. My mom could fashion revolutionary smiles out of a story, a cup of coffee, and a cookie or two for dunking.
Two days before Mom entered the hospital for the last time, she climbed the sagging concrete steps to an unassuming farmhouse to visit and bring a smile to a wheelchair-bound widow. Maybe this is why I visit the hurting and isolated with my pet therapy collie. Giving back runs rich in my heritage.
Bernice gave back in everyday ways, and even in her own pain and discomfort, she dug deep to keep bending instead of breaking. Precarious mental health, cancer and facial scars did not define Bernice. She reveled in a hope that goes beyond this life, and seventeen years ago today, Sunday, March 11, 2001, Bernice met that Hope. My gregarious Mom courageously slipped away to heaven to enjoy more coffee and dunk a few cookies. And share a gazillion more chuckles.