February 13, 2008


My sister, Lee, called me this morning to tell me about the bitter icy weather Buffalo was experiencing, and that they were expecting yet more snow and ice.

Then she asked me if I had said “Happy Birthday” to our mother, Nancy Isabelle Briskay Cornell Lipsius (February 22, 1922 to January 3, 1998). Lee told me she had done so while out in the car this morning.

I hadn’t done so yet, but I had thought about calling Lee and sharing memories with her. We ended the call with my statement that I would call her back, and talk to her over a cup of tea I would drink from a cup decorated with violets.

The violet is February’s flower. It was also my mother’s favorite flower. In the early 1980s I picked a batch of purple violets from my Slippery Rock home and gingerly dabbed egg white on them before dipping them in fine sugar. I neatly boxed the French delicacy, which she received as a Christmas present that year.

The amethyst, my mother’s favorite stone, is February’s birthstone. By now you might realize that purple was my mother’s favorite color.

Above my desk is one of my mother’s favorite books. I purchased When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple (edited by Sandra Haldeman Martz). Pulling it off the shelf I turned to the first poem. My mother took pleasure in Warning by Jenny Joseph, which begins:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.

My mother would delight in the activities of the Red Hat Society, an organization which arose from this poem. Women, gather “just for fun” to share meals and/or to attend events, must be over 50 years old. Their uniform is a red hat and purple outfit. As a photo/journalist I attended numerous events while writing stories on the organization in two different communities. I have several purple outfits and red hats, but usually wear a red hat I purchased in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. It is a lobster, whose claws I must clip back while eating.

I occasionally attend Red Hat meetings just for fun. I also have a life-sized granny doll, Granny Gertie, which I designed and constructed. If she doesn’t like what you say to her, she sticks out her tongue. Dressed in an old purple dress, red beads and a red hat, she sometimes attends meetings with me. My mother would have loved joining in on the fun.

She couldn’t do such things when she retired. She was caring for a sick husband. At her mere five foot height, she sometimes had to pick this six-foot plus former football player up off the floor. If he went outside the house, she had to fold his wheelchair and carry it with him. This for a woman in her seventies.

Although our mother was born in Massachusetts on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it was her birth year that gave rise to a rhyme my sister and I created for her special day, which expresses our childhood thoughts about our mother:

In nineteen hundred and twenty-two

Our mother was born in a zoo, zoo, zoo.

It was ironic that as an older adult, she lived across the street from the Buffalo Zoo. She told of a snowy day in Buffalo when the white stuff was so deep that a monkey escaped. She looked out the breakfast nook to see it staring in the window.

My mother died without fulfilling many of her life’s dreams. She was offered a spit at a dancing school when she was 17, but did not have the courage to leave home to accept it. She always said she wanted to dance on her coffin, but the closest she came was having her picture in a dance costume placed on the blue and white covering.

In 1983 she wrote a poem, In the Once Upon a Time of My Life, which expressed her thoughts about her lost dreams. In the first verse she refers to her beloved violets.

In the Once-Upon-A-Time of my life I could be anything:

A dew-fresh violet trembling in the breeze, hugging the ground,

Peering shyly through regal blades of green.

The Joseph poem ends:

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised.

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

My mother wore purple. The woman who learned to drive in her sixties, who graduated from college at age 72, did wear purple.

I learned many things from my mother. We were the standard dysfunctional family, and many of the lessons learned were negative ones, ones I tried to correct by attaining a proper balance in the opposite direction. I was determined not to repeat her mistakes.

After sweeping away the debris from the memories I discovered she had certain strengths. Her sense of humor, coupled with a desire to “even the score” and “balance the books” created the scenario for one of the greatest coups of her life, a moment she waited fifty-four years for. It was her final act.

The stage was set in December, 1943. A Navy wife, she was essentially a single parent living in an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. Robert Cornell, her first husband and my father, was out at sea.

She was nine months pregnant, caring for my fourteen-month-old sister, Lee. On December 10 a blizzard began, and from her description it was a good, solid New England winter storm.

Then I nudged her from inside her belly. I wanted out—her labor began. A neighbor was prepared to care for Lee, so she called a taxi to take her to the hospital, an hour’s drive away. She nestled in the back seat, her fashionable fur coat wrapped around her. The cab crept along through the storm.

Then her water broke, soaking her fur coat. The cabby continued to inch along, probably fearful of delivering a baby.

When they arrived at the hospital, he escorted her up the steps. Did she pay him? She didn’t recall. All she recollects is that my birth happened so quickly that she delivered me without medication.

Fast forward to December 1997. The northern United States and Canada were experiencing a raging ice storm. My mother, who had been ill with symptoms of cardiac trouble, is hospitalized in Presque Isle, Maine, where they had moved when my step-father retired from teaching. It was serious enough that they transported her to a hospital in Bangor.

On New Year’s Day, my husband, Monte, secretly arranged for a plane ticket so I can fly into the midst of the Maine weather disaster. I leave a sunny Pittsburgh on January 2, landing in icy Boston and then, on a smaller plane, landing at the even icier Bangor airport. I arrive and spend time with her before I see that she is tired. I left, promising to return the next morning, when both of us are rested.

Before I left my room on January 3, her doctor called. She had a setback shortly before. She didn’t make it.

My mother always had a way of making a point. Turnabout was fair play. She’d had to experience the raging blizzard because that’s when I chose to enter the world. In retaliation, I had to experience flying into a disastrous ice storm for her departure from this world.

And I can visualize her peeking down from heaven, pointing her finger at me, and saying: Gotcha!

And so today, February 12, 2008, I wish my mother a very happy birthday.



  1. I think she was getting back at both of us. The day she thought she was in labor with me, she said Buffalo was having such a bad snow storm that my father couldn’t get the driveway clear to get the car out. As fast as he would get a section done it would fill up with snow again. He was finally able to accomplish this task with some help from neighbors, and off he went to the hospital with our very pregnant mother. Alas, she was sent home with false labor, and I held out until March 1, 1958.

    Comment by Cynthia — December 7, 2009 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

    • HI,
      I’m not sure HOW I found you and not sure where to write this, but PLEASE CONTACT ME. My mother is adopted, and I recently helped her get her REAL birth certificate (she was denied in earlier years) and we JUST got her REAL birth certificate. She was born in…(comment edited due to private information…Carolyn)

      Comment by Sara Gayle Aslam — January 19, 2011 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

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