My Mother’s Back by Mary Zelinka

*Featured Artwork: “The Letter” by Imelda Hinojosa

[su_dropcap size=”5″]M[/su_dropcap]other rarely spoke of her arthritis.  When she did, she treated it as though it wasn’t much more than a pesky inconvenience.    

It took almost fifty years for her five-foot six-inch fashion model figure to contort itself into a gnarled gnome-like form, almost a foot and a half shorter.  She had to turn her whole body to see to the right or left.  Her face was permanently aimed towards her feet, gravity sagging her features.  To get a better look at you, she’d flex her knees, tilt backwards a bit and point her eyes upwards, past her forehead.   


My mother had been a great beauty.  Her college yearbooks were filled with images of her:  smiling in her puffy-sleeved satin gown as Spring Princess, studious as the school newspaper editor, or gazing into the camera as “Miss Florence.”  She was so stunning she was the face of Florence State Teachers College in Alabama long after everyone had forgotten who she was.  

She met my father at Eastern Airlines where she was a secretary and he was a pilot.  He proposed to her three times before she said yes. He photographed her frequently during their first year of marriage.  In the black and white picture that would eventually head her obituary, she stands erect, her hands are on her hips, before a dark leafy background. Her head is tossed back, exposing her long slender throat, and dark curls frame her face. She looks straight into the camera, smiling with all the confidence of a secure young woman convinced that all good things should, and would, come to her.   


I was ten when Mother went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I remember this because she brought me a china palomino horse for my collection. The palomino horse was icy cold from having been in the baggage hold during the long flight back to our home in Miami.   

Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with Rheumatoid Arthritis and said it had been “floating” around her body looking for a place to settle since she had been in college.  During her freshman year, she had awakened one morning and couldn’t walk.  Her parents brought her home and she wasn’t fit to return to school until the following year.  Later, when I was five and she was pregnant with my brother Charles, she was unable to walk for two months.  Her legs simply wouldn’t move.   

Now that the arthritis had lodged itself in her spine, the Clinic told her it was unlikely it would ever affect any other part of her body.   

Besides the icy cold palomino horse and presents for Gracie and Charles, she also brought back a heavy cardboard box filled with metal bars, ropes, and straps.  With Gracie’s and my help, she attached this contraption to the back of her bedroom door.  It looked like something from a Frankenstein movie.  

That night Mother twisted her way into it, adjusting straps around her head and under her chin.  She gripped the handles at the ends of the ropes and forced her arms straight down to her sides.  Her head jerked up.  Her eyes squeezed shut and her lips disappeared into a thin line.  She hung there for a long time, her arms quivering.   

Then she released the ropes and crawled under a large copper dome she had set on top of her bed.  This came from the Clinic too.  When she was all the way under, it covered her whole back.  “Plug it in.”  Her voice was a throaty whisper.  “Set the timer for twenty minutes.”  The heat radiated, warming the whole room.  When the timer dinged, I unplugged and removed the dome.  Then I sprinkled baby powder on her warm back and gently swirled it in.  I was surprised by how thin her skin felt.   

Gracie and I alternated nights, but it didn’t last long.  Never wanting our father to see her in curlers or without her red lipstick, Mother skipped it when he was home from one of his trips.  Then she gave up on it altogether.  She must have known that Rheumatoid Arthritis was going to cripple her no matter how long she hung from her bedroom door.  She was in her thirties. 


Mother would be in constant pain for the rest of her life while the arthritis went its leisurely way about fusing each of her vertebrae.  There were no drugs for it then.  The only pain medication she ever took was Bayer aspirin.   

Sometimes, if I came upon her unawares in the kitchen (she was always in the kitchen), I’d catch her standing at the sink or stove or counter, paused in the middle of whatever it was she was doing.  One hand would be on the back of her neck or her lower back, the other gripping the edge of the sink or stove or counter, her face pale, her eyes pinched shut.  Then, suddenly sensing I was there, she would resume her task.   

“Does it hurt?” I would ask.  

“Oh, I’m just a little tired.”   


“You will get it too,” Mother told me.  “Because you and I are alike.  You keep your feelings inside.”   

“Why don’t you stop?  Then your back won’t hurt anymore.”   

“A wife’s job is to keep her husband happy.  If I don’t, Daddy might find himself a pretty little stewardess who will.”   This scared me – I was still a child and hadn’t known this was something that could happen.   

Now, even though I don’t have many good things to say about my father, I trust that he was faithful.  I watched him sit with her during the last days of her life as the ventilator doled out her breaths one bleep at a time.  All he had ever wanted was to be a pilot and to be married to Mother.      


Mother was ahead of her time in believing that bottled up emotions impact our physical health.  But at our house “happy” was just about the only acceptable feeling.  If you were sad, you needed to go to your room.  Anger wasn’t an option unless you were Father.  When Father was out of town, Gracie yelled at Mother and me and threw things.  Charles became the neighborhood vandal.  Once, he gained anonymous notoriety in the newspaper for tying all the car antennas in our neighborhood into knots, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.  I escaped to the horse stables where, by the time I was twelve, I spent more time than I did at home.  Then, at seventeen, I left for Colorado.  


When she was first married, Mother attended an instructional tea for Eastern Airlines pilots’ wives.  She learned to never have a disagreement of any kind with her husband before he left for a trip.  She should not ever saddle him with problems at home.  She should manage the household money and bills, insurance and taxes, home and car repairs so he wouldn’t have to burden himself.  (Provided, of course, that this was agreeable with the pilot himself.  One of mother’s friends, also the wife of a pilot, did not even know where her husband kept the lightbulbs.)   

Mother was a good pilot’s wife.  Unless one of them got careless and acted out when he was home, Father was blissfully unaware of Gracie’s explosions and the wreckage Charles wrought upon the neighborhood and his school.  If Mother could have thought of a good reason why I was suddenly home from college in the middle of winter quarter my junior year, he would never have known I had been expelled.   

“All I ever wanted was to be a wife and mother,” she often said.  But when I think back, Mother, like many women in her generation, was basically a single mom.  She just had the luxury of Father’s really good paycheck.    


When I was escaping my violent husband in 1978, in one of her letters Mother advised me, “You have to compliment a man until he does things your way.” 

When my father was home from a trip, he was either in the garage building a radio-controlled model airplane, or out flying the model.  If he was inside the house, he was sitting in his chair in the living room reading the paper or staring out the window.  If one of us walked by, he criticized what we were wearing, the way we walked, or the expression on our face.  If the doorbell rang, he yelled to Mother, “Someone’s at the door!”  Wiping her hands on her apron, Mother rushed from the kitchen and answered the door which was three steps from Father’s chair.  


I didn’t worry about getting Rheumatoid Arthritis exactly, but neither could I forget Mother’s prophecy.  It was a weight I always carried, becoming heavier as I moved through my thirties.  Finally, during a routine visit to my doctor, I told him about Mother and asked if he detected any signs in me.   

“Are you still running?” he asked as he tapped my knee with his little rubber hammer.  He ran too, and we often talked about upcoming 10ks during my appointments.  I told him yes, I was doing 35 to 40 miles a week.   

He shook his head.  “Then you’re not getting Rheumatoid Arthritis.  Not in your spine anyway.”   


If she had her choice, I believe Mother would have died one spring afternoon in her own bed.  Confined now to the home I had grown up in, two friends had come to visit from her church.  She said she was tired and wanted to go lie down.  One of the friends told my father that Mother should go to the hospital.  An ambulance was called and my father ran into the hospital next to her gurney hollering, “Keep her alive!  Do whatever it takes!”  

Mother’s lungs had collapsed.  Her spine, twisting back into itself, had pressed her chin nearly into her breast bone.  She had been unable to take a deep breath for years.    

After my sister telephoned me at my home in Oregon that night, I wondered how the hospital could possibly care for Mother.  She would never be able to lie on her back.  I imagined pillows packed around her so she wouldn’t wobble about like a trapped turtle.   

I’m still ashamed of that thought.   


The hospital kept Mother alive for a year and a half.  She was unable to speak because of the tracheostomy ventilator snaking down her throat.   

When I first visited her, I was surprised to be able to look her square in the face.  The hospital had indeed packed pillows around her so she could lie on her back.  Her skin slacked back into her hairline, leaving her fine bone structure pronounced.  I had forgotten how beautiful she was.     

Her eyes sparkled when she saw me.  She looked at my nose, her eyebrows raised.  I touched my nose ring and said, “You must have known it was just a matter of time.”  Her face crinkled into a smile, her eyes closed, and she raised her fingers ever so slightly.  In my head I could hear her voice, “Oh, Mary Helen.”  Except with her soft Southern accent, it sounded more like, “Oh, Mare Helen.”   


When I was a child and my legs ached at night Mother would tell me gently, but firmly, “They don’t really hurt.  You are just imagining it.  Go to sleep now.”  I’d lay in the darkness, my eyes squeezed shut and whisper over and over it’s all in my head it’s all in my head it’s all in my head.  My legs continued to ache every night until I was forty-two.  That’s when a sports doctor identified a congenital foot defect requiring foot braces, which, once shoved into my shoes, held my heels in a rigid, vertical position.  

It wasn’t that Mother was unsympathetic; I think it was more a matter of her having accepted pain as the cost of being alive.  She must have had to normalize it to such a degree that she honestly didn’t know how to judge the pain of others, not even that of her children.   

Mother was my standard for what was bearable.  As an adult, I had once limped for six weeks on what turned out to be a broken ankle.  That sharp stabbing in the back of my knee whenever I ran or walked or moved had been a torn hamstring muscle.  The weeks of sheer exhaustion and shortness of breath was pneumonia.   

It has taken me years to learn to pay attention to my feelings and to what my body is trying to tell me.  Though if I have to, I can make myself push through anything.   


After Mother’s death, among the letters and cards she had saved from me, I found a letter she had written to her sister Helen.  It was unfinished and had never been mailed.  From the look of her shaky handwriting, she probably wrote it not long before her collapse.  In the letter she thanked Helen for accompanying her to Mayo Clinic all those many years ago.  This was a surprise to me – I thought she had been alone.  My father was always away on a trip.  And Mother’s relationship with Helen had been tenuous, even when they were children.   

“I don’t think I could have borne such terrible news if you hadn’t been there with me,” she wrote.   

Mother never admitted to any disappointment or inadequacy.  If pressed, she would have insisted that her life, even with Rheumatoid Arthritis, was all she had ever wanted it to be.  She declared her marriage with my father to be perfect.  She was so proud of all her children.   

Her admission that her diagnosis was terrible news, and the fact that she was remembering the day she received that diagnosis and was writing about it in a letter to her sister – showed a vulnerability in her I had never before witnessed.  I had believed that nothing ever weighed on her, but maybe everything had.     

This is the way I’d always imagined Mother’s trip to Mayo Clinic:  After the doctors sentence her to a life of excruciating pain which will culminate in a debilitating deformity, she thanks them for their time.  She smiles.  Dark curls frame her face and her lipstick is bright red.  She goes shopping and buys presents to bring to her children.  On the airplane, she chats with the crew members who know my father.  Once home, with the exception of the few weeks she hangs from her bedroom door, she goes about her life as though nothing has changed.    

My mother did everything she believed a good wife and mother should do.  But it is the mother who wrote that unfinished letter I mourn.   


Mary Zelinka's writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, CALYX, and Persimmon Tree. She lives in Albany, Oregon, and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for almost 30 years.

Imelda Hinojosa creates fantastical children's illustrations from her studio in Manhattan Beach, California. We love to pull from her universe for Memoir because it so amply conveys the subconscious emotions woven into the fabric of everyday life. You can find her work at

1 Comment

  1. Mary, Your story struck a strong chord with me. My mother’s mother also went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester in the 1950s to be diagnosed with RA. Cortisone, invented there not long before, was the only treatment. By the time I knew my grandma she was crippled with gnarled hands. She died before she was 55. It is a story that has haunted me since. You captured the anguish of RA before biologics came on the scene. One thought, RA usually skips a generation so I hope you will be spared. I was diagnosed at age 30 but have successfully managed the disease, especially in recent years with new drugs. Thank you for sharing this memory. Dana

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