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"She played both roles in my life'

I'd like to tell you that I had a wonderful father who was kind and loving and directed me in the way I should go.

Instead, I'll use Father's Day to tell you about my mother. After all, she played both roles in my life because my father was an alcoholic who disappeared before I could walk.

I suspect there are other mothers out there today who deserve some honor on Father's Day. Unfortunately we live in a world where many mothers are struggling alone to raise children.

My mother, Lucile Sanders Keen, did it in the 1940s and '50s, long before it was fashionable. She never said much about my father. In my life he was a phantom figure who occasionally called us in the early morning hours to say hello. As I grew older, I realized the calls were coming from a guy who had downed a few drinks.

He didn't pay child support and Mother didn't take him to court. She simply made do with what she could put together and a little help from family members. I do recall the expression on her face when he sent me a magnificent $100 for my 7th birthday. He told me to buy a bicycle and I did, not realizing until much later in my life how much that money could have meant to a mother who was struggling to make ends meet.

She worked hard, teaching school, managing an officer's club and the local USO in Hattiesburg, Miss., during World War II when I was a preschooler, and managing a drug store after the war. She also found time to sing in church choirs, teach Sunday school and drag me to every opera and symphony that played within 100 miles.

She made all of the clothing that we wore. I can remember the many times she stitched late into the night, finishing a skirt that I was going to wear to school.

My sister was 12 years older than I and gone from home by the time I entered school, so Mother and I were alone most of the time. She cooked and I washed dishes and I remember her prodding me on those nights I decided to do them during television commercials.

All the hoopla over mothers taking daughters to work last month made our family laugh. Some of my earliest recollections are of days at work with my mother, sitting on a high stool putting coins in the cash register as the store opened. (My own daughter has been to more news events than she can count.)

By the time I was 12, I could work the soda fountain and was a whiz at cleaning stock. I still remember the day an older cousin dropped a box of alum on my head while we were cleaning the stock room. We never owned a car during the years I was growing up. They were too hard to come by during World War II, and the city had a reasonably efficient bus line.

Children of today would feel deprived if they had lived life without a car or television set. (Ours was a gift from a close friend that arrived for Christmas in 1956 when I was 16.)

I never felt deprived. I'm not sure I ever appreciated the sacrifices my mother made until I became a mother and looked back on those days.

Mother never remarried. She did get a better job after I graduated from high school and left home, and she finally bought a car, an orangish brown Opal that she cherished.

Her job through the 1960s and '70s was directing sales training for two major cosmetic companies based in Manhattan. Mother lived in a New York hotel when she was at her main office and got to visit major department stores all over North America. She kept her house in Mississippi and retired there until she could no longer live alone. She earned enough money to make a number of "cheap trips" to Europe, Russia, Japan and all sorts of exotic places. It greatly enriched her life and ours.

She also formed a close bond with her oldest grandchild, my daughter, Kathy. And when Kathy was 16, mother sent her to Europe with a group of family teenagers who were shepherded by my aunt and a few other friends. (My aunt says she'll never go anywhere again with a couple dozen teenagers, but that's another story.)

Today mother is nearing 90 and gradually declining in a Tallahassee nursing home. She doesn't always know who I am, but there are traces of her left that we see from time to time as we visit.

She raised two successful, happy daughters who have given her loving grandchildren and a great-grandson who is now the only person she seems to truly recognize. Another great-grandchild is on the way that she is unlikely ever to know. The loss will be the child's.

Happy Father's Day, Mother.

Fathers' legacies in Books, 6D

Lucy Morgan is Tallahassee bureau chief of the Times.

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