Nell Ann Craig is not one of those mothers who need material proof of their sons’ love.
“A card,” she said. “A card’s just fine. Or a call. I love when they call. I just want to hear their voices.”
The spend-spend-spend mantra of Mother’s Day always has bugged Nell, but this year’s retail overdrive pushed all her buttons until they stuck. All those stories and ads urging us to buy this and send that. As if a mother’s love has an expiration date or expands with the ka-ching of commerce.
“Gifts, chotchkies and shoes — I like all that stuff,” she said. “But it’s not what makes mothers happy. And this year, I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the mothers who don’t have their children around. How does that make them feel?”
She rattled off the list: “Mothers who lost their children because of illness. Or drugs. Or because they ran away. Children killed in a freak accident.”
She drew a deep breath.
“Or children who are fighting overseas,” she said. “Think about those mothers.”
That’s what this churning is about; Nell Craig will be one of those mothers soon.
Tomorrow she will kiss goodbye her 30-year-old son, Scott. He is a Kent, Ohio, firefighter and Navy corpsman who is leaving for training before heading to the war in Afghanistan.
“Yeah,” she said, “right after Mother’s Day. So yes, I’m definitely thinking about how lucky I am to have both my sons. I’m also thinking about how I’m going to worry about one of them every single day.”
Her son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Craig, attached to Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, chuckled a little self-consciously when I told him what she had said.
“It’s kind of ironic when you think about it,” Scott said. “She doesn’t know it, but my mother had a lot to do with my signing up for the Navy Reserve. I remember sitting in the fire station in the summer of 2005 and watching war coverage on CNN. They announced so many deaths from Ohio, all the guys who died there, and I started thinking about how my mother would feel.
“I’m a medic, and I thought, ‘If I can keep one mother from getting that news, if I can bring one guy home, then I should be there.'”
He signed up — and then told his parents.
“So like him,” Nell said. “So like him to set his mind to something and tell us about it later.”
Understand, she’s not asking for sympathy. She laughed a lot during our interview, usually at herself and occasionally at her husband, Doug, who was wisecracking in the background. Mostly she laughed over how life is so unpredictable and how survivors are the ones who can focus on the good in the here and now and pack away memories of the not-so-good past. She learned that the hard way.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor,” she said. “Seven years now. I try not to be surprised by anything anymore. Some things you don’t want to remember. You put them in a box, tie a string around it and put it away.”
Still, some parts of life, some hard memories, won’t fit in any box. Like the part about her brother, who served in the Vietnam War.
“You live airmail to airmail,” she said, “and as soon as you read the letter, you look at the date and see how much time has passed. You immediately wonder, ‘How is he doing now? Is he OK right now?'”
She can’t forget about her husband, either, who’s been a firefighter for more than 30 years.
“(When) I leave for work in the morning before he gets home, I always call around 7:30 to make sure he’s OK. We used to have a police scanner, and whenever he was out on a fire, he’d make sure to say something so I’d hear his voice and know he was safe.”
And now there’s that part of life that’s all about Scott, her baby. He will leave behind his parents, brother, Eric, and a young wife, named Mellissa, and will head for Afghanistan by summer’s end.
“You know, we raised him to do the right thing,” Nell said. “And darned if he didn’t go and do it.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine.