11 July 1936 - 29 August 2012

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Thoughts by Nat Gertler, revised and expanded from a blog post made on the day of her passage.

I was visiting Grandma Creasey, my mother’s mother, once late in her life, when she told me “your mother should write a book about all the interesting things she’s done!” After we left Grandma, mom took me aside and explained that all those things that were now “interesting”, Grandma had tried to talk her out of. Grandma was a dear, sweet little woman who followed the path laid before her. Mom, not so much

My mother was the only female engineering student when she started at Swarthmore College, an experience that had its own adventures attached, its own pluses and minuses. It was there that she met my father (I’d say that I’d leave it up to her to decide which it was, but she seemed pretty clear that even though she would eventually feel the need to move on from that marriage, it was a positive.)

She converted to Judaism to marry my father, not due to any real belief (I assume; she certainly showed no sign of religious belief later), nor even due to any requirement to do so on my father's behalf (who had been unaware when she started down that path), but out of her own volition, presumably to build harmony within the family.

She graduated college in 1958 with a degree in mechanical engineering and went to work for Grumman Aircraft, who had her programming computers. Now, that may not seem such a big thing to some of you, but there were damn few computer programmers at all in the 1950s; I suspect you could count the female ones on one hand. She went on programming for many decades, working for for RCA for much of it, in her later years doing it on a consulting basis. She retired when the Y2K crisis was coming, saying that she had spent decades never being sloppy enough to use two digits for the year, and she was damned if she was going to clean up after such lazy programmers.

When three of her four kids were in college, she decided that it was time to move on. After all, she had spent her life with someone else who could take care of her – first as a child, then as a college student, then as a wife. She wanted to know what it was like to have sole responsibility for herself. So she took the remaining kid and the cat and started the long drive up to Alaska. She had no job waiting for her there, but her previous job had sent her there for one week a month, and she had fallen in love with the place. She made it work, largely teaching programming (starting at a smaller school, eventually moving up to the University of Alaska) and doing programming consulting, with a couple things on the side. She drove the chase wagon for hot air balloons.

Sometimes she was called on to teach a class in a program language she didn’t know, but as long as she was two chapters ahead of the students in the textbook, she was fine. (This was a technique she had picked up when we lived in Connecticut in the late 1960s/early 1970s; she had gone to a local school to try to take a class in a new language, and found herself asked to teach it instead.)

When she started planning her retirement, she had a home built for herself – a two-dome geodesic house in Homer, Alaska, the “end of the road”. She had the small dome build first, then lived in that during the summers without some key conveniences while the bigger dome took shape. You could sit in the living room of that mountain-side house and look through the trees and across the river to the mountains with the glaciers on top. It was lovely.

Eventually, she felt the need to leave Alaska; the long dark seasons there were having an impact on her emotions. So she moved to Texas. It took a big state to hold my mom.

Even in Texas, well into her seventies, she saw to taking care of some of the older folk of her community. This was something that echoed back to some of her earliest days, when she had been sent to live with her grandmother, in part to attend a private school that was local to her, in part to look after her grandmother.

Mom was not a big one for staying in contact; we’d hear from her a few times a year, and when things were tough for her in some form, she did not encourage us visiting her. After some personal strains, she did get herself up enough to come and visit us last fall, meeting her grandson for the first time. It was a long, quiet visit, but a good one to have, and she returned home reenergized it seemed.

When she had a stroke earlier this year, she was adamant that her children not come out, not try to take care of her. She wanted to deal with things on her own terms. Complications arose, and she passed away with all of us thousands of miles away.

I was there when Mom found out that her mother died; we were on a driving trip together, going through Canada to Alaska. Mom had known this was coming. She hunkered down a bit more that night, quiet with some vodka, and then in the morning we just powered on, a mite quieter but no less getting done what we had planned to get done. Less the vodka, that’s was pretty much how I dealt with her passing. I am my mother's son in more ways than one.