“WHAT’S A DAGNY?” (A Birthday Tribute to My Mother)

When I introduced my mother to Ernie, a severely abused six-year old boy who resided in a treatment center where I was CEO, I told him her name was “Dagny.” (My mother’s parents were born in Norway where “Dagny” is a fairly common name.)

“Hi, Ernie,” she said. Ernie looked totally confused. “What’s a ‘dagny’?” he asked.

She laughed and said, “ I’m a Dagny. That’s my name.”

“Is that like a dingbat?” he asked with a totally serious expression.

“Well, now that I think about it,” she said, “that’s close,” trying to stifle a grin. She knelt down–and the child fell into her welcoming arms.

Today, April 8, 2012, Dagny would have celebrated her 100th birthday. It would have suited her quiet but powerful spirituality just fine that it is also Easter Sunday.

My mother was born one century ago in 1912, the same day as the Norwegian Olympic skater, Sonja Henie, and the same year the Titanic sunk. She always joked that it was an omen and that it left her somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.

There certainly wasn’t much devil in Dagny. She was the kindest, most caring human being on the planet. She did have a devilish sense of humor but never with a mean spirit. As for the deep blue sea, I learned that wasn’t much a part of her either. I recall being with her in a YWCA swimming pool when I was about five years old. Initially anxious, I quickly felt safe and excited about swimming in Dagny’s outstretched arms. Later I pictured that scene like being with Esther Williams, the synchronized swimming movie star. (Of course, I didn’t realize until I was grown that Dagny was standing in 3 feet of water. Not until I was an adult did I learn that she was terrified of any water that was over 3 feet!)

So who was Dagny? I’m not sure I know. Does anyone ever really know his or her parents?  Probably not, but last year when I wrote a series of remembrances about Dagny on Facebook, the response from my readers, colleagues and friends who knew her was enthusiastic and touching. In fact, a cousin supplied information that corrected my knowledge about my perceptions of our grandmother! The truth is that what we know about our parents is an intriguing mixture of fact, fantasy, distortion, perception and Disneyland, so I’m not exactly certain who she was. I’m not even sure that she knew.

Regardless, how do I pay a 100th birthday tribute to the lady who gave me life and that I loved, argued with, cared for and eventually held in my arms as she departed this life? Here is the only way I know how:

Dear Dagny,

I know that it may have hurt you that I stopped calling you “mother” when I was six. It’s not that I didn’t try.  But for the first few years of my life, you had five kids to take care of ages 3-17, starting when you were only 24 years old. When I came along, you were totally submerged in a culture of caring for my father’s orphaned children and being called “Dagny”—as in “Hey, Dagny, where’s my pants?” “Dagny, what did you do with my homework?” “Why did you burn the waffles, again, Dagny!” or “You aren’t my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.” It had to be unspeakably difficult.

One day when I was 6 and answered the telephone, your friend, Sophie asked to speak with you. You were outside hanging clothes on the line to dry. I remember calling “Mama, telephone.” No answer. “Telephone call, Mother!” No answer. And, finally at the top of my lungs, “DAGNY–Sophie wants to talk to you!” and only then did you come running.

I figured out pretty quickly that “Dagny” was the only name you readily responded to–and so that’s what I called you from then on.

Just because I called you “Dagny” after that phone call instead of “Mom,” didn’t mean that I loved or respected you less. But today is the 100th anniversary of your birth, and it’s time to make amends.

So, Mom, on your 100th birthday, thank you for all that you gave me, even when I didn’t appreciate it, and especially for your presence on this earth. You were a much bigger force in my life than the impact of Sonja Henie and the Titanic combined.

Thank you, dear mother—and Happy 100th Birthday!

Your loving daughter,