Linda Chavez
My mother died this week.

Death is never easy to accept, much less embrace, but it taught me that the end of life need not be frightening. She lived 90 years -- the last three of them in my home -- healthy, independent and happy, despite a life that others might have regarded as difficult, if not tragic.

She was born Velma Lou McKenna in Sheridan, Wyo., in 1921. Her mother's family were pioneers who came west by covered wagon. Her father was the son of Irish immigrants and left his wife and four small children to find gold in Alaska -- and never returned.

My mother, then barely 2 years old, went to live with an aunt and uncle, while her sister and two brothers were sent to Sioux City, Iowa, to be raised by three maiden aunts.

Over the course of her life, she lost all of her siblings -- one in childhood -- and three of her four children, one at age 6, another at 15 and one in middle age. Yet she remained an optimistic, cheerful woman capable of charming everyone with her stories of growing up in Wyoming.

In an era when many women spent their lives as homemakers, she always held a job outside the home. Her earnings kept us out of poverty and made possible my education. Sometimes it meant working in bars and restaurants where the conditions were less than ideal. But she met a fascinating array of people in the course of her many jobs.

She spent time with movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Linda Darnell (whom I am named after) when they traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., and got gangster Mickey Cohen out of a jam once (a favor for which he repaid her with two dozen long-stemmed yellow roses and a hand-written note). When she was night hostess at Stapleton International Airport's restaurant in Denver, she met a young Senator, John F. Kennedy, who impressed her with his good looks and intelligence.

By the time I was in high school, my mother had become an assistant buyer in the finest clothing store in Denver, Neusteter's. Her job meant that even though we didn't have much money, I always had beautiful clothes. If a designer outfit didn't sell or a model stained it during a photo shoot, my mom would get it for me at a bargain. One year, I ended up with a striking red coat worn in the Rose Bowl Parade by former Miss America, Colorado native Marilyn Van Derbur.

My father was killed in a car accident when my mother was just 57, and despite still being quite a beauty, with her natural blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, she never considered remarrying. Instead, she spent her remaining years a devoted mother and grandmother. My three boys fondly remember her visits when they were growing up; she would take them to the movies, teach them how to ride the bus, drive them around Washington -- and usually get lost.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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