Goodbye, Tommi Campbell (Mom)


Tamara (Tommi) Groen Campbell passed away on Thursday. She was 81, and this was no surprise. A combination of pulmonary disease and heart trouble had created a well-predicted situation. A pragmatist to her dying moment, her death went well according to plan. She saw everyone that she wanted to see, said everything that needed to be said, and, finally, constrained to a chair with the two tanks of oxygen that couldn’t get her quite enough air, she decided that she was done.

She was quite a woman, and her story, which deserves a much broader telling, is one of overcoming extreme adversity to live a life of service and, ultimately, happiness.

She was born Jewish in the Netherlands in 1929, and she was chased out of her home by the Nazis. She recalled being ten years old and wearing the Star of David on her arm; not being allowed to cross the street; being harassed by the SS while playing in a tree.

The trip to the United States was quite dramatic. The day before they were scheduled to leave, her mother received a call from someone claiming to be SS, telling them that their seats on the train had been reassigned. When my grandfather came home from work, he called them back to ask why, and they didn’t know what he was talking about. The next day, unsure of whether they’d be able to travel or not, they showed up at the train station and took their seats. They never learned who had called or why.

My grandmother was ill through the two month trip across Europe and the boat ride to the states. They were turned away at Ellis Island and lived in Cuba for a few months before making it to New York. Once settled, my grandmother left her husband, who had been cheating on her before and after the war. My mother worked through high school, taking care of the house and her younger brother and sister while her mother worked as a seamstress. She worked her way through college doing the same thing, ending up with a nursing degree.

Her first marriage, to Bob Wadsworth, had its challenges. Shortly after I was born, but before my sister was, her father’s second wife died, and their two children (my half-aunt and half-uncle) came to live with us. The elder of the two proved too much to handle, and she eventually went back to live with her aunt. After all of this, my father started drinking, and proved to be a violent drunk. She left him when I was eight.

We moved to Brookline, Mass., where she worked and raised us as well as she could. There were times when we were only sustained by the child support, but she eventually found work as a nurse. By the time I was a teenager, she was running a clinic for pregnant teenagers in downtown Boston. The friends she made in Boston proved fairly Bohemian — long haired astrologers and members of the touring cast of Hair. She ran a coffee house called the Damaged Angel, and met a lot of folk musicians who I still listen to today,. I remember being twelve years old and going with her to Love-ins at the Boston Commons.

Around this time, she also met Chuck Campbell, who proved to be a far better partner than Bob. Chuck was a poet and musician when they met, working a day job as a researcher. They both transitioned into teachers. In the late seventies they moved to New Mexico (where Chuck had grown up) and took jobs at the University of Albuquerque.

In 1987, my sister, who claimed to have been abused by our father (Bob) and had always fought with my mother, cut herself off from the family completely, and remains cut off to this day. This was the gash in an otherwise reconstructed life. Mom had found a lot of happiness, but the rejection of her daughter was a constant pain.

They eventually retired, and took the opportunity to travel. Chuck, who had been moonlighting as a tuba player in a Polka band for years, joined a few more jazz bands. I met Linda, and Mom nagged us to have children (even before we were married!). We did the best we could, giving her a grandson who grew to love her dearly.

The last few years, in and out of hospitals, were hard, but she was stoic. It cracked us up that 80% of the nurses that attended to her had been her students — she told them which meds she needed.

A testament to her is the number of friends she had, a parade of them visiting at the end. She was well admired and loved. For me, she was the best mother I could have hoped for. Not the most affectionate, until she was older, but wise, caring, and always there for me. She instilled a sense of duty to help people in me that well defines my choices in life; choices that bring me happiness.

I love you, Mom, and I’m so grateful for all that you did for me.

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