Remembering Mom one year later

I feel like I have graduated. I just wrote the last check, licked the last envelope, finished the last meeting, and packed up all my mom’s papers. I will not look at theses things again, at least not for a long while. My mom died just about one year ago, on Christmas Day, 2010. I have finally finished settling her estate. It was a lot of work, but a labor of love. My husband toiled alongside of me for much of it, whether it was meeting with the lawyer, cleaning her house or tending her yard. We finished our last day at Mom’s home by burying a time capsule, and taking a nostalgic walk though her woods, now overgrown and almost unrecognizable from the woods I played in as a girl.

Today I’d like to share again the tribute I wrote to my mom which my husband read for me at her funeral, and also appeared on my blog on December 30, 2010. I know many of you have already read it, but today I post it again not for us, but for her.♥

My 85-year-old mother died this week. She had a long life, most of it healthy despite a robust smoking  habit, some of it good, some not, but overall a life

Mom and her friend Rose

that was varied and interesting.  She was born of immigrant parents and grew up in a working class neighborhood of mostly Polish, Slovenian and others of eastern European descent. Her father worked in a factory, her mother stayed home raising kids, making chicken soup with homemade noodles, and poticca (poppy-seed bread) on special occasions, hanging her laundry on the line to dry while chatting over the fence to neighbors, and shopping at a neighborhood market, where you handed your list to the clerk behind the counter and they filled your order for you. My mother said they were “lucky” during the depression, because her father had a part-time job as a night watchman in a factory, while many other dads had nothing. Her growing up years are portrayed in pictures of her with her friends, sledding down a neighborhood hill, standing sweetly next to boyfriends, almost all dressed in army uniforms, and arm in arm with  girlfriends, walking  down the streets of Chicago or posing with the stone lions in front of the Art Institute. She quit high school in 11th grade to help support her family and worked in a factory making Karo syrup.  Maybe that’s why her hearing became so bad in later years, as there was no OSHA to protect workers then. Later, as an adult, she proudly completed her GED, not because she had to, but because she felt incomplete without that diploma, even though she grew up in a time when many people, especially women, did not complete school past the eight grade.

Mom and her daughters. That's me on the left.

She left her family in Chicago to move with her new husband to a farm in Michigan. Although she grew up a city girl, she traded it all for love, to pick pickles,  gather eggs, and sell tomato seedlings from our little greenhouse. She raised three children without the benefit of disposable diapers, ready-made formula or an automatic clothes washer.  She canned jam, hung clothes outside to dry and spent an entire day each week ironing. Her only phone was a black desk model on a party line. Her TV received  two channels. She styled her hair with pin curls and gave her daughters hideous home perms.

 She was the only mom who taught her daughters how to play hopscotch AND poker. She carried cigarettes in her purse next to pictures of her grandchildren. She could curse like a sailor and sweet-talk the priest, all on the very same day.  One of her fondest memories was the day her grandchildren took her to…the casino.

People describe her as sometimes funny, sometimes fun, but always feisty.  She was not afraid to speak her mind. I always heard about it if she didn’t like my clothes or hair or what I was doing, and not just as a teenager, but as an adult too. Her motto was “don’t go to any trouble,” yet she made sure you went to all kinds of trouble when she wanted you to.  She was too impatient to ever wait in a line, but patient enough to comfort us through our childhood illnesses and boyfriend dramas. She deferred decision-making to her husband, but later as a widow, gained confidence to hire a roofer and plumber, get her car serviced  and learn how to drive through the car wash.

Mom at her 85th birthday party.

She was determined to stay in her own home until she died and made sure we all felt miserable and abused  when we “made her” move to our local hospice. But in the short time she was there, she was blessed and touched and basked under the loving care of the folks there, who were able to see past her sometime cantankerous exterior to the needs  of a dying woman.

As we all whispered our goodbyes to her this Christmas day night, I think my youngest son said it best. He leaned into her ear and said “You had a good run Grandma, you had a good run.”

 © Huffygirl 2011

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House keeping

Mom and Dad, 1947 (© Huffygirl)

My family and I are cleaning out my parents house. It evokes a strange conglomeration of feelings – I’m puzzled, sad, happy, surprised, and mystified all at the same time.

Puzzled: why did Mom have twenty empty shoe boxes, complete with the tissue paper, silica gel, and shopping bag, in her closet? She had more shoe boxes than she had shoes, and most of her shoes were exactly the same – standard-issue senior citizen walkers, with Velcro straps. It couldn’t have been that she was trying to decide if she liked them, because almost every pair was exactly the same as the one before it.  Accompanying the shoes is every coat she’s bought for the last 20 years – all out of style, an array of sizes that no longer fit, yet there they were, lined up, carefully stored in garment bags, for what – the next depression?

Mom, Dad and kids, 1951 (© Huffygirl)

Sad: photos and papers from my parent’s growing-up years. Turns out Dad had  an eighth-grade diploma stating he was entitled to attend high school tuition free, but never went. My sister and I suspect his struggles with learning English at age 6 when he entered school had made school difficult and uncomfortable for him, so opted out. A picture of Dad and his mom at his sister’s wedding. It appears that Dad had walked her down the aisle, as their father had died a few years earlier. Now I understand why he seemed closer to her than he had to his other sisters. 

Dad, World War II, probably 1941. Note cigar in left hand. (© Huffygirl)

Happy: family photos from all sorts of events. Mom arm in arm with girlhood friends. Mom and Dad at what looks like a bridal shower. Their growing-up mementos, from a First Communion veil, holy cards for good behavior, diplomas, pictures of army buddies and unidentified relatives; all of we kid’s school pictures with our homely hair styles and tacky looking glasses, tucked lovingly into the corner of a drawer.

Surprised: workbooks from Mom’s classes for her GED. Looks like she struggled with math, which we never noticed  growing up, but she passed anyway. Mom’s sewing and knitting projects – we were surprised when she crotched little capes for our dolls, but she was more creative than we knew. Dad’s art books – we knew he had he dabbled in art after his retirement but didn’t know he studied sketching.

Dad and kids, around 1959. That's me on the right. (© Huffygirl)

Mystified: what to do with all of it? We don’t want to discard our family memories, but at the same time, don’t want to fill up our own homes with box after box of sentimental “stuff.”  What to do with Dad’s old army uniform and accoutrements? I’ve decided to have an old map detailing his army unit’s travels framed, but what about the rest of it? I’m trying to keep things I might actually use. There’s a ring of Mom’s I think I would wear, but what about the other jewelry that doesn’t suit my taste, but I have too many fond memories of playing with to easily discard? Maybe we should limit ourselves to each keeping what will fit in one box. But what will happen with that box years from now when my kids are forced to sort through it? Will anyone care about Uncle Stan’s obituary, Grandma’s old diploma and Grandpa’s Army engineer pin?

Emptying out a childhood home is a task that many of us will deal with at one time or another in our lives. How we sort it all out is a challenge. Keeping the memories close is a blessing.