The following post was a Thanksgiving piece on my main blog, paulstroble.blogspot.com
Some of my posts on this “Grace, Place” blog go together, and they all overlap as reminiscences of beloved hometown places. The three that I posted on 12/23/2010—-“The House and the Farm,” “Thinking About History,” and “Local People”—are certainly a little “trilogy”, recalling my grandmother, our genealogy project, family history, and local landscapes. Another set involve various memories of Vandalia and its landscapes: “Downtown Vandalia” (8/15/2010), “Supermarket Memories” (5/24/2010), “First Car!” (3/1/2011), “Barefoot Adventures” (5/24/2010), and “We Happy Few” (7/14, 2010). “Lincoln and Vandalia” (1/10/2010) and “Lincoln’s Big Jump” (7/14/2010) are more historical. Still another set involve my childhood home: “Lawns” (7/15/2010), and “A Very Fine House” (12/24/2009). The following post continues the story of “A Very Fine House.”
My mom passed away on September 30, not quite two months ago. She was 93 and had lived in a fine nursing home for six years. Dad died in 1999, and so this is the first holiday when I’ve had no parents to visit. It’s a tremendously sad, empty and lonely recognition. We all make journeys through life with our family members, and we can’t imagine it otherwise. The joys and imperfections of the relationship are our very lives. But when one “drops out,” we must figure out how to continue without him or her.
Thanksgiving elicits memories of holidays at my grandmother’s farm house, south of Brownstown, IL. I’m referring to Mom’s mother, who lived at the house where Mom was born in 1919. Many times, cousins from St. Louis and other areas could also come, so we’d have a big “feed.” In my little book Journeys Home, and in my Upper Room book You Gave Me a Wide Place, I wrote about my grandma’s farm house and the many childhood memories associated with the place.
A frustrating thing attends holiday memories: something which I understand now but would change if I could. Mom would complain about Dad to me, and she would share with me the ways that a few relatives (especially her brother and his wife) hurt her feelings. And yet she’d coach me not to say anything and be nice to them when we were all together. “What the hell?” I might have said, if I’d been more confrontational. Mom released her anger and hurt that way but expected me not to have any in response. Over time I began to struggle with depression as I bottled up that anger, being too young to know what to do. (I’m an only child, born fifteen years into Mom and Dad’s marriage, and I’m sure my lateness and onliness contributed to this dynamic.) My parents did so much for me, and of course I felt protective of Mom.
Today, those big family gatherings linger in my mind with warm nostalgia tempered with a recognition of the ways our family was unhappy in special ways, to paraphrase Tolstoy. But I don’t want to imply that Mom had tense relationships with other relatives. In fact, most of her family connections were close and loving. Our extended family members loved Mom very much, and so did my great-aunts and -uncles when they were alive. And also: Mom and her brother did work on their relationship as best as they could. It was hard for them both but they never gave up on each other.
Meanwhile, things were unhappy in Dad’s family. He made no pretense of liking his sister and had fallen out with his mother, too. When Dad referred to “the loudmouth bitch” or the “goddamn bald-headed son of a bitch,” we knew he meant his sister and stepfather, respectively. One Thanskgiving, we actually pulled off a family meal at Dad’s mother’s home, with Grandma and Mom and Dad and Dad’s sister and her family. It’s a nice memory now, but the meal had a “Sword of Damocles” quality, potential disaster just hanging there…
Do you suppress or ignore family tensions in order to have nice times, or do you give up any chance of nice times because of those tensions—perhaps even perversely enjoying the anger—-or do you figure out other ways? Each family has to work out those dynamics—again, in its own special way. For us, I’m so glad we shared Thanksgivings and Christmases with Mom’s family, giving me a lifetime of happy thoughts, not only of holidays at my childhood home, but also of Grandma’s farm and all my kinfolk. As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship with Grandma and her farm and the larger family, as well as the overall sense of place I gained, are crucial things for my identity, thanks in large part to Mom’s and my frequent visits to the farm throughout my childhood and our various family get-togethers.
Mom was in poor health for many years. She developed rheumatoid arthritis during the 1970s when she was in her mid-50s. By the 1980s the disease had deformed her hands and feet but she was still ambulatory and functioning. By the 1990s (when she was in her 70s) she used a wheelchair more and suffered from heart ailments related to her arthritis. My dad, always the cook in the family, cared for her, but by then he was in his 80s and used a walker for household chores. It horrifies me to think that my mother suffered physical pain for over forty years. This is a reality that I can’t focus on for long because it’s so terrible and distressing.
A wonderful thing, though, is that Mom displayed both faith and bravery to other people, throughout all those years. She was really a great example and witness to many people. As I said already, she and her cousins had warm relations and she was a kind of hero to some of them, as well as other people. All of us do relate to our own immediate family members in different ways than to others—-which isn’t hypocrisy, it’s just the way we all are.
Mom and I became discouraged with each other sometimes, but we could always talk about things and work things out, in a way we never could with stubborn Dad. Still in my 20s in the 1980s, I wanted her and Dad to come to my graduations and events. But Mom said she didn’t feel good and it was an effort for her. I, in turn, recognized that it was an effort for her, but I was still young enough to want and need my parents to be present when, for instance, I graduated from my masters degree. She skipped my ordination, which hurt me, as did her sad, offhand comment one day, when she wished I’d made “better grades” in seminary. In fact, I’d graduated cum laude.
But this dynamic was related to the dynamic when Mom complained about people to me: she wanted me to support her—in her mind, to be her chief support system—and in a way, because she felt so badly, I wasn’t supposed to have feelings of my own. Her insecurities were such that she needed a lot of reassurance, and she tended to expect that people close to her do extra things to help her feel better. As I say, we talked about such issues, so that she’d feel okay and could recognize and acknowledge my feelings about things.
When my folks were becoming elderly and infirm in the 1990s, Dad was still the cook and provider, as Mom was becoming an invalid. This is a painful time for me to remember because not only was I worried about their well-being, but they were so needy of my help and also so resistant to any suggestions and ideas I had, especially if it required them spending any money. They wanted me to have a successful and happy life of my own—-but they also wanted me to drive over (250 miles one way) at least once a week (preferably more) so I could do chores for them for free. I did drive over as often as I could, and I tried to get them help. I arranged to have Meals on Wheels to be delivered to the house, so that Dad could have some respite from household work. But he canceled the service, declaring the food was “no damn good.” Then Mom and Dad would tell people I hadn’t visited that week, making me sound neglectful and uncaring, when I’d just been there very recently and had helped them.
If you’re an adult child with elderly parents, perhaps you understand the dilemma I had and the accompanying feelings. These are not at all uncommon circumstances. Someone I’m close to is dealing with this right now: she gives detailed instructions to the elderly couple she cares for, and the next time she checks in, none of those instructions have been carried out, but the pain and fear of the older couple’s need is still there. It’s as if these elderly folks, while pitiful in their need for their children’s help, don’t believe or trust anything their children say or do regarding the solving of problems. You get the mixed message that you’re wise and helpful, and still a foolish, unpredictable child. (And yet Dad always bragged about me to everyone: all the degrees I’d earned and the books I’d written. Between him and Mom, he was always the most vocally proud of my accomplishments. How I miss that and him!)
When you try to help your elderly parents, and when they resist your efforts, it is a maddening and painful dilemma. But you hesitate to argue and fight with your older parents—because what if that turns out to be your last conversation? It can also be maddening trying to share these dynamics with friends, for so many people (especially church people, in my experience) have sentimental feelings about motherhood and fatherhood. I recall a church friend who felt compelled to lecture me a little about my mother—-as if she had even met my mother, as if my frustrations meant that I loved my mother less. My friend was very invested in a vision of “motherhood” and thus I shouldn’t have shared anything about my family with her. It really does help to have friends who also have older parents, who know firsthand the struggles and feelings involved.
Amid all these things, there were the many holiday visits to see my folks. Pretty much every year, I (and my wife and I, and later our daughter, too) spent the holiday with my parents at their home in my hometown. I remember when Dad, in the 1980s, purchased a small camper for about $15,000 so they could come and see us, because we lived in Virginia and subsequently moved to Arizona for jobs. But Mom never felt like stocking the camper and traveling—”Can’t you come see us? It’s only a four day drive from Arizona, and it’s such an effort for us”—-so my folks used the camper one time. They were chagrined and regretful when they eventually sold it for about $1000. Don’t ask me why they’d spend so much money on a camper but were unwilling to spend money on airplane travel; it makes no sense to me, either.
Our many holiday get-togethers—-my parents and the two of us, and then daughter Emily—–were happy times, while stressful in minor, predictable ways. The television was always on, always to a cop show or a western, and kept at a very loud volume. I remember insisting that we turn off the TV when they were watching a “Miami Vice” rerun, and the action became so violent for our young daughter to watch. At the age when she still loved “Muppet Babies,” I hated having her watch Don Johnson get pistol-whipped….
Another typical “parental unit” dynamic concerned local folks. There in my hometown, Mom and Dad of course had many friends. Mom would coach Beth and me to visit so-and-so (any number of people whom Mom and Dad liked). We nearly always refused. The thing was, if we had visited these folks, Mom would’ve been sad that we spent less time with her! I just never knew whether this particular visit with my parents would be the last, and I wanted to have quality time with them. Thinking back, I don’t remember specific holiday visits; they run together as pleasant times, with a little sigh of relief when they were over.
Our daughter loved childhood visits to my parents’ home. My folks were “string savers,” and so their house was a bit of an adventure just to walk through. Their home (which I’ve written about in another blog post) was proximate to excellent parks, and so Emily and I would visit the several nearby play areas—the same ones I enjoyed as a child. Emily was Mom and Dad’s only grandchild, and of course she was precious to them beyond words. When Mom was under hospice care, she wanted pictures of Beth and me and Emily close by.
Circumstances both fortunate and unfair dot the map of one’s life. I always thought it so unfair that my father-in-law passed away when Emily was not quite five. They had such wonderful times, and he was the younger of the two grandfathers. But now she barely remembers him. On the other hand, my mother was able to follow Emily’s progress all through school and college, which is remarkable given Mom’s infirm physical condition. I know that all the nursing home staff heard about Emily!
A very nice late-summer visit to Mom and Dad’s house in August 1999 did turn out to be the last with Dad. It was a fun, happy visit with then-eight-year-old Emily having a good time at the house and playing in the parks. Then …. Dad died suddenly on September 16, just about three weeks later. Mom couldn’t function on her own, but she wanted to stay at her own house as long as she could. So I managed her finances, arranged for live-in help for her, and made all her health care decisions for thirteen years. Of course, she and I consulted about these things as matters arose. I may write about all that some other time.
As I think about my mom, I’ve happy memories of Mom taking time in the park to help me learn to ride a bike, and other great times when she helped me with things and guided me toward goals. Not so emotionally invested in my abilities as she’d later become, she was patient and supportive as I had difficulty balancing myself on the bike, and learned other things. She encouraged me in my meager abilities to play sports, but it was fine when I realized I didn’t enjoy sports, and she was glad I was happy not playing. She liked to share some of my interests. When I was little, my dad was often absent, around the house and also emotionally, because he worked so hard with such long hours to provide a good life and prosperity for his family. (And, as I’ve said, he could be stubborn and difficult.) In my own life, I strove to be like my mom as a parent, available when Emily needed me as she attended her schools. (Dad become that kind of parent, too, after he retired.)
Mom and I also had wonderful evenings when I was in elementary school and even into junior high when she helped me with homework; in a way, she and I were learning things together. As I write all this, the mental images that come to mind are the park and the living room table where I did homework, with her lovingly helping me.
She also was a huge influence on me in that she basically made me to go Sunday school, thus giving me a solid religious foundation on which I was able to build later. But she was perhaps a bigger influence in that she tried to live her faith in, for instance, caring for the elderly in our family. Dad’s mother and stepfather did alienate many people, and Mom did many selfless favors for them. And although I revere Mom’s mother, I recognize among my childhood memories the traits of stubbornness and favoritism that would’ve made her an exasperating, hurtful person to have as a parent. I didn’t like the way Mom used me as her “shrink,” but I appreciate Mom’s efforts to bring the family together. She was never exclusive, “forgetting” to invite certain relatives to get-togethers and events, but she really was a kind of quiet, self-depreciating glue for the extended family.
For Mom’s visitation, I decided not to have an open casket, as we had with Dad. When Dad died, he was still handsome and looked good—-as good as a corpse in a casket can look—-but Mom had become so tiny and frail, and her hands had been deformed for so long.
I didn’t realize how wise my decision was until friends and family saw the two pictures I placed on the casket—-one from World War II days, when she and Dad were newlyweds and he was in uniform, and the other from my wedding in 1984. I did a wonderful thing without realizing: I had spared her the comments people would’ve made about her hands—which she hated—-and her frailty. Instead, people talked about their memories of Mom and Dad and all the good things in and around our little hometown. That’s exactly what she would’ve wanted. The subsequent funeral message continued those good memories of Mom; her pastor gave an excellent eulogy, about which some of my wife’s colleagues (who drove over from St. Louis) commented later. Mom wanted so badly to feel loved and appreciated, and the visitation and funeral service celebrated her life and surrounded her with love.
Mom joined Dad in their side by side graves in my hometown, a couple who had been married for 58 years. Another typical sort of family story… In 1983 or 1984, I helped my folks choose a set of plots. When Mom was blue, she liked to drive to the highest point in the cemetery (one of the highest hills in this part of Illinois), where she had a good view of the downtown, including the Old State Capitol building where Lincoln had served. At some point, she decided she didn’t want to be buried in the rural cemetery where her parents and grandparents were buried; she liked this place better.
That day in the 1980s, we looked at available plots, and Mom was indecisive about which she preferred. I’d encourage her, and she’d agree, and then she’d slip back to indecision. “I don’t know if I can see the Statehouse the best from here,” she’d say, walking among the plots. Finally Dad, impatient to wrap this up, declared, “You won’t see anything when you’re buried!” Fortunately, she didn’t second-guess our eventual selection of their plots, and the view of the downtown from their stone is lovely, especially in autumn.
To say that our religious faith is a source of great comfort, is an understatement. I really do rejoice that Mom has now gained all the promises of eternal life, an imperishable body, and everlasting joy and peace. She has gained the happiness and wholeness she lacked in her earthly life for so many years. At home and in my car, I craved music that expressed everlasting life and home, like the requiems of Durufle and Faure, the music of Bach and Vaughan Williams, “Lux Aeterna” by Morten Lauridsen, and others.
As I prepare to hit the “publish” bottom for these thoughts (obviously leaving out many things in this comparatively brief post), my emotions are all over the place. I’ve feelings of peace for Mom, feelings of happy religious confidence in eternal life, gratitude for memories (with lingering annoyance about a few things, described here), and emotions of desolation and loneliness. I did feel tremendous peace as the hospice chaplain and later Mom’s pastor prayed for me, and as I appreciated all the supportive comments for us, from Facebook friends and friends who sent cards and flowers and donated in Mom’s name.
That sense of peace has stayed with me consistently, which makes me know (given my blues these days) that it’s the power of God’s Spirit at work. It’s the same Spirit that has worked throughout the lives of my parents and other family members, and in the journey through life that Mom and I made together.