“We are all the product of things we’ve never seen and people we never met. In fact, if just one little detail had been changed in their lives, we may not even exist!”
― Melanie Johnston
I think my sister, Sue, gave me this multigenerational picture of our mom’s family. It was probably taken at the family homestead in Duncombe, Iowa.
Pictured are my great grandmother, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt Charlotte in the lower right. I believe Mom’s in Grandpa’s arms.
It’s a great picture but the sad part is no one is identified. Even more sad is the fact there’s no one alive to share the story behind this gathering.
As I studied it, I noticed Grandpa’s bibs look fresh, the buttons shiny. Grandma’s dress looks more special than the usual house dress. The little girl crouched front, probably Charlotte, has on a wide collared dress and her hair has a fresh looking side part. That little baby, the little soul I think is Mom, has on bright white socks with tiny black shoes. I don’t think this is every day wear on the farm. Knowing the McDonalds, I’m thinking they’d just come from Sunday Mass.
Unlike the trips to visit my dad’s family, I remember making the trip to Fort Dodge to visit my mom’s family often. It was a trip I looked forward to even knowing the odds were high I’d be carsick before we made it out of Tama county. Even riding in the front seat didn’t guarantee an uneventful drive.
Looking back with my adult eyes and experiences, I think we visited my mom’s family often because Mom was very homesick. She’d lived at home with her family until she was 27 years old. Shortly after she married Dad, they moved to Indiana because Dad had a been offered a factory job in Kokomo.
Dad had been in the army during World War II so he was used to being far from home–a distance I think he grew to prefer. For Mom, it wasn’t so easy. She’d never left home. Moving from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Kokomo, Indiana must have seemed like she’d gone to the moon.
It wasn’t until I moved to Denver from Iowa I began to understand how hard it would have been for my mom to leave her family and move far from home.
My cousin, Donna, often told me how important she felt going with my Grandma to visit Mom, her best friend and Aunt Vivian, in Indiana. As my Grandma often did, she and Donna took the bus shortly after I was born so they could meet me and help Mom and Dad. I don’t think it was long after their visit my parents moved back to Iowa.
It wasn’t until I retired I realized how hard it must have been for my mom to give up her successful bookkeeping career in order to stay at home and raise her children. In my little kid conversations with my Gram, Gram told me having babies was my mom’s dream. Gram said since Mom was a little kid, she’d told her she wanted to have five children. The biological clock was spinning fast for a 27 year old woman back in the 50’s. Mom’s prayers were answered but I think it took its toll on her health and her marriage. In the end, she had only three surviving children–all girls.
It wasn’t until I moved to Texas I realized how isolated Mom must have felt after leaving her home and being far from family and friends. She didn’t drive–a mute point considering the fact we only had one car. Long distance phone calls were expensive, especially for a growing family. In those days, just getting private time on the party line was tricky. Even then a truly private conversation was not guaranteed. Family call night was Sunday after eight. Mom would wait by the phone for Gram to call. As I type I see myself pushing my way next to the phone receiver so I could hear and talk with Gram. Heavens! I was such a pushy kid. I wonder if Mom ever had a private moment to speak with her family? In the 50’s and 60’s, only other way of communicating was by mail. I can see her sitting at the kitchen table, smiling up at me as she filled her fountain pen and signed off her cards and letters. I wanted to write, too, but she patiently told me the fountain pen was much too fragile for a heavy handed child. I’d beg to lick the stamps and she’d finally give in so I’d stop my constant begging. I’m sure my zealous licks over moistened the little stamps making their adhesive power more than questionable.
It wasn’t until I began questioning myself and my past I realized my mom had had her own questions. For a long time, the only book that’d been on her bedside table was the book entitled, You Are Important. Because it’s small and easily hidden, after she died I stashed it away in my room, where it survived the purging that would come when my stepmother arrived on the scene. This book has been part of my library, complete with the spelling graffiti one of us put on the front cover and other pages throughout the book. I’ve thumbed through the pages many times but it wasn’t until last year I saw the passages Mom had faintly underlined.
It wasn’t until I became more aware of my own mortality I realized how frightened Mom must have been knowing she’d be leaving her children. It’s only been the last few years I became aware of the fact I’d never thought about Mom’s illness as an adult. I’d conveniently sidestepped it by keeping my ten year old point of view. It was this awareness that made me realize I had some serious thinking to do.
“At night, I think about these things. I’m pleased with what I know, but now I think much more about everything I could have known, which was so much more than anything I can learn now and which now is gone forever.”
― Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million