Every year when Mother’s Day approaches, I think about all the things I want to tell my mother, all the many ways I’m grateful to be her daughter. Most years I find one or two things to share with her, as I sit with her and hold her hand, I share a story about what it means to me to be her daughter.
My mother, Ethel Mae Lenzke, turned 80 this year. She is the surviving member of her immediate family of parents and five siblings, three older sisters and two younger brothers. Her last remaining sister, Janet, died in April of this year. Her older sisters, Dorothy and Betty were role models for me of strong, independent, hard-working women, her brother Willy was my babysitter who I adored as a child, whose life was cut short at the age of 19 when he tried to prevent his friend from committing suicide and he fell victim to the stray bullet during the struggle. Her sister Betty died of suicide in her fifties from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, her eldest sister Dorothy died from cancer and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Her brother Ron died of cancer too.
I never met her father. He died years before I was born. Her mother, Clara, loved me unconditionally as the eldest grandchild and I never hesitated for a moment to join my mother for a visit with her. The same was true when we would visit Grandma Mulder, my maternal great grandmother, a Dutch immigrant who lived well into her late 90s when it was rare to live that long. She wore her wooden shoes until her death and even after she lost her eyesight, she continued to knit mittens and scarves for all the grandchildren. Before rainbow fashion was made popular by our LGBTQ community, she would knit without paying attention to the color of the yarns. I grew up wearing multi-color fashion.
Yes, generations of strong women preceded me, not only on my mother’s side of the family, but my father’s mother and grandmother too. I can’t imagine how my life would have been different without them. Yet today, I honor my mother. I’m her eldest child and grateful I can share another Mother’s Day with her.
As the youngest daughter she was the quiet one. Most of the stories my mom tells of her growing up years are about her humble beginnings and hard work. She began working at the age of 12, cooking, cleaning and ironing for Mrs. Hoeschele. After she dropped out of school to marry my father at the age of 16 when she was pregnant with me, she worked as a car hop at Red’s Drive-In Restaurant. For many years, in between giving birth to my five siblings, she was a working mom, for years at Motor Specialty, a small motor factory in Racine, first as an assembler and piece worker, then in her later years as a line supervisor.
My mother was beautiful, correction, is beautiful. She looked like a petite version of Marilyn Monroe in her younger years, with her blonde hair in a poodle cut and her Bette Davis eyes and red lipstick. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was watch her dress to go out on Saturday night with Dad, to say yay or nay to her clothing choices, or to help her pick out the costume jewelry she would wear. My final responsibility would be to brush off her shoulders and tell her how she looked, beautiful, always beautiful. There were also weekends that Dad would go out to the bars and Mom would stay home with us kids. These are some of my favorite memories. We’d play board games or cards. My sister, Roz and I would play poker with her for nickels and dimes and I always lost. Instead of taking my allowance, Mom offered me the option to iron one or two baskets of laundry. Needless to say, she taught me how to iron. What I learned to love most was our Saturday nights watching movies together. I credit my mother for my love of films. She’d pop popcorn and let us stay up late.
Years ago teachers would conduct home visits for teacher conferences and when mom answered the door they would always comment, “You must be Linda’s sister, can I speak to your mother?” We would always laugh about that. Mom sent fresh-cut tulips to school with me in the spring for my teachers, or baked cupcakes for me to share with my classmates.
These are simply some of the small memories I have. What I need to tell her most is how I grateful I am for the choices she made and the strength she’s displayed as a survivor and her willingness to put her children first, sometimes when she didn’t have any energy for us or herself. Like many people of my mother’s generation, she suffered from undiagnosed depression. Like her sister Betty, my mother struggled with suicidal thoughts and like her sister Dorothy with alcoholism. The difference is my mother didn’t take her life and she is sober now for twenty years. Her strength runs quiet and deep.
The past six or seven years my mother has struggled with her heart, having quadruple bypass surgery and multiple stents inserted in her heart and the arteries in her neck and legs. She laughs it off when she says, “Some people get tattoos, I get stents!” She’s lost sight in one of her eyes and has difficulty walking. Through all this she is resilient and possesses a strong will to live for herself, my father and her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
When I came out as a lesbian to my parents thirty-five years ago, I was uncertain if they would accept me and continue to love me unconditionally. She didn’t miss a beat. Her words were simple and have remained consistent throughout my adult life.
“Honey, all that matters to me is that you’re loved and treated well.” My entire life I’ve felt unconditionally loved by her.
When it’s my birthday I feel close to my mother in such an intimate way, I can’t find the words to describe the accompanying emotions. It’s our shared celebration, the anniversary of my birth and the beginning of our relationship, for her as my mother, for me as her daughter. I am grateful she is still in my life today and tomorrow, I will hold her hand and tell her how much I love her. I am her grateful daughter.