Grief and gratitude, hand in hand
The past few months have marked a series of family anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and celebrations. There were parties, gatherings, and projects that brought us together. We affirmed our bonds with each other — across generations — in our laughter, our stories, family traditions, and shared experiences — the nature and nurture that created our family. The person at the center — the heart of our family — was our father’s wife and soulmate, his best friend — our mother, grandmother and great grandmother, Ethel Mae. We are all flowers in her garden.
I’m the eldest child and grew up with my parents, who were 19 and 17 years old when they married. Two years after my birth, my sister Rosalyn (Roz) was born. Mom and Dad had children in pairs, the first in each pair was an oops baby, the second, a planned playmate. Next up was Cynthia (Cindy) and Richard Jr. (Rick), followed by Kelly and Tami.
The next generations followed, firstborn grandchild, Roz’s son, John, who with his wife Nikki have two children, Madison and Martin who are now young adults. Rick’s daughter Jennifer came next, followed by Kelly’s daughter, Casey, who is a mother to four, from pre-teen to toddler, M’Kye, Jace, Nala, and Ivy Love. Rick and his wife Nancy have two adult children, Alec and Taryn, and the last born, Tami, has two teenagers, Quinn and Gemma. In the not too distant future, our family will welcome the next generation. I can only hope that I’m still here to meet them.
Our family is historically matriarchal, both on our paternal and maternal sides. Growing up as a young child, I’d brag at school that I had four grandmothers and no grandfathers. I was lucky to know my grandmothers and great grandmothers. Grandfathers, on the other hand, were euphemistically missing in action, by early deaths or abandonment. Why is this important to our family story? Growing up in matriarchal families, led by mothers, made for nurturing environments. The best metaphor to describe the experience is a garden. We were flowers in Ethel Mae’s Garden.
Now, not to leave our father out of the story, he is the family elder. To his credit, besides being her partner in life and our parent, he was also Mom’s caregiver the last decade of her life, and now we care for him. He too continues to see Mom as the glue that bonds our family together, and in her memory, he cares for her garden both literally and figuratively.
Mom died 18 months ago, and we all continue to grieve her death, hold her in memory, and honor and celebrate her in our lives. Each spring, in life, and now in her memory, we plant her flower garden which she loved. For many of us, her passing was the first death of someone so close and beloved, and we’ve learned a lot about grieving. For me today, this reminiscence is a lesson on how grief and gratitude go hand in hand.
Ethel Mae’s Story
First, a little background to Mom’s ethnic heritage. Her grandparents, the Mulders, emigrated from the Netherlands. This heritage is important because Mom always loved tulips. The Mulders were Christian Scientists, and Grandma Mulder wore her wooden shoes right up until her death when she was in her late 90’s at a time when life expectancy was about 70 years old. I have a few memories of visiting her in her Victorian-style home with my parents, in the front parlor that was reserved for entertaining guests, hosting celebrations, or the wakes of family members.
The bulky, intricately-carved, dark mahogany furniture was graced with delicately crocheted doilies. Grandma Mulder would serve tea, in the English tradition, with baked goods and treats. She would fold her hands in her lap, and would exude grace and decorum, yet in later years she had quite the reputation for feistiness in her tenure in a nursing home.
Grandma Mulder did not take any medications due to her religious beliefs. At night, after dinner, she wanted to take a walk in the nursing home hallways. She referred to them as her “constitutionals.” The problem for her caretakers was she was blind at the end of her life and insisted on walking in her wooden shoes with her cane, “clop, clop, tap, tap, clop, clop.” In an effort to subdue her, they would attempt to give her a sleeping pill, and she was known to swear in an unladylike fashion in “low German” while swinging her cane.
Growing up all of us kids received knitted mittens and scarves from her as gifts. Since she was blind, she’d use whatever color skein of yarn she grabbed. We wore rainbow fashion before it was ever popular. Her daughter, Clara, married Orville Sylvester Mason. I never met him, but Grandma Clara, remarried Charles (Charlie) Holly after his death. I never truly considered him my grandfather, another story, for another time.
Mom’s mother had six children in this order, Dorothy, Betty, Janet, Ethel, Ronald (Ronnie) and William (Willy). Grandma Holly, as I referred to her growing up, was a salt-of-the-earth person unlike the reserved sophistication of her mother. Grandma Holly lived on a farm early in her marriage, and cooked for the farm hands. Her brother Bill also farmed, and the family hunted and fished. Years later when I arrived on the scene, Grandma lived with Charlie in a former storefront with an apartment in back in a transitional neighborhood in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. To read more about Grandma Holly, see Good Morning.
Mom, Ethel Mae Mason, was the quiet one. Her older sisters Dorothy and Betty were strong, capable women who worked their early years in manufacturing jobs, and in later years, Betty raised bait and had a bait shop on Lake Michigan. Years later, Mom’s sister Janet and her husband Bill (more about them coming up) bought the bait ponds and turned them into a trout farm where you could catch trout, and Janet and Bill would cook them for you in their Quonset hut metal building that did double-duty as a restaurant. Years earlier Janet and Bill owned a diner, Bill’s Lunch, which was the site of my first job as a waitress and short-order cook at 16 (after a thriving babysitter career). I digress.
Back to Mom and Janet. They looked a lot alike when they were young. In fact, so much so, they often attracted the same men. One such man was my father, who first dated Janet, until someone told him she was engaged to a sailor named Bill who was serving in the Korean War. Dad broke up with her and shortly afterwards noticed this shy girl in Downtown Racine standing outside of a storefront that looked like it might be Janet. He crossed the street to meet her and it turned to be her sister Ethel. He asked her who she was waiting for, she responded, “I’m looking for the bakery that sells the little cookies.” (Years later the “little cookies,” thumbprint sugar cookies with frosting centers would be a traditional treat Dad would buy Mom, especially after she gave birth to one of us kids).
They rode the bus together and Dad asked her if she danced. She said no (though the truth was she polkaed at weddings). Dad was a talented jitter-bugger, the dance craze of the moment, and he told Mom he’d teach her. He invited her to a dance, their dating life began and their marriage followed shortly afterwards, and four months later, so did I.
Both mothers, rallied behind Mom and Dad. Though Grandma Lenzke, Dad’s mother, was initially against their marriage, after it became clear that Mom and Dad were truly in love, and she met Grandma Holly, the two matriarchs gave their approval. Mom and Dad’s early married years were hard-scrabble times, but the families helped as much as they could, and Dad held multiple jobs to support his growing family.
Their early married years were spent in a two-room apartment, a kitchen and living room studio, sharing a bath down the hall with neighbors. They said that before they learned how to resolve conflict, one parent would retreat to the kitchen, the other to the living room. They would come together over my crib.
Soon they rented a house on Racine Street where I spent the test of the first five years of my life, growing up with Mom and Dad, joined by my sister and first friend, Roz. Mom’s brother Willy was our babysitter, and sadly, years later he was accidentally killed by a gun, attempting to save a friend from suicide. At the age of six, Mom and Dad bought their house on Hayes Ave. a small Cape Cod, built for first-time homebuyers, a post-war, FHA development. My father remains in the family home today.
Mom began working at the age of 14 caring for Mrs. Hoeschele, cooking, ironing, and cleaning house. Needless to say, Mom was hardworking and learned the basics of how to care for others and maintain a home. When first married, Mom was a car hop at Red’s Drive-In. She wore navy blue Bermuda shorts, vest, and knee highs with her white sneakers, and crisp white shirt. Years later she worked at Motor Specialty, a small motor manufacturing factory, first on the assembly line, and later as a supervisor of the women she worked alongside. Mom took sabbaticals in between giving birth to her children. As Roz and I got older, we would learn to assist with cooking and baking and babysit our siblings after-school and summers. Later Cindy and Rick would babysit the youngest siblings, Kelly and Tami.
Mom was quiet for most her life, and Dad the auditory one, the parent most likely to yell and dispense discipline, yet it was Mom who we didn’t want to anger. We understood that she was the power behind the throne. She was often the buffer and could reason with Dad, and she could be the match that lit the fire. Dad listened to Mom, especially in later years. It became clear, she was the matriarch.
After I left home, and married, Dad, Mom, my husband Frank and I would “double-date” and have nights out on the town in taverns and restaurants, stay up late at night and have our family “cracker-barrels,” conversations over cheese and crackers in the kitchen while drinking lots of beer. Mom and I, as crazy as it sounds looking back, would alternate with pots of coffee, while Dad and Frank would sit and talk in the living room. Mom and I became friends and would “talk shop.” She would discuss her job at Motor Specialty and I’d talk about my screen-printing job at Advertising Creations. We worked with our hands and we worked hard all our lives.
I learned a lot about work ethics and working-class values from both parents, lifelong Democrats, and union members. With Mom however, our bond was special, she may have never called herself a feminist, but she was, and she raised a feminist-activist daughter.
Mom worked until her mid-fifties after all the kids were launched and she finally surrendered to her fatigue. Mom was tired most of her life, and I believe she suffered from undiagnosed, chronic depression. Like other family members, her two eldest sisters, Mom suffered from alcoholism too. A few years after she retired, she went into outpatient treatment and was sober for over 20 years. When we once drank beer and coffee in the kitchen, we each gave up the beer and still shared our cracker barrel tradition with coffee. When I came to visit, Dad would put on a pot of coffee, so Mom and I could have our time together.
Ethel Mae’s Garden
Mom loved flowers, especially tulips. Growing up my teachers always received flowers from Mom’s garden. Mom took responsibility for planting and tending to flowers at family gravesites, usually red geraniums. Our yard, since we live in a corner house, was a side yard and open to the street. Passersby’s always commented on her flower garden and for many years she could be found sunning in the backyard, sitting in her redwood chair, or reclined in a chaise lounge. After the deck was built, she and Dad would sit and wave at people as they commented on her flowers when they drove or walked by.
When her health began to fail, first her heart, compounded by pain in her legs, and arthritis in her knees, she couldn’t plant, weed, or water any longer. The family stepped up and we began a tradition each Memorial Day weekend of planting Mom’s garden which continues today after her death in her memory. Dad forever faithful, and with love and devotion, waters and fertilizes the flowers with help from Kelly with weeding, brother Rick landscapes when he visits, and a handyman, Ryan, a friend handpicked by Rick, rototills and trims the bushes. The next-door neighbor, Paul, helps by cutting the lawn.
In addition to the birth family that plant flowers each year, for the past few years,chosen family members have joined us in this tradition too. And, the grandchildren and great grandchildren have learned to dig holes and plant flowers in the earth. One year, sister Tami, commented that young grandnephew, Jace, possessed a green thumb, and he responded in bewilderment as he looked at his thumb, declaring, “My thumb’s not green!”
Ethel Mae’s Flowers
The real blooms in Mom’s garden are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren who carry on the traditions, the genes, the heart, the smiles and laughter, the creativity, hobbies, values, wisdom, recipes, nurturing and love she so generously gave us. The inspiration for this essay and reminiscence was the birth of my grandniece Ivy Love, the first baby born after Mom’s death. During a recent visit, my niece Casey, Kelly’s daughter, who was in Racine for a visit, took photos of Ivy Love in Mom’s garden. Her photos captured the theme of this story perfectly. Mom may have planted annuals in her backyard garden but she created perennials as her legacy.
In the past few months, in addition to Ivy Love’s birth, we’ve celebrated birthdays, I’ve seen the photos of a new home for niece Taryn and her husband Bob, my sister Roz’s son John and his wife Nikki’s children became young adults, Madison graduating from high school, and Martin celebrating his 17th birthday, his golden birthday. I keep up on social media, and in person, with my niece Jennifer and her wife Becky, I make dates with my sister Tami’s children, Quinn and Gemma, who I’ve watched grow up since they were babies, changing their diapers and telling bedtime stories, and now witness them grow into young adults. I share memories with my siblings. We were once children together, and now some of us are retiring and maturing (to some degree) into the 5th decades of our lives, or more.
Many of us have also inherited Mom’s green thumb. Sisters Kelly and Tami are known for their outdoor gardens and terraces. Sister Cindy, has 50 houseplants, and when she saw photos of some of my indoor plants she asked me, “When did you get a green thumb.” I responded, “I inherited one from Mom, just like you.” Rick landscapes at every home he’s lived in, and has helped his daughters Jennifer and Taryn too.
Though we’ve grieved Mom’s death these past 18 months, I’ve learned to acknowledge the gratitude for all the gifts she gave us, beginning with our lives, and all the nurturing that helped us to flower.
Yes, the “fleurs” in Ethel Mae’s Garden are flourishing. Thanks, Mom. Grateful.
Additional Reading from Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!