How many middle-aged women have had the epiphany that they’ve become their mother? And how many have come to realize that’s not such a bad thing? When I was a teenager, I’d have been horrified at the prospect, yet I now find myself both relieved and pleased that I am certainly my mother’s daughter. (Ok, you can skim over the fact that I’ve admitted I’m middle-aged, that’s another subject.)
So who is my mother? Esther Helen Pedersen Stevens was born in 1930, the middle child of eleven children who blessed Hans and Hilda Pedersen, Norwegian and Danish Lutheran farmers. Their home in Arkdale, Wisconsin was a sandy patch of corn, hay fields, vegetable and flower gardens the family shared with dairy cattle, chickens and pets. She and her siblings were all born in the farmhouse that had belonged to Grandma’s adoptive parents, the Olsens. They weathered the Great Depression as many farm families did; raising their own food and making do with what was available, fixing what broke and creating items they needed.
Grandpa worked the farm while Grandma fed and clothed them all. He was boisterous and fun-loving and she was quiet and shy. Mom inherited parts of each their personalities. She is introverted until she becomes acquainted with people, but if she’s among family she blossoms into a funny girl who loves to laugh and dance. (She and her sisters were notorious for dressing up in Grandpa’s clothes, giggling and dancing at parties.) Mom is musical. Some of her sisters learned the piano or other instruments, but she never had a lesson. She can’t read music, yet she plays the piano by ear. She is a smart lady who earned a high school diploma at a time and place many didn’t, as did all the Pedersen children. After graduation she worked in a doctor’s office.
Mom met Dad when she was 19 years old, and they married a few short weeks later. They had just moved to Minnesota when Dad received orders to report to active duty, so they repacked their home and returned to Arkdale. Mom stayed with Grandpa and Grandma while Dad was gone. She gave birth to my first sibling, Fred, Jr., while Dad crawled amongst fox holes near Korea’s 39th parallel. He sent letters home, never hinting of the danger he faced because he knew she worried. She and family took a plethora of pictures of little Freddie and wrote letters.
When Dad returned they moved 200 miles from home, and Mom was soon pregnant again with Ron. Polio struck both her and Dad, and they were quarantined while Grandma Stevens kept Fred. Mom told me nurses would walk down the corridor, closing all the doors whenever someone died on the ward. But they both recovered and returned home.
Ron was followed by Debbie, and then five years later came me and then brother Jeff. Our family was then complete. They bought a new home, and Dad worked while Mom watched over her brood. She managed to keep us fed and clothed on a limited budget, while serving as counselor, referee and sometimes warden.
In those earlier days, Mom would cook and clean, sew and paint. One of my earliest memories is sleepily wandering into the kitchen to find her on her hands and knees, hair tied up in bandana and arms working a scrub brush through a sudsy puddle. When she spotted me, she pointed toward the door and firmly said, “Out!” I backed up and sat in the bucket. She shook her head and fished me out and changed me. Seems she was always rescuing me like that. Another time she pulled me down from the neighbor’s slide where I was dangling when my sweater caught on the way down.
She baked bread each week. She’d hand me a lump of bread dough to knead and place into my own little pan. She baked angel food cakes. I recall them sitting upside down over a beer bottle on the counter to cool. She baked rhubarb pies. She braised beef pot roast with horseradish, just like Grandma made. She would let us help her make applesauce using a colander I now have, all five of us taking turns squishing the apple pulp through it into the bowl. At Christmas she’d cover the kitchen table with newspaper and mix colorful bowls of frosting and let us have at it with the stacks and stacks of sugar cookies she’d mixed, rolled, cut out and baked.
She took classes to become a keypuncher when business computers occupied entire rooms, and she returned to work when we were all in school. When the older kids were off on their own, Jeff and I would come home for lunch and after school on our own. I know she worried, but she was just a phone call away. I remember calling her whenever we fought, or to complain about the list of chores she left us to do, or to ask questions about the recipe we were trying for dinner. She taught us both how to bake cakes and pies and cook for the family.
Dad was always her back-up, but she was the one who disciplined us first. She commanded respect, even when we all surpassed her in height. She worried and loved us through our teenage angst, our failures, our anxiety, our broken hearts, our experimentation and our smart mouths. And we didn’t make it easy for her. One of her favorites to me when I gave her grief was, “I hope you have a daughter just like you!”
She is our heart, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our sense of humor. She’s the role model that I’ve tried to emulate. I once thought that a college degree and a great career would make me all I needed to be. I now know better.
I now know just how much she worked to allow us to be ourselves. When we camped on vacations, she worked tirelessly packing, prepping and throughout the trip. I still love to camp, but I do wish Mom could join us camping (I think she prefers hotels.) so I could wait on her this time.
I love to sew when I have a chance. I enjoy baking and cooking, but maybe not so much the cleaning, even if she did teach me the proper ways. I’ve baked bread, pies and cookies, and I still use the colander a few times each year for my own applesauce. I’ve gone back to school as my family’s needs changed, and I’ve worked at making a home.
I once called Mom after my own teenage daughter snapped back at me as any 15-year-old can do, just to tell her that I in fact do have a daughter just like me. She laughed, of course.
I believe I’ve gained her sense of humor as well as her compassion, her sentimentality, her music and her song. I only hope I also have the strength she’s shown in recent years, as much as she possessed earlier, only I didn’t realize it.
And I fervently hope my children see me as I now see my Mom. I can only hope that I am my mother.