As I received another message from a sibling about another of my aunts who left us, it hit me harder than I would’ve expected. I always thought it would become easier as I grew older, to say goodbye to loved ones who’ve left this world. But it’s not. It’s more like a sharp jab at a tender, bruised spot on my heart. You know, when someone hits you on a bruise that’s not quite healed? Like that, only deeper. Some people tell me they feel numb to that pain after a while, but I feel quite the opposite.
Perhaps the growing ache in my sentimental bones is due to the fact that I come from a large family, yet a close one. Mom is one of eleven, and Dad is one of six. These were prolific farm families who produced a multitude of cousins with whom we’ve shared our childhood, adolescence and even our young adulthood. We’ve always enjoyed each other’s company and rallied around one another in lighter times as well as in dark ones. Our aunts and uncles hold our past and history, but even more, they are part of the Greatest Generation. They’ve seen so much more than we have, endured more, worked through more, and guided us through more than we can fathom. To think that my own generation is next in line to lead our offspring is daunting at best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’ve just started out in this world. I have silver hair and most of us have grandchildren already.
My Aunt Viola passed away at 90 years old. She will be missed, not only because she was the living matriarch of my mom’s family, but also because she represents the fortitude of the true American farmer’s wife. She was one of the quieter ones of her sisters, but she still had fun and enjoyed the silliness they shared. But I’d often see her watching and smiling from the side of the room more than jumping into the middle of their dance. She had a strength about her, and sometimes a stern look for anyone she thought was out of line.
Vi and Clarence owned and ran a dairy farm for more than 25 years, then they decided to become school bus drivers. I often wonder if it was more challenging to herd and milk cattle or to shepherd kids aboard a bus while driving down the highway in snowy weather. After two and a half decades of farming in central Wisconsin, battling cold winters, soggy springs, sweltering summers and dry falls, who wouldn’t think you’d retire and move somewhere balmy and quiet? No. Instead they drove children to and from school each day for 18 years. Their Lutheran upbringing and work ethic told them they weren’t finished.
Not that they didn’t relax in their “spare” time, but Aunt Vi was known for her gardening, cooking, canning and baking as well as volunteering at the local VFW and Community Club. You need only pick up a copy of an old Trinity Lutheran Ladies Cookbook to see contributions with Viola York listed numerous times. She, my mom, and their sisters, were members of the local organizations and took turns as the leaders. What good Norwegian Lutherans don’t do that, after all?
There were eight sisters in the beginning, and Vi was the second oldest. While others among them were more outgoing and spontaneous, Vi was the depth. While on a long drive just after learning of her death, I realized that Viola was like the viola in a string orchestra. She wasn’t like the violin always in the front rows, with the highest soprano notes who usually plays the melody. No, she’s always been like the somewhat stronger, deeper viola who plays the alto harmonies and occasionally hits the melody during a few strains of music. Viola music is written most often in an alto clef, so it’s not meant to be played in the same octaves as others. It’s an instrument that is a little sturdier, it’s strings are tougher and it takes them a second longer to produce sound when a bow is drawn across them. So too, was Aunt Vi. She was not quick to react, but when needed she spoke out clearly so all knew where she stood. As I said, lower, softer, mellower yet stronger.
Aunt Vi, we know you’re now reunited with Uncle Clarence and with Cousin Donnie in heaven. You’re being greeted with open arms by sisters Caroline, Ginny and Verna and brothers Norm and Roy. They’ve been waiting, and now you’ve joined them in awaiting the rest of us. Meanwhile, we sit here thinking about how much we miss you–all of you–and how much more shallow life feels because we’ve lost that alto voice that bolsters us. One of my favorite hymns sounds best in that alto range, and I’ll think of you whenever I sing it.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
I was blind, but now I see.
Godspeed, Aunt Vi, ‘til we meet again.
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.
I’m about to embark on a journey via this virtual path through the woods. Friends and family have been hounding me to start blogging. They understand that I enjoy writing almost as much as I like to talk. And they promised they’d read it. (I swear they did.) So I’m here. I do love crafting with words. I try to see the lighter side of life, and I admit to a long-held dream of becoming the world’s next Erma Bombeck. But I’ve also been known to write memorials, to share my sentimental side or to wave the flag and cry out for more apple pie. Now if I can figure out how to set this up with a few categories that will make my mind appear more organized than it really is, I’ll start. Follow me, and I’ll try to entertain you, to inspire you and to share some of my misadventures as well as successful ventures with you. You may laugh, you may cry or you may just realize you’re not alone. I’m failing and flailing, laughing and crying, and I’m learning my way through life just as we all are.