Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


My mother's life ended several years before her death in July of 1975. In the last years that she lived in the nursing home, Riverdale Manor, I might find her in a wheelchair in the sitting room with other patients. Her head was bowed down as if she were just folding together. She looked pitiful in contrast to the proud woman she had been. She had given up looking forward to life. With her eyes closed unaware of those around her, she may have been dreamily reliving the long ago days. At long last her defenses were down and she could relax. Until then her alert mind and keen hearing made her feel the need to be in charge wherever she happened to be.

The long years of my father's invalidism and my brother's death robbed Mabel of a goal in life. Even though she recognized that age would bring disability or suffering she had an unrealistic idea of what she was going to do in the years to come. Now at last even those dreams had been destroyed. She did not know how to find new goals for herself. She tried to keep herself occupied in the same ways of the younger years.

It is difficult for many older people to adjust to the drastic change from being "in charge" to being dependent on others. My mother especially did not want to be dependent on me, her daughter. She felt guilty if I did even small things for her. To allow me to help her make decisions or to make them for her was impossible. She was unable to see me as a responsible adult.

After Ed's death in 1952 when she had her house completely redecorated and bought new furniture there was nothing to look forward to, except keeping everything in perfect order. But no longer was there anyone to get it out of order.

Highlights of the years when she lived alone in her house in Markesan were the Rook parties she could give and attend. A group of her neighbors met regularly to play. Entertaining them in her own home provided opportunities to use the pretty linens and dishes she had acquired over the years. Erve' and Clara and Jack and Lil and their cousin Herb Schwandt liked evenings of Rook too. The games were noisily jolly when they were there. For a few hours my mother could forget the years that had gone and feel that the good times were not all lost. But the shadows of sadness still hung over her mind.

Mabel's house in Markesan

Mabel developed a friendship with a spinster who lived up the street. I do not remember the name of the television program that they liked to watch in the early afternoon. When they found that they liked the same program Harriet came to watch it with Mabel each afternoon. That association was one of the reasons she liked to return to her home after visiting us. Getting back to that friendly routine was important.

Life in Markesan in those years was different from what it is in most places today. In her desk drawer, years after her death I have a treasured note, "Have gone to the beauty shop." Mabel didn't want to miss out on a possible visitor. She felt free to leave such a note and leave the door unlocked. Any of her acquaintances who might come could read it and know approximately how long she would be gone. It would be considered unsafe to leave such a note today. The wrong person might come in and read it. The security the note reflected, seems to me, a great blessing.

Mother had time to embroider dresser scarves or towels or table runners in the thirteen years she lived in Markesan. When she left Nashville after living here for a year her bedroom furniture came into my house with many of her things still in the chest of drawers. Collections of buttons, dark ones and light ones, in separate boxes; partial cards of hooks and eyes and snaps; and in one box embroidery floss with an ivory punch once used to make eyelets to be embroidered. I see my mother as a young woman using it to create a beautiful piece for a table runner or doily. Some of the white doilies are here too, with the eyelets and scalloped edges solidly embroidered in buttonhole stitch. They must be starched and ironed in order to look good on a table so they are stacked in my father's trunk.

On pleasant Sunday mornings, even after she lived in Riverdale Manor Mother walked "up the hill" to the Evangelical Church, the same one that she and Ed had attended all their married lives. Most of the folks of the congregation were well acquainted with each other because only rarely had a newcomer come into the community. Most of the families had known each other for two generations and many were related by marriage. Mabel attended Ladies Aid meetings and participated in their programs and socials.

Mother grew flowers in the fertile soil of the corner lot she owned in the village. She purposely chose those that would do well in bouquets for Sheldon's and Ed's graves. In her neat summer dress she was able to walk to the cemetery to arrange the flowers where her dear ones rested. And where so many others of treasured memories already lay.

Mabel was not about to give up visiting me and my family just because we were 1600 miles away in a section of the country she had never dreamed of seeing. No one of her friends or relatives had ever made a trip by plane, but she seemed completely confident about doing it. If she ever had any qualms about flying I never heard them. She made a number of trips to the Valley, a flight that required changing planes in big city airports - Dallas and Houston and Midway in Chicago. At that time it was the big one there. I think she felt a sense of achievement in being able to do all of it. Each time she arrived she told us the details of the trip as if she had enjoyed all of them. The trips took their toll. Before she left her home, friends said "good-by" with a series of parties, so that she was very excited from the entertainment as well as from facing the adventure of the long plane trip. After she arrived at our house she slept well in the daytime as well as at night for a few days. After that she began anticipating the return trip, always slightly embarrassed because she had told her friends she was going to stay for many months. Now she was ready to go home but didn't want to admit her longing to be back in Wisconsin.

Even though South Texas has its beauty Mother couldn't see it. She was looking at it with eyes used to the neat fields and green productive farmland of Central Wisconsin. When she saw Tennessee after 1961 she couldn't get used to the hedgerows along the roads that we thought were beautiful. "They needed trimming!"

When Sheldon and I visited Grandma Sommers when we were young children she liked to play games with us. One I remember was Flinch. In her turn my mother played Flinch, Rook and other table games with our children when she visited us in Texas.

My mother found satisfaction in shopping. In earlier years her sister Ella had introduced her to Fond du Lac School Supply for buying good books for children. Two very good ones she bought for our children are Make Way for Ducklings and One Morning in Maine, by Robert McCloskey. Both these hardback books are worn and much mended.

Mabel selected appropriate clothes for herself at certain stores in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Lil, or Erve and Clara, or her sister Ida, would invite her to go shopping with them. She not only bought clothes for herself but for our children as well and mailed new outfits to each of the boys. For a long time she bought shoes for Howard. She knew his size and taste and they were always well chosen. She even bought an overcoat at Ahern's Men's Clothing in Fond du Lac. The color and fit were good and he wore it many years. It came in very handy when he had to make trips out of the Valley in winter. Few people there owned an overcoat.

Part of her generosity was an effort to keep us looking prosperous. She had forgotten that she and my father started housekeeping with packing boxes made into dressers and tables. She wanted us to start at the standards she had reached after forty years of work and economical living. When she walked into our four room house on 12th Street in Edinburg she said, "Be it ever so humble." When we moved to the brick Schunior Street house she was ready with the down payment of a thousand dollars.

Before we left Wisconsin she gave us the 1947 Chevrolet Dad had helped choose after Sheldon's death. When we visited Wisconsin in 1952 she bought a cream and green, four-door Chevrolet for us. Two years later she decided we needed a station wagon also bought from my cousin, Austin Schraeder's Buick-Chevrolet business in Markesan. We were pleased to have reliable cars but at the same time I felt a bit like a poor relation.

No matter how small or large the gifts we received I wrote her promptly to express appreciation. All the years from 1953 on I tried to make up for my living so far away from her by writing her each week and often two or three times a week, at least cards. As the years went by none of that seemed to help fill the void in her life. Her letters often expressed my neglect of her. I made an effort to have our children write her and try to develop a relationship. They too, had many letters of thanks to write to her for books and other gifts. They wrote those letters with great reluctance.

Being the only remaining child is a difficult role. At one time Mother was hospitalized in Rochester, Minnesota for tests. I think perhaps she expected the home town doctor to find remedies for any ailment she might have and in desperation he referred her to Mayo Clinic. Howard and I felt that if she was there she must be very ill. We arranged for me to fly to Rochester from South Texas. At the hospital the various interns and other doctors were going through their usual questions to fill out the information they needed to treat her successfully. I heard her tell one of the young doctors, "I haven't been able to move my piano for three weeks!" (The piano stood on a carpeted floor. I wondered how she could move it any time, let alone that often.)

In 1964 she was very ill and was hospitalized for weeks. On her return home she panicked. She lost her courage to take control of her own life and affairs. She decided to sell the beautiful house which she loved so much. She telephoned me to say that she was coming to live in Nashville. I could not tell her to keep her house. She would not be satisfied to let any one rent it. I knew too that leaving all the relatives and friends of a long life in a rural area where she had an identity would require major adjustment. But, I had a dream that she could be grandma to our children if she lived near us. Then too, she might tell me "You don't want me," if I suggested she stay in Wisconsin.

She was so fearful that she hurriedly made a deal on the house and came to Nashville before her furniture could be moved. We made the offer for her to live with us, which she turned down by saying, "I like my own bathroom." I was relieved because I was always the "little girl" when she was in my house and with six children, we didn't really have room. We finally found a newly built duplex where she had two bedrooms as well as a large pleasant kitchen and living room and bath. A back porch overlooked a green well-kept yard with shrubs. All of this was about a mile from our home. When her furniture came from her larger house in Wisconsin she had the satisfaction of seeing some of it in our home. She unpacked her best china and placed it in her buffet and breakfront in our house. One of her concerns had been that we would not keep her furnishings from Wisconsin. Now, she could at least have that wish satisfied.

Although she had every convenience in her new home it was not enough. She needed the friends and relatives and the environment she had always known. It had been a tragic mistake. We tried to include her in our family life by having her come for the evening meal each day, but Howard's work schedule didn't fit her idea of a five o'clock mealtime that she had been used to in the old days.

I tried to meet her needs, giving her little duties like mending, and taking her shopping. She accompanied us to church and learned to know a few people. On her eightieth birthday I invited a few ladies to a party at her apartment.

Mother hid her grief well, in that she didn't cry when we were around. On the other hand she was increasingly disapproving of us and every thing in Tennessee. Even a visit to Wisconsin didn't help.

In the spring of 1965 Mother brought up the subject of going back to Markesan to live in Riverdale Manor, a retirement home. I suggested she find out if there was a room available. She asked me to write to inquire. I wrote immediately. After about two weeks a room was ready. Mother was so happy she worked long hours getting everything ready. We made arrangements to absorb the rest of her furniture into our house or make other disposition of it. Before the day of her departure she washed every tidy and doily and starched and ironed them in readiness to pass on to me. Her physical ailments were forgotten. She sang our praises continually. Her grandson, Joel, was to graduate from high school in a few weeks but her happiness lay in going back "home" as quickly as possible.

Her doctor in Nashville believed that she should not be living alone so that going to Riverdale Manor seemed like a very good solution. Although she did not realize it, selling her house in Markesan had been the right thing to do. She would have been tempted to move back into it. The years would bring increasing illness and disability. She would need care.

At Riverdale Manor she was able to continue her visits with my father's brothers and sisters who all lived within walking distance. Nieces and nephews, Gretchen and Vic, Mae and Maurice, Bill and Seiglinda included her in their family gatherings and she often had lunch with Edna, or Lil. She could walk to the beauty shop to have her hair done. The care givers at the Manor knew who she was and she was acquainted with their families in the years past. She regained a measure of her identity.

Mother had always been one to worry that she had made a wrong decision. Once again she began to "second guess" her decision to live at Riverdale. Her feeling of worth was undermined by an attitude that it was somehow disgraceful to be there. She wrote me continually saying, "You don't want me. I'm going to get out of here if it is the last thing I do." Finally the doctor said that she would have to go to the mental hospital. I knew no way that I could make Mother happy or even help her with any decisions. She was unable to see me as a responsible adult.

The Riverdale manager described Mother on the morning that she was to be taken to the hospital at Winnebago. She was up very early and completely dressed. She sat with her hat on and her luggage around her in the lobby of Riverdale. When I consider that picture, I believe that Mother felt she had won - that she had gotten her way. She was leaving. Many times in earlier years she had tried to get away from herself by going places. Now, she was going to get out of "that place." She had no idea what she was going into.

My relatives were not pleased that I allowed the hospitalization. They did not understand mental illness. My father's family were embarrassed. None of them had even had to go to a nursing home and they vowed they never would make that decision. Little did they know that nearly all of them would spend some time at Riverdale Manor in the years to come.

The hospital encouraged a daily routine with regular meals and a variety of activities in which Mother participated, although perhaps not enthusiastically. Her attitude at Riverdale had been that she was not one of the group. She spoke often of "Those old people." She did not take part in group activities such as singing or Bible classes.

I was very happy when after the months at Winnebago she was allowed to return to Riverdale. For a few years she continued to write to me occasionally but never again did she tell me, "You don't want me."

In 1974 I saw my mother for the last time. She was in Waupun Hospital with a bladder infection. Her doctor told us that I needed to come because she was very ill. We drove up in the December weather and stayed in a motel in Waupun. My mother was unable to feed herself and lay very still in the bed, but after she knew I was there she was still able to check on me. If I left the room for a few minutes she huffily asked, "Where have you been? Who did you talk with?" I was amazed that one so ill could be bothered to be "in charge." When we were alone one evening she said, "Maybe I'm going to die." I responded, "Yes, all of us are going to die." I wish now I had asked her if she was frightened and tried to comfort her. But we had never been comfortable talking about that subject. For many years she had said "good-by" to us after visits by saying, "You probably won't see me alive again."

Seiglinda Abendroth and Betty Ruenger came one evening to call on Mother at the hospital. That day she had been singing "Jesus Lover of My Soul" over and over. When Betty and Seiglinda came they sang with her. They had lovely voices. It was a touching scene. I was unable to join in the singing. Mother had scorned my interest in Christianity so often that now I was confused. As many parents are she was annoyed that we didn't go to the church to which she belonged. (All through the years we accepted her right to her own ideas, but she often made unkind remarks about our going to church. It was very difficult for me to return to Tennessee and leave her in the hospital. But, how could I go on staying when I had no idea how long she would be hospitalized?

Mother had not talked about death in its real sense to us or to anyone. But she had spoken of the effects of her death to us for twenty years. She made us sit down again and again to hear her say, "I want to tell you what to do when I die." She would talk about the finances and "don't sell the farm", over and over.

On July 16, 1975 after being in a coma for a few days Mother died in Riverdale Manor. When I was informed of her condition I was torn between wanting to go to be with her and the reality that I could not stay there indefinitely. Over the years I made the trip to Wisconsin several times when she was very ill without being able to help her.

She lies with Sheldon and Ed on that green slope in Markesan. Ed is between them as she planned and spoke of so often in the years after Sheldon's death. The Barre Granite monument that she chose so carefully is discolored from the rain and sap dripping from the nearby spruce tree which was very small when Sheldon was buried. Now it is a large tree. She would be very disappointed that the stone is not a sparkling clean gray. I might be tempted to please her by having it chemically cleaned, but my philosophy is different. I recognize the inevitability of my not being able to control the future or the elements. Those who knew my parents will no longer be coming to walk in the cemetery. Most of them are already there. They were the ones who knew my mother's penchant for neatness. Those who follow will not judge her by the same standards.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.