Monday, September 19, 2011

My Mother's Life and Legacy

My mother, Bernice Mae (Klefsaas) Peterson, died four months ago.  Since that day -- May 1 -- I've had many thoughts about her but haven't felt ready to write about her legacy and my memories of her.  She died one week from what would have been her 86th birthday (which just happened to coincide with Mother's Day this year).

We had many talks on the phone the months and weeks before her passing.  Usually our conversations happened on Sunday afternoons.  Of course, as Minnesotans (me, a transplant to Oregon over 20 years ago), we always had to talk about the weather.  After that, we shared our "what's happening" stories from week to week, always ending our calls with "I love you's."

Not surprising, I guess, I first noticed that I was missing Mom the most on Sundays.  No more afternoon calls.  No more "weather reports."   No more "updates" on the relatives, children, and grandchildren.  No more "check-ins" about each others physical maladies.  No more "I love you's" for (and from) my Mother.

First among memories to emerge was of the last time I visited her in my hometown where my Mom had lived over 60 years.  My life partner, Anita, and I had conversations with her unlike most any of our talks in the past.  Mom wanted to show us old pictures from her early years and her high school yearbook, plus have us read her diary from her high school years.  Her diary entries were mostly one sentence about what she did "that day" or "things that happened" to her and family members.  I loved learning how often she enjoyed going to the movies (she lived on a farm a few miles from town) as well as her excitement over her (few) new dresses.

Mom was smart -- valedictorian of her high school class in 1943.  As I recall, she had wanted to be a doctor (I'm sure she would have made a great one).  But that would not be her career destiny.  She married my Dad while still a teenager and followed him West where the Army had sent him for training.  Off she went to Colorado Springs, Portland, and Phoenix where she was while Dad headed to France for the "big war."

Mom was especially proud of her "Rosy the Riveter" work in the shipyards of Portland.  Once when she visited us in Oregon, we took her the Rose City neighborhood were she had lived.  She still remembered the address so we drove to the little house (which she said still looked the same) where she had rented a room .  Although she protested my suggestion that we knock on the door (with her usual "I don't want to bother anyone" comment) to see if we could see her old room, she came along and the residents cheerfully welcomed us in.  Mom excitedly went up the stairs to see her room and then looked around the kitchen and explored the rest of her former home.  It definitely was the "high point" of her return trip to Portland!

Looking back at Mom's life, I realized that less than two years after she graduated from high school, she gave birth to a boy in Minnesota (I was the lucky one!).  Within the next seven years, she had three more babies.  Life got hard for her real fast!   And she didn't have a very supportive husband at home.  Much of the time my sister and brothers and I were growing up, our Dad was a traveling salesman -- gone most every week and home on weekends.  Mom worked waitress jobs at night until she got a telephone operator position with Northwestern Bell in 1956.  She worked split-shifts, walking 10 blocks to the office and back twice a day -- for most all of the 25 years she worked there before retiring in 1981.

About a year after I graduated from high school and had been away at college, Mom divorced my father.  She should have done it many years before in my view.  From what I remember of their relationship, there was little affection and lots of conflict over money and parenting.  And Mom never got the respect she deserved.  Unfortunately, not long after the divorce she met another man who gave her even less respect.  Thankfully, she ended that relationship and, as far as I know, that was "it" for her with men and marriage.

Mom lived by herself in the same little house we called home for over 20 years after her retirement.  After a fall down the basement stairs and brief time in a nursing home for rehab, she decided it was time to move (a big surprise to us all!).  She moved directly to an independent senior living apartment (a place I had worked exactly one day of my life hauling bricks during construction when I was a teenager).  With more people around to socialize with, she thrived for most of her years there.  Then in her 85th year, physical ailments eventually resulted in a move to a nursing home (which she could see from her apartment window).

Mom was happy at the nursing home (even with most of the food!). She felt safe, especially from falling in the night, and enjoyed day-to-day conversations with the staff people who cared for her.  After a fall backward during one of her many hallway walks with her walker (which didn't break any bones but left her in pain), within a few weeks she declined physically until the day of her death.

During the whole time Mom was living alone until her last breath, my "little" brother who lived in the same town provided care for her.  What a blessing he was to Mom for those many years!  What a blessing he was to her adult children!  It's difficult to convey the depth of gratitude I feel for all that my brother did for Mom.  He demonstrated his love and respect for her in his devotion to making her life as comfortable as he could for many years.

Mother's Legacy

What Mom valued most in her life were her family and her faith.  She devoted herself to supporting four children during their growing up years, working many hours every week at her telephone operator job, then coming home to housework and cooking to feed her kids.  And she did it without a "man around the house" to share in supporting the family.  Thankfully, when she retired, she had a small pension, social security, and health insurance that would support her during her retirement years.  She also had eleven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren to correspond with (and enjoy their visits), plus neighborhood friends to visit and talk with on the phone.

Mom made sure her children went to church and got religious training as youngsters through confirmation age (at the largest Lutheran church in town).  She attended church and made sure she was always there when I was singing in the choir during my high school years.  While I don't know at what age she devoted her life to Jesus Christ as her Savior, my sense is that for more than half of her life her faith was her guiding light.  She was definitely at peace with her passing and ready to return to Jesus long before she died.

Mom was a lifelong walker -- both to her job and in her retirement years.  She moved along at a determined pace (what I call our "Minnesota cold morning" speed).  Even when she had to use a walker during the last months of her life, she walked the halls of the nursing home most every day.  Among the things I know she enjoyed were doing crossword puzzles, watching the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins on TV (and local sports teams), listening to A Prairie Home Companion (and Garrison's tales from Lake Wobegon), reading the Harmony Porch Tale books by Phillip Gulley, making lefse (we ate them as fast as she could make them!), and baking other goodies for her children and grandchildren (peanut butter cookies, sticky buns, coffee cake, bread sticks, and more).

Among her most notable traits, Mom was unselfish to her core and seemed uncomfortable with receiving attention and gifts.  Hearing her say, "Oh, don't bother" and "I don't want to be a bother" will echo in my ears for the rest of my life.  She even had made all the arrangements for her own funeral so she "wouldn't be a bother" to her children!

At her funeral on a beautiful sunny day in May (two days before her birthday), I spoke for the family and myself during the service.  I shared some memories and thoughts about her life.  It was a tearful experience and I can't recall much of what I spontaneously said.  Thankfully, my partner Anita, who wasn't able to travel at the time, had given me some words of her own about my Mom to read in remembrance.  Here's are some excerpts of her sharing:

    "Over the years, I experienced Bernice as kind, considerate, non-judgmental and thoughtful.  She always remembered birthdays, including my childrens', taking time to write a personal  note ... remembering and inquiring about their special interests, even my son whom she  never met.  She had a strong sense of fairness and all grandchildren got their birthdays remembered.

     Bernice was curious and smart---truly interested in current events, sports and especially what was going on in the lives of her loved ones.  A beautiful woman of intelligence, courage and genuine caring ... I feel blessed to have known her.

    She will always hold a special place in my heart."
As she will in mine.  Thank you for your love and support throughout my life, Mom.  Thank you, Bernice Mae (Klefsaas) Peterson for the life you lived.


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Gunnar Berg said...

Nice. All I know of her is she fed me. Which is sometimes enough.

Jessica said...

This is beautiful! I will miss my dear sweet Grandma! Thank you for writing such lovely things!