Owed to Mom


By The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen

Don't ask the mother about the 1960s. She doesn't remember any of the events that
made the decade notorious. The upheavals in her life cannot compare to those of our nation.
Americans merely faced three assassinations, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, and the collapse of the 1969 Cubs.

The mother weathered more.

In 1960 her premiere son was born.
In 1962 her mother died.
In 1963 her father remarried.
In March 1964 her ultimate son was born.
In October 1964 her husband of six years died.
In February 1965 she returned with her two sons to her hometown.
In October 1965 her sister had a breakdown, divorced, and moved home with her father
and step mother.
In 1966 the Cubs hired Leo Durocher.
In 1968 her father suffered his second heart attack.

Through all these events, her ultimate son, with the perspective of more than three decades, marvels at the stability of his home life, the constants.
Soft boiled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast every Tuesday.
The celebratory, even sacramental observance of the first BLT sandwich of summer.
The one morning in eighteen years when he and the mother both overslept (also the only
day he ate hot lunch in high school).
Jigsaw puzzles and chips and dip every year on New Year's Eve.
The one morning in eighteen years when there was no juice for breakfast, and his
subsequent hissy fit at this failing.
Barbecued potato chips and Kool Aid to watch the All Star game.
Long running games of Aggravation, Crazy 8's, Battleship, Clue, Boggle, gin rummy,
cribbage, even backgammon. (The brothers do not play bridge to this day. The mother
never taught them. She wanted to retain one game at which they would not, eventually,
defeat her.)

As a grandmother she has been dragged into games of PokeMon and chess, with a gracious and
cooperative, though tepid, enthusiasm.

Frugality is another theme in her life. Everytime the mother saved eight cents using a
coupon for raisin bran, or received a $1.50 rebate from the Mrs. Paul's fish stick people, that
money was thrown into a jar. By the end of the year, these savings purchased the family
Christmas tree.

Every time the mother got a fifty cent piece in change, it went into a different place. Eventually enough was saved to go out for dinner. The family never went the same place twice. When the mother dropped the fifty cent pieces at Pizza Works in 1975, the premier son, then fifteen, did not break stride as he headed toward the exit.

Starting in 1973, each December was marked by the preemptive announcement that "Christmas
would be a little lean this year." The purchase of ultimate son's trombone, prompted by his overbite, caused by his thumb sucking, caused the paucity that year.

Still, on December 25, ultimate son found Battleship under the tree, a game that resides in his current home. Looking back at Christmases and birthdays, the brothers cannot recall anything other than the abundance and appropriateness of gifts. There were always books and stockings that included a toothbrush and were filled with what is now called "piñata chum."

Both sons enjoyed private music lessons; braces (which were more endured than enjoyed);
vacations to see friends, relatives on the father's side, and historic sites; movies, especially when it was "beastly hot"; tickets to symphony concerts featuring Victor Borge and Benny Goodman; and special tenth birthdays.

In the premier son's case, his tenth birthday was his and his brother's first trip to Wrigley Field, that ivy covered burial ground. Cubs 10 Reds 2, winning pitcher, Bill Hands, home runs by Jim Hickman and Billy Williams.

Ultimate son enjoyed a surprise tenth birthday party that was truly surprising.

Honesty and humor marked and shaped their lives together. The mother could not send a get well card to someone who is terminally ill. That would be dishonest. She looked for cards that say, "I hope you're feeling better" or "I'm thinking of you." Both sons were honest with her, too.

Last month, ultimate son found himself seemingly channeling the mother's spirit in this
conversation, with the Weasel Boy:

Daddy, a window on the garage broke!
No, no, "I broke a window on the garage."
I broke a window on the garage.
Did you get hurt? No? Good, let's clean it up.

The mother taught, "First you get the grammar and responsibility correct, then you deal with the
mess."

The mother approached all of life's challenges with grace and rich humor. And her humor was
always a reaction to the hand she was dealt. Rarely did she repeat jokes or introduce humor; it always came as a response. In life one either laughs or cries, and given the choice, it is always better to laugh.

The mother was wise enough to know that one is not always given the choice.

As adults both sones were in a seminar on telling family stories. Ultimate son told
the story of the last time he fought his brother. He was about seven; premier son would
have been eleven. The phone rang. The mother answered it. The boys started to fight.

Cause... effect.

No one remembers what they were fighting about.

They wanted to kill each other.

The mother put down the phone, ran to the kitchen, and got the Miro kitchen timer. "I am so
damn mad at you kids! Fight! I want you to fight for five minutes! Fight!!"

(Another thing about the mother is she was judicious in her use of profanity. On those rare
occasions when she dropped the D bomb, it got attention.)

The brothers could not fight. They were too busy laughing, not at the mother and her rage,
which was real and mighty, but at the absurdity of having been given permission, no, at having been commanded, to do what they had been forbidden all their lives.

They never fought again. Physically. Now they express their hostility through puns and
snide remarks. And no, no one longs for the days of fists, fury, and headlocks.

And as the seminar wound down, ultimate son realized that the mother taught him that humor
solves problems. It's not a mere palliative, the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go
down; humor can make things right and whole again.

As the mother turns seventy, the sons weep tears of joy and gratitude, and tears of laughter, for the life the mother built for them, the foundation on which their own families are being built.

Honesty, humility, frugality, and laughter. In 1964 these were the only tools in the mother's tool
box. Later, she added guilt, and used these tools to raise a family.


This column first appeared in The Cresset, published by Valparaiso University, Lent 2007