A String And A Rope
by Don Wierenga
The reunion photo was taken July 8, 1940, the summer before my mother died. I’m viewing it for the first time. I quickly scan the rolled picture, brittle and cracked, looking for familiar faces. I easily identify siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. and finally locate myself. I’m seated on the ground in a grouping of 10-15 cousins. I notice the striped polo shirt, combed hair and the smile. No one else was smiling and I wondered why. Later, as I showed the photo to family members and relatives, no one was able to identify me. I began to wonder if perhaps I was mistaken, maybe I wasn’t even there. After all I had only seen one or two pictures taken before age 10 . . maybe they were imagined as well! Who am I! How would I really know what I looked like? Only after identifying all those surrounding me, could I establish, by the process of elimination, the certainty of my own identity. I felt better. I wanted to know more. It seemed safe to explore the deepest recesses of my memory and search for new ways to connect with my parents. My existence, as a nine year old, had taken on new significance and the dusty photos and letters stored in the basement would complete a bonding process that had started seventy one years ago.
My mother had tuberculosis and when local treatment didn’t work, it was decided to have her visit an experimental treatment center in Denver, Colorado. On Christmas Eve, 1939 she wrote:
I suppose all of you are getting ready to come home by now (from the annual Christmas party.) I have quite a few presents here, but would gladly give them up for just one peak of Donny tomorrow morning.”
It was a thrill to see my name written in her handwriting. Her 49th birthday was celebrated, alone, just two weeks before.
January 30, 1940 was a dreary cold day. A light snow was falling, but not enough to make sledding a possibility. School had been dismissed early and I was anxious to take advantage of the extra free time. Dad had left for Colorado a few days before and I was staying with a sister. I knew instinctively that my mother had died and ran out of the house. Later I found comfort in playing with my three year old niece. We became boisterous and had to be asked to quiet down. The dusty box provided the exact words:
“ Will be on the 4:40 train. Mother will be on that train with us. Hoping we can all be brave. “
My mother had died. That night my brother and I were sent to yet another home. We slept in the same bed but didn’t speak. I could hear him sobbing. I didn’t cry.
I remember the casket arriving and being placed in my parents bedroom. It was gray,cold and looked out of place. The funeral director opened the cover and we looked at our mother. I had never seen a dead person before. Surely this was a mistake, this was not my mother. It didn’t look like her, it didn’t smell like her and if she was dead why would she be wearing her glasses? For a moment I expected her to come from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, smelling like freshly baked bread, put her arms around me and softly explain what this was all about. I ran from the #house into a cold drizzle. For two days friends and relatives streamed through the house, looking at my mother. Some cried, others smiled and patted me on the head. I tried to stay out of sight. The funeral was held at our church on Feb. 4, 1940.
I knew my mother had a serious illness. She spent long periods in the hospital and I was not permitted to see her. She would send notes that I wish I still had. Tuberculosis was a dreaded disease. In their early adulthood, two older brothers were diagnosed with TB and I fully expected my turn would be next. I was taken frequently to the public health clinic, seated on a hard chair in straight rows, and told to be quiet. This same clinic, where, as I was told later, my mother was treated by an alcoholic doctor who failed to properly diagnose the seriousness of her condition. I recall using spit balls to play checkers on the black and white tiles that covered the floor. I wondered if kids got this disease. A grumpy overweight nurse in the crisp white uniform gave us the test, and much later called us to come forward. We were given a favorable report, and a card with my name on it was put back in the file. A sense of relief settled over the family . . . until the next time.
Times were difficult in those depression years. I knew my dad had done carpenter work to pay the doctor for my ear surgery. Relatives had collected money so he could travel to Denver and spend a few days with my mother. It was already difficult for her to speak and she wrote notes. From the dust box:
I hope you have a nice trip. Say hello to all my friends and tell them how much it means that they pray for me. We can be happy just thinking of this visit. I haven’t been much company, will you have time to exchange the sweater. Tell the children I love them more than ever and hope to get well and all be together again.
Urgent news from an uncle prompted the difficult decision to pack his tools, Ieave the care of his seven children, including a three year old down syndrome child, with my 21 year old sister. He was to look for work, so he could spend the last days with my mother. She died before he arrived. It was a painful death. the TB had settled in her throat and she wasn’t able to swallow, or talk. She literally starved to death. My uncle (John) wrote that her doctor said “ I know of no way to give her nourishment to enable her to build up her strength.” And added “ I tried giving her her a rectal injection of an egg nog, but without success.” I didn’t know they didn’t have IV’s in those days.
The church which held my most cherished and warmest feelings had nothing to do with theology or sermons or doctrine. It was a place where love was freely given and expressed, not by the minister, although I suppose that was also true, but by my mother. The warm memory of snuggling up to my mom, one hand on the fur collar she only wore on Sundays, the other thumb in my mouth was worth trying to sit still for. Sometimes the spell would inadvertently be broken when I found the tiny claws that were still on the fur piece. Why did I always search for them? Then it would be time to sit very still with my hand on her lap and allow her to gentle stroke my arm. I was afraid to move for fear she would stop. I think that was part of her strategy.
The church was an easy walk from our home and I often ran far ahead of the family or lagged seriously behind. One Sunday I realized that being far behind meant no one was at home and the Dutch bobbelars she had made the day before were still cooling on the kitchen table. I rushed back into the house, grabbed a sticky handful and stuffed them into the pockets of my new wool knickers. I often wonder who dug those bobbelars out of my pocket, I know I didn’t.
On April 1, 1936 I was in the kindergarten and had been told to be prepared for a special lunch. I was so preoccupied with this prospect that I mistakenly rushed home after recess rather than wait for the noon dismissal. It was the only time I remember being alone with my mother. She was not at all upset that I had left school early. She read to me and then prepared pancakes with warm butter and hot syrup, my absolute favorite. About the second bite I understood what was special about this lunch. A piece of string had been intentionally placed in the pancake and as I removed if from my mouth my mother shouted “April Fool!”
Life started accelerating after her death. We moved to a different home, older siblings cared for the younger, married and had children. Dad devoted much of his life to the love and nurture of Gordy. I developed carpenter skills, spent Saturdays and summers working with dad. He had hopes of me taking over his business. I went to college.
On December 21, 1966 I was principal of the same school that I attended as a child and adolescent. I received a phone call from the same brother-in-law that had delivered the telegram to my sister 26 years earlier. He informed me that my dad had had a serious heart attack and that I should get to the hospital as soon as possible. When I arrived dad opened his eyes in recognition. His last words to me were, “Hand me the rope, Donny.” At first I thought he had worked hard all his life, and even in these last minutes he was struggling to get the job done. Then I considered perhaps he wanted me to pull him back from death. Then I thought about the string and somehow the circle was complete.