Thursday, October 7, 2010

Points of Grief, Moments of Peace

Even though my mom’s passing had been expected – her health had declined very rapidly during the last two months of her life – we still felt the sting of its impact. For me, I experienced an acute sadness on three separate occasions during the week immediately following her death.

A week ago yesterday, I missed my brother Larry’s 6:15 a.m. call, about the time I went outside to retrieve the New York Times from the edge of the driveway. As soon as I saw the notification on the screen of my iPhone, I knew right away what the news was going to bed. I listened to his voice-mail message as he matter-of-factly announced that “Mom died last night, around 3:30”. He then tried to say more, but his voice cracked, and he managed to add only a few more words before ending the call.

After we talked on the phone a few minutes later, mostly to begin the discussion about funeral arrangements, I placed my iPhone onto the kitchen counter and stared into blank space momentarily. With some relief actually, I felt a bubble of emotion well up inside of me, and my eyes began to burn with tears. But memories of her full and wonderful life, particularly our recent visits to Warren at Thanksgiving, provided a soothing comfort. When I relayed the news to JoAnna, however, I choked up, just as Larry had.

“Now I really want to go home,” she said.

Not feeling well, she called me at home from the Monona Terrace Convention Center – it was the final day of a week-long conference sponsored by DWD – just as I reached for my phone to call her.

“Maybe you should have Andy pick me up,” she suggested.

Andy, home for the weekend, was still in bed at 11 a.m.

“No, I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I guess I’m still in the first stage of processing the news,” I added.

The second stage occurred as I read Mom’s obituary in the Warren Times Observer (online). I’d never seen the photo that Larry and Dale had selected to accompany the text, one showing Mom with a beaming, beatific smile – just the way I want to remember her. I sat quietly as a few waves of grief rose to the surface. As before, this involuntary moment of emotional turmoil resulted in an extended period of serenity.

The third bubble made its presence known shortly after Pastor Beth Costlow – “Pastor Beth”, as she prefers to be addressed – began her homily in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Using a series of personal observations, she repeatedly referred to the “small gestures” in Mom’s life – the surprise delivery of a plate of Danish pastries, the holiday greeting cards sent to her five-year-old son (who has suffered from a series of medical ailments since birth). It was the perfect illustration of how Mom lived her life and how she demonstrated her love and concern for others. Doing things quietly. Never drawing attention to herself.

Before leaving the house, we had all put some Kleenex in more than one pocket, and it was at this point in the service when I reached to retrieve one and dry the tears that had streaked my face.

With her heartfelt homily, Pastor Beth redeemed herself, in part, for past oversights, the most glaring of which was not visiting Mom when she was hospitalized for two days in July. And then she never bothered to visit Mom at home during the final two months of her life.

Mom always felt that the lack of visitation on the part of many of today’s clergy is a disturbing trend. Apparently, they can’t be bothered to reach out to their ailing and homebound parishioners. The same goes for recruiting new members to the church. Dad fully embraced these responsibilities, spending a significant amount of his time visiting church members who were recuperating in the hospital or unable to leave their homes on their own. He brought them a message of comfort, offered them communion, and prayed with them. Neither of the pastors who succeeded Dad at St. Paul’s included outreach in their personal ministries. As a result, church membership has plummeted. Average attendance at the Sunday service is an anemic 50. When Dad served the church, attendance averaged 400 at two services (8:30 and 11:00). From what Kim, my sister-in-law, has been hearing around town, St. Paul’s is reaching the point where it can no longer support its operations, something I foresaw when I attended services with Mom. Discussions regarding a merger with the city’s two other Lutheran churches are already underway. It’s likely then that the church building Dad worked so hard to make a reality 40 years ago may soon stand vacant. It’s a very sad situation, though probably as attributable to Warren’s declining fortunes. When we moved there in 1957, I recall seeing a billboard at the edge of town that proclaimed we were entering the “home of 15,000 friendly people”. Warren’s population now stands at just over 9,000.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Warren, Pennsylvania

When I talked with my cousin Dick last week, he slid into a reminiscing mood and described how my mom and dad met, a story whose details have always been indistinct in my mind. First of all, he mentioned that he met Mom about a year before my Dad did, in the fall of 1943, shortly after she was hired to work as the secretary of Zion Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is Dad's hometown, and Zion is the church where he was baptized and confirmed. Dick was 15 years old at the time and a sophomore at Rockford East High School, I'd guess. Our grandfather, Herman Nelson, who was around 70, was employed as Zion's custodian.

Aunt Svea with her sons, Roger and Dick (1946?)

The first in his family to reach this milestone, Dad graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in June 1943. He immediately moved to Auburn, Washington, a booming suburb of Seattle, where he served as the pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church. I suspect his visit to Rockford in October 1944 was his first since he had left the previous summer. Wasting no time, Grandpa Nelson introduced Mom to his youngest of seven children, who I'm sure was considered a very eligible bachelor during the last year of World War II. Wasting no time themselves, Mom and Dad were married, at Zion, on January 26, 1945.

Wedding party standing from left to right: Edna (Mom’s sister), Signe, Gen (Mom’s sister), Mom, Dad, Ford (Dad’s brother), and 2 guys I can’t identify. The flower girls are my cousins Carole Benander and Genevieve Stark.

Mom also became good friends with Dad's sister Signe, the last of his five sisters to marry. (In 1946.) For many years, I had assumed that Signe had been the matchmaker. At 33, she still lived at home with 'Ma and Pa', even though she'd been working fulltime for more than 10 years. Probably since her high school graduation, actually. As you would expect, she was active member of Zion, which is, of course, how she met Mom.

During my July visit to Warren, I asked Mom a series of questions about this period of her life. It's amazing how much she still remembered -- and equally amazing how much I've already forgotten. (I should have taken notes.) This much I know. She graduated from Springfield Technical High School in June 1938. She attended American International College in Springfield for 3 years, never earning a degree. She then moved to Minneapolis, where she lived with her Aunt Ida and attended the Lutheran Bible Institute. It's not clear to me what brought her to Rockford, although I vaguely remember her saying the opportunity was made known to her by one of her classmates. Unfortunately, certain details from the year 1943 remain elusive.

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