Miriam, my mom (1917-2008)

Mom passed away in the night of September 25, 2008, after living a rather unhappy four years confined to a wheelchair, unable to sit up on her own, and basically unable to do the things she loved to do.  I start with this note of sadness not to look on the dark side, but the opposite:  I wanted to show that the last years, though not happy for her, were the exception.

For most of her life Mom was a busy, energetic, opinionated and practical woman.  Miriam was the friend who drove people at her condo to the doctor, who took walks, and on those walks routinely found four-leaf clover along the Cape Rail Trail that adjoined the condo property.

When I was a kid we wanted a dog.  Dad said absolutely not to the idea of a dog, but as you can see, young Freckles quickly learned to schmooze Dad so that they were inseparable.  

Daily care of Freckles, however, fell to Mom.  She was the one who went looking for him when he ran off, and she would scold him like one of us kids.  “Fre-e-e-e-eckles!  Come home right this minute!!” She would clap her hands sharply so that the dog could hear it. When the dog slunk guiltily up the driveway, he knew from Mom’s voice that he had screwed up.  “I know he’s been in someone’s garbage, I can smell it on his breath!”  Freckles would hang his head and wait for her to forgive him.

There was no mistaking Mom when she was mad at us, and over the years, we gave her reason to get upset, as well as sprout gray hairs.  Mom was the one who lost the most sleep over my scrape with the law at age 13, and Mom was the one who was home with us 100 percent of the time while Dad traveled to clients as part of his job as a dyestuffs salesman.  But in the family hierarchy, Mom put herself clearly in the position of the supporting spouse, as women tended to do in the sixties.  She stayed in the background while Dad held forth at the dinner table, and in fact did this so well that we never gave it a second thought.  None of us noticed that she was there, in the background, until Dad would say something inaccurate in telling a story.  “Kenneth, that was in Orleans, not Truro!” Dad, being Dad, took it as criticism.  But in time, I learned that this was just Mom’s style. She told it the way she saw it.  After Dad died, in 2001, I would go up to the Cape to visit, and we would have a quiet supper together.  And it truly was quiet, for she had so little to say, having spent over half a century correcting, amplifying, interjecting.  With Dad gone, she had to learn a whole new conversational style.

One funny thing about trying to document someone like my mom is that it’s hard to find a good picture of her.  Why? Because in our busy family life, Mom took all the pictures! The snapshot at the top of this article is of Miriam and Dad admiring infant Joan, their first-born and my oldest sister. I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful pictures of Mom, showing her in her prime as a young mother.

Mom grew up in West Redding, Connecticut, and enjoyed the special benefits of living life in the country.  Once, on a visit to the old house, she pointed out the place where, many years earlier,  she had slid down a slope in the snow, dressed in her Sunday best.  There is also a tale about the joy ride that her baby brother Howard took her on in the family car.  The story goes that in his excitement to be driving, he managed to run it into a ditch.  Looking at the vehicle stuck in the ditch, Miriam made a split-second decision:  she told Howard they would tell the authorities (and their mother) that she had been behind the wheel, because Howard, at the time, was too young to drive and would have gotten in bigger trouble than his big sister.  Howard would later write that tale into Mom’s memory book which we kids put together for her 80th birthday.

Her father, Joe Stehlik, worked as a local handyman, driving a tractor or performing other odd jobs that local neighbors needed done. Here he appears at the bottom of a ladder while young Miriam picks fruit out of a tree.

But Mom did not have an easy life.  Joe died of cancer when she was ten years old, and she told us that as part of Joe’s funeral arrangements, the coffin was placed in the parlour, as was the custom back in those days.  She had had to quickly run past Joe’s coffin when she went downstairs, which is easy to imagine must have been a vivid memory for her.

Life for Anna and her three kids, Miriam, Ruth and Howard, changed radically when Joe was gone.  Gramma had to take in mending, and their already frugal existence became even more restricted.  Years later, when she and Dad had us kids, we all picked up a lot of that uncertainty and anxiety, which was exacerbated by their experience of living through the Great Depression of 1929 through 1939.  We felt their pessimism and extreme caution in life as odd and unnecessary.  Growing up in post-World War II Ramsey, New Jersey, we had a nice house, a TV (black & white until after Dad had retired), and we went on vacations in the car to faraway places like Lake Willoughby, Vermont.  To Miriam and Kenneth,  our life must have felt luxurious, but that didn’t stop us from complaining that our own lives were so hard.

Here we are in 1960, with Mom presiding over us all, looking slightly off-camera, as if she knew what worries were coming next.

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