Mom making bread bears when the kids and I visited.

Joseffa and I were having coffee and a treat at the bakery Saturday morning when in came a grandpa with a young boy.  They both looked so happy, and it was plain to see this wasn’t their first outing. They helped themselves to samples and put their heads together to decide what to buy.

Mom with Joseffa on her First Communion day. Probably the last time she was able to visit us.

When I looked at Joseffa, we both had tears welling up.  She missed out on grandma and grandpa. In my family, she is the youngest child of the youngest child in a big family.  Dad was gone before any of my kids were born; he died of cancer in ’87. The boys remember mom, but Joseffa was still quite young as grandma’s health began failing.  Living in another state also didn’t help. Jamie’s mother died when he was a child, and our kids were never close to his dad for many complicated reasons, distance again being one.

Joseffa feels this hole in her life very acutely, especially when she hears her cousins talking about grandma and grandpa. I always think my siblings and I grew up in very different families, and this is yet another way it shows. Dad and mom spent a lot of time with the kids of my oldest sibs.  They went to school and sports events, babysat them, fished up at the cabin, gave them many hugs…

I’ve been thinking of mom frequently lately, missing her deeply.  She died in January ’09… has it really been four years?  I last saw her at Christmas. We visited her at St. Anne’s home and went to Christmas eve mass together. It was hard… she seemed gone already in so many ways.  Yet she sang the carols in a small weak voice; “Away in a Manger” always was a favorite.  We sang it together many times when I was a child.


Helen grew up on a farm in Butternut, Wis., the youngest of five kids. She loved playing with piglets and daddy long leg spiders, she told me. She loved her mother, Sophie, who worked very hard on the farm.  Her father, Andrew, was more distant. We visited the farm this summer, during a family reunion. It was dilapidated and overgrown.  It would have broken her heart to see it that way.  It made her seem that much more gone to me.

In town, they opened a new museum, and she and dad and other relatives were in the high school class photos on the wall. That was touching and sweet, but odd… my folks in a museum!

Mom and dad in their senior class photo in the museum

The farm house in 2012, falling down.

Helen and Chet were high school sweethearts.  They married after dad returned early from military service; his father was ill and he was needed on the farm. My oldest siblings were born on the farm before my folks sold it and moved to Racine, Wis., and later to Milwaukee.  The kids kept coming until there were seven.

Mom got a job at a dry cleaners when I was in early elementary school. She suffered from depression, and her doctor told her that working would help.  I was pretty young, but I think she enjoyed the job until the store was robbed for the first time.  And then again. We moved out of what was becoming an unsafe neighborhood, and she got a job as a bank teller, which she kept for many years.

Between her job and her many health issues (she had pretty severe asthma), much of my care was left to the sibs and dad.  My high school years were busy, with band, work, dating and other activities… I don’t really remember mom being a big part of them.

It was when I left for college that I became more aware of her.  It surprised me that she cried when they dropped me off there.  I guess I figured that after so many years of so many kids, an empty nest might suit her just fine.

My experiences as a mother have drawn me so much closer to her.  So often, I wish she were here so I could tell her.  I am reminded of her tears as I shed my own when leaving my boys at college.  When I worry about my kids when they face challenges in their lives, I recall her concern for me during difficult times in my life.  As I pray for strength, I see her on her knees at bedtime whispering prayers for all of her children and grandchildren. As I dry Joseffa’s tears of sadness at not having her grandma, I think about how much grandma would have loved to be here holding her herself.

The holiday season is hard because mom is everywhere… Her handmade ornaments are on the tree, her hand-written recipes on the counter.  I am so very thankful for these things.  But the grief can still be so raw at times.

Snow is falling as I write this, and it’s turning colder.  I’m making peace with the sadness that is a part of the holidays for me. I miss my mom terribly, both for myself and for Joseffa, but I can’t pretend away that hole in my heart.  It just is.  We’ll finish decorating the tree today, and I really must decide which cookies I will make this year.  Griffin and Drew will be home soon, and it will be peaceful and hectic and good. I hope mom is looking down upon us and knows how much she is missed — and loved.

Mom and me on my first Christmas