Mother made the most of humble beginnings

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

My father, who would have turned 100 last month had he not fallen victim to Alzheimer’s disease nearly a decade ago, long enjoyed telling a story about my mother during her heyday.

It goes something like this:

“My wife has gone back to stripping!

“She’s done this off and on for many years, so it isn’t exactly news. It doesn’t bother me a bit, as long as I have to take no part in it. It’s not my cup of tea.

“She goes for this stripping bit whenever time hangs heavy on her hands. She spends a lot of time at it, puts her heart in every move, and does the job well. Her work always draws raves.

“You need to have a talent for this sort of thing and it’s not something that just any woman can master. Not much is required in the way of equipment, but when she goes into this act, it does completely disrupt the household.

“The garage and storeroom suffer particularly with the former serving as the main base of operations. In Michigan weather, she usually winds up with a cold, which is easy to understand given her passion for the activity.”

By now, you might have gathered that Dear Old Dad wasn’t describing a vintage version of Gypsy Rose Lee, but rather a wife who had a passion for turning downtrodden furniture into antique masterpieces.

She had a talent for turpentine, so much so that we often wondered why her homemade salad dressing had a way of stripping off pounds.

But stripping was just one of my mother’s many talents, some of which came into focus when I spent another holiday season remembering a remarkable woman who would have hit the century mark earlier this month had she not been claimed by emphysema a decade ago.

As mothers go, she always rated an A-plus with me, forever offering kind words, a tender touch, and sage advice. While small in stature, she was a giant in spirit, holding true to her convictions whatever the circumstance.

She was raised in the tiny town of Gladwin, Mich., one of nine children. Two days after she was born on December 7, 1919, her 16-year-old brother met an unkind fate. He was killed by his – and her – father in a hunting accident. The despair that her father felt was understandably profound, offering him an excuse to abandon his family for good, just months after the tragedy.

Her mother then was left to raise eight children on her own, utilizing her skills as a seamstress to put food on the table, bartering for the basic necessities of life over the course of the next two decades. Somehow she succeeded, passing along the importance of faith and the value of hard work to each of her offspring.

Her youngest learned the lessons especially well, excelling in school and throughout a nursing career that touched lives in several of the state’s major hospitals, caring for patients in cancer wards and burn units, certainly two of the grimmest places on earth.

Still, she was invariably upbeat, flashing a friendly smile and offering an encouraging word to family, friends, and strangers alike. She always viewed the glass in “half full” terms, even when any of her four children had given her periodic reasons to see it otherwise.

Her positive outlook was never more so than in her dying days, when disease and injuries had racked her body, leaving her in a skeletal state. It was then that her true glory shown through, acting ever the mother, even on her deathbed.

There she would whisper, in a barely audible voice, her love and concern for her husband, three daughters, and one son. She longed for the chance to see the smiles of her five grandsons once again. She especially was happy to know that she had become a great-grandmother for the first time, just days before she would pass away.

Before she sunk into a comatose state, she even had a chance to tell us her favorite place in a world she had traveled far and wide. Hong Kong? Tokyo? London? Paris? New York? San Francisco?
“The side yard doing cartwheels,” she said with a smile.

It’s a smile we will forever return.


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