For Mom – On Her 90th Birthday

Psalm 90 says: The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

The psalm is attributed to Moses, who lived to be a hundred and twenty. Who knows, maybe you will too, Mom. And if you do, may your eyesight not grow dim nor your strength diminshed. According to the psalmist seventy or eighty is a full life. At ninety, you’re well into the biblical bonus round, or as they say in soccer, “extra time.” We’re happy you’re still in the game and haven’t flown away yet, even though some days may seem more toil and trouble than they’re worth. We know, as you yourself believe and taught us, to live is Christ and to die is gain. In the end, it’s win/win. So we’ll rejoice in your extra time in full anticipation of our resurrection in Jesus and eternal life.

I was your birthday present. I kept you up all night sixty two years ago, as I probably have done many nights thereafter. We share a common bond in consecutive March birthdays along with that unique, quirky bond between a mother and her first-born son that years of therapy cannot undo. Just kidding. Happy Birthday, Mom.

The three of us – Marlene, Steve, and me – all have twenty-three of your chromosomes shuffled into our genetic deck. Each of us carries a bit of you with us. I have your gift of gab. We like to talk. A lot. Conversation is a full contact sport with us, and coffee is our performance enhancing drug. We can still drain several pots of coffee at the breakfast table while discussing religion, politics, news, current events and any other forbidden topic, when mere mortals would have long walked away from the table. Outsiders think we’re arguing, but we’re just having pleasant conversation.

My brother Steve has your stubborn yet steady persistence and perseverance. Where others give up and walk away after a few failed attempts, Steve keeps going until the problem is solved, even if it means repeatedly banging his head on a wall, which he used to do quite a bit when he was a little kid. This has made him perfectly suited for science, which is about 95% failure and banging your head against a wall. Stubbornness can be useful at times.

My sister Marlene has your uncanny sense of organization and finance. She is tireless, attentive to detail, and as comfortable with the Excel spreadsheet as you were with the adding machine. At ninety, you do email and pay your bills online, impressive at any age. In another day, you might have run companies or perhaps nations. Instead, you managed our household with German precision and a watchful eye on the bottom line. The checkbook was always balanced and reconciled, the floors were clean, and dinner was on the table at 6 PM when Dad arrived home from work.

All three of us inherited your gift of music. This clearly comes from you because Dad didn’t have a musical bone in his body much less an ability to carry a tune or appreciate one. Dad had only two notes in his vocal repertoire – a higher one and a slightly lower one, which he quietly utilized on Sunday morning in church. But the hymnal was open to the correct page and his lips were moving which meant he was singing along with you. You had a lovely soprano voice, often heard in the church choir and at weddings and funerals. Marlene plays the flute, Steve the trumpet, I’ve taken my turn at piano, clarinet, and guitar. We all like to sing, thanks to you, a gift that continues to give generously.

You are thoroughly German, born and raised in Ansbach, Germany in Bavaria, during the challenging years of the war that shaped who you are. You met our father during the post-war occupation years. He was an army corporal stationed at the army base in Ansbach. You might have married a German man, and spared yourself the sideways looks and criticism, but criticism never stopped you from doing what you wanted to do. You emigrated to the US over and against the advice of the German magistrate who told you, “Don’t give up your German citizenship.” More than most who enter into the holy estate marriage, you had no idea what you were getting into, but you are endlessly adaptable and able to fit into any situation.

You lived in Texas briefly, and after Dad was discharged from his duties in the Army, you settled on the south side of Chicago where together you built a home and raised a family – six people, including Grandma, in a three bedroom house with a built out basement and only one bathroom. How did we survive? You still live in the same home today, though it is much emptier and quieter now. You have the bathroom all to yourself. No more pacing the hallway or banging on the door while asking “Are you reading in there?” We always answered “no” but we were always reading. You don’t like to move, and neither do we. We tend to put down deep tap roots.

Being German, you have always been a boundless source of proverbial wisdom, some of which made sense, and some was lost in translation. Your wisdom comes with an extended index finger pointed toward the intended recipient, like the scepter of King Solomon about to grace a subject with a proverb, a trait you inherited from your mother.

Here is brief sampling of some of things we learned from you, in no particular order.

Always be on time. You are German, and the trains always run on time. I think only my brother Steve actually learned this lesson. It seems to have skipped over Marlene and me, who are never on time for anything. Or maybe that’s just our Polish-Ukrainian side exerting itself. It isn’t easy being part German and part Polish-Ukrainian. The German side is always trying to take over.

A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. No, wait. That’s not you. That’s Mary Poppins, which was the second movie I saw with you. The first was The Sound of Music. You liked Julie Andrews. But the saying is still part of your wisdom. A little sugar does help with the bitterness of a hard truth. You taught us the value of kindness before criticism, praise before correction, speaking the truth, but always in love.

Be respectful of others. We grew up in a segregated and racially polarized version of Chicago. Racial slurs and derogatory remarks were a common part of Chicagoese, but never in our house. It was not permitted. You grew up in World War II Germany, and you knew deeply the sights and sounds of hatred. In your life, you lived out the noble ideal of Dr. Martin Luther King who dreamt of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. You are colorblind when it comes to people, which didn’t always sit well with some in the neighborhood, but it prepared the three of us to live in a complex kaleidoscope of humanity.

Take your shoes off when you come into house. We all still do that. You like a clean floor. You could eat off the floor in our house. The basement floor. Even the garage floor. I don’t know about Marlene and Steve, but I don’t quite measure up to your standards of cleanliness, though I still take my shoes off when I enter the house. Our cats don’t seem to mind eating off the floor, but I wouldn’t recommend it for people, mostly on account of the cat fuzz.

Speaking of cats, here’s a rule we all have broken in our own homes: Animals belong outside. Like all Germans, you are a great lover of the natural world. You loved to hike in the woods. You love the birds that visit the backyard. You even love the cat that hangs out under the bushes to watch the birds with questionable intentions. But not in the house.  Animals belong outside. I think each of us, at one time or another wanted a dog or a cat. We all now have one or the other or both. But the most you would allow us were animals confined to quarters – hamsters, fish, turtles, that sort thing. This goes with the next piece of wisdom.

Alles in Ordnung. Everything in order. Order is next to cleaniness. You were PTA president for many years while we were in school. During that time you summarized Roberts Rules of Order to make them usable for small meetings. You like an orderly meeting as much as you like an orderly kitchen. I have a copy of what I’ve titled “Mom’s Rules of Order.” I give it to all my church leaders so they know how to conduct an orderly meeting. We are grateful.

Take family vacations. You and Dad loved to travel, and you took us along with you, until we became teenagers and “too cool” to be seen hiking with our parents at Yosemite or Yellowstone or some other natural wonder of the world. Our loss. Each of us got to go to Germany to meet the German relatives when we were twelve years old. We went on family vacations every summer, usually to National Parks, of which you’ve been to dozens. Dad drove, you navigated from the passenger seat. I remember many “animated” conversations between you and Dad during those trips. It wasn’t until recently that I learned you couldn’t read a map very well, which accounts for the animation of those conservations. We always did arrive at our destination.

I recall a summer trip to the Florida everglades. It had been hot, humid, and raining. We had run the air conditioning in the car the entire day. When we arrived at the visitor center at Everglades National Park and opened the car door, a massive swarm of mosquitos rivaling one of the plagues in Egypt flew into the car. Ever quick to defend the family, you immediately shut the doors, rolled up the windows and proceeded to discharge a can of Raid aerosol bug spray in the car, killing all the mosquitos and nearly making us breaking news at 6 PM.

No excuses. If you’re too sick to go to school or church, then you’re too sick to play with your friends or go out. Miraculous healings, while certainly within the realm of possibility, are no exception to the rule. You still can’t go out to play. Even Lazarus risen from the dead wouldn’t have been allowed to play with his friends that day. It would have to wait until tomorrow.

Forgive liberally, forget as you are able, something that gets easier with each passing year. Each of us brought our own unique share of chaos into the house. There is no need to discuss them here. But these things have been long forgiven, and if they aren’t forgotten, we can at least enjoy a good chuckle over them and recognize that it is by the grace of God that we are still alive. That doesn’t mean you were soft on crime. Not by any stretch. Justice was swift and administered Texas-style – right then and there. There was no “wait until your father comes home.” And if things weren’t resolved by the time Dad came home, it was like being prosecuted on state and federal charges at the same time. You and Dad may not always have agreed, but you never disagreed in front of us.

Pay your bills. Don’t go into debt. Live with gratitude. Be kind to friends and strangers alike. Take time to notice the things that are noble, beautiful, and just. Take care of the little things and the big things will more or less take care of themselves. Those are some of the things you taught us, and we are forever grateful and wiser.

You are the curator of our family’s museum memories contained in albums and boxes full of old photographs and clippings, many of which make us thankful that we are not nominated to the Supreme Court. You know the family tree like an expert arborist knows the branches of an old oak. You grew up an only child, but you have become the mother of three, grandmother of three, aunt and great aunt to the Cwirlas, Mannings, and Monacos, however many of us there are these days. You are among the honored matriarchs of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, honorary Ommah to many and the Godmother of Crestline Street.

We love you Mom. We thank God for you and for this extra time we get to have with you. You still have many pearls of wisdom to cast in our direction. God knows, we still need it. 

Happy Birthday, Mom.

With love,