Remarks At My Mother’s Memorial

Before I talk about Mom, I want to say a few words about hospice.

In her story “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” flash fiction author Kathy Fish suggests a group of hospice workers be called a grace. I wholeheartedly agree. They are angels on Earth. For weeks these kind souls came into our home and made Mom’s passing as easy as possible. We will be forever grateful.

***

I am convinced the reason the elderly repeat the same stories over and over is so you’ll get the details right at times like this. We don’t have the time for me to tell you all of Mom’s stories. So this is the Reader’s Digest version.

My mother, Anna Karolina Badum, grew up in Nazi Germany. Her small farming town in Bavaria went largely untouched by the war, save for those sons and fathers who returned wounded, or never returned at all. Mom’s father, my Opa, had been a railroad engineer on the Russian front. He never said more than that about what he did in the war. When the Americans finally came through, they camped in the fields around Mom’s house. She recalled they had plenty of chocolate. When President Roosevelt died, they fired artillery in tribute. The concussion shattered windows in the house.

After the war, Mom was sent to live with her grandmother and maiden aunts in the 14th century stone tower that is Höchstadt’s primary landmark. I know this sounds like the set up for some dark German fairytale. But Mom loved her grandmother and her aunts, and this is where she learned to cook and bake and to make her own clothes. Her grandmother was regularly hired to cook for weddings and other celebrations in town, and her aunts had a thriving cottage business making dresses. They had no phone, so it was Mom’s job to run around town taking orders, delivering finished dresses, and collecting payment. She did very well on tips.

Living with her grandmother also meant she went to church every day and twice on Sunday. Her friends gave her the nickname “Holy Anna.” They always saved her a seat at the movie theater on Saturdays, when she would be the first one out the door at church, running across town and only ever missing the newsreels.

Like most girls in Germany at that time, Mom’s schooling ended with eighth grade. She moved back home and told her mother she wanted to get a job. Mom was told she needed to help out at home and take care of her brothers.

So she ran away from home. She found work and lodging at a small inn outside Nürnberg, cleaning rooms and helping in the kitchen. Her brother Hilmar was the only one who knew where she was, and he kept her secret. By the time she was eighteen, she had saved enough money to come to America by steamship.

She first stayed with an aunt, and worked keeping house for a retired Army colonel and his family. The colonel knew German, and this is where Mom started to learn English. She then went to live with her Uncle John’s family, and went to night school to improve her English. She also put her sewing skills to work in the embroidery shops of West New York.

My father was a bus driver there, and my mother met him while taking his bus to work. Dad was 16 years her senior, and apparently a real smooth talker.

We lived in West New York until I was five, when we moved to a house in Bergenfield which my father – a veteran of WWII – bought with help from the GI Bill. I will always be thankful for that. It’s where I forged cherished friendships, and where music became such a big part of my life.

Dad was the musician in our house, playing guitar and accordion by ear, singing his kids to sleep. But Mom had the best records: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette. Her hunk of burning love was Elvis: She had all his records, saw all his movies multiple times, even named her miniature schnauzer after him. Later she succumbed to the boyish charms of Glen Campbell. I have fond memories of the whole family watching Campbell’s TV show together. She bought me my first Beatles album – Meet the Beatles. By the end of high school I was putting together bands with my friends and rehearsing in our back basement, sometimes well after Mom had gone to bed. I once asked her why she put up with that, why she never complained. She said, “Because I knew where you were.”

Dad had a heart attack in 1967 that forced his retirement from bus driving. So Mom went back to work at the embroidery shop that had been asking her to come back for years. Often times she’d put in an 80-hour week, that second 40 being paid as overtime. She belonged to the textile workers union, but she didn’t really need them: she was so good at her job she could cause a slowdown at the factory all on her own. So she generally got what she wanted.

I get my love of Star Trek from Mom. When it was first on, when I was nine years old, she let me stay up to watch. I never made it to the end of an episode. But we happily devoured it later in reruns. She loved Captain Kirk. Who didn’t? She loved that women in the 23rd century wore mini skirts. Mostly, she loved its optimistic, inclusive vision of the future. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I still hang on to that vision. Mom did, too, even though it occasionally manifested itself in the phrase, “What the hell is wrong with people?” For Mom, the 23rd century couldn’t get here fast enough.

Mom could knit and crochet like nobody’s business. Sweaters, scarves, bedspreads, pillows, stuffed animals. Truly remarkable work. I believe it was her form of meditation. That her children and grandchildren can wrap themselves in her handmade blankets for all the winters to come brings added meaning to the word “comforter.”

Then there’s the baking. Bread. Cakes. Danish rings. Christmas cookies. Growing up, my favorite time of year was from Thanksgiving until Christmas, when Mom’s kitchen was a feast for the senses. Almost as good as those Christmas cookies was stealing pinches of cookie dough from the fridge and trying to cover up the evidence. A few years back, when Mom said she could no longer make those cookies, it was like a favorite sports hero retiring.

When I let people know Mom had passed, my buddy Andre sent a message of condolence. Shortly after, he sent a second message: Did you get the recipes? Yes. They were in a shoebox under her bed. Of course, they’ll never taste the same. But we’ll give them our best shot.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, let me say: Mom could be ornery. She could hold a grudge like a champion. And for most of her life, she wasn’t one to verbalize her feelings. I think a lot of the difficulties she and my father had could have been ironed out if they had just talked more with each other, been a bit more vulnerable. My mother didn’t tell me she loved me until I was in my thirties. I never doubted her love for a moment, but it was a joy to finally hear her say it. And it was easier to say from that day forward. That day, she was having radiation treatments. Yes, Mom beat cancer, a disease that had claimed her older daughter. It didn’t stand a chance this time around.

In the last couple of years, when she was done telling the same stories, Mom would reflect and say “I’ve had a good life.” It was good to hear her say that. The last time she was able to come to our house for Thanksgiving, I caught her looking wistfully at a photo of my dad we had hanging in the dining room.

“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she said.

Yes he was Ma. And you were beautiful.

So Heaven just got a lot more interesting. It certainly tastes better now. Seriously. If you can’t bake in Heaven, the place doesn’t deserve the name.

***

I want to close with a couple of favorite passages.

The first is by Walt Whitman. I read these words at a friend’s memorial some years ago. I tried to find something different for Mom, but it’s tough to top old Walt. I hope someone will read these same words when my time comes:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed … and luckier.

This last passage comes from Mom’s favorite philosopher. He’s one of mine, too:

Live long and prosper.

[2018]

A Lifetime in Bergenfield Belies Author’s Version

I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.

While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.

The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.

As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.

The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.

This is my version.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.

In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.

The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.

Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.

So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.

On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.

I spent a good part of thai evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.

Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.

She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.

The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.

The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”

Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.

“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”

Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:

“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”

He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.

Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.

An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.

Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.
I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.

I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.

It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.

I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.

What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.

And teachers are the children’s treasure.

[1991]

Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.