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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

TOF and the Mut

I once saw my mother cry.

Last Sunday was Mother's Day and TOF intended to mull over it. Like many people in the Old Days™, TOF had a mother. Somewhere along the line, she picked up the sobriquet "Mut" or "The Mut" from German "die Mutter," but in TOF's storied childhood she was simply "Mommy."

TOF still remembers and treasures a tender bit of advice his mother gave him when he was but a tad complaining of some Great Injustice, probably involving his brother Dennis. When the complaint had been delivered, she looked up and said:
"Dry up and blow away."
 +++

The Mut was born at a very young age and was afflicted with twin older brothers.

 
The Mut, with brothers, at her mother's house.
She lived most of her life on the same block, having been born in one house and spending her married life two doors down from there. This is not to say she never left the block. Later in life, she journeyed to Alaska and the Caribbean and suchlike places.

Since all mothers themselves have mothers, hers was Big Mom (as she was called, a translation of die Grossmutter). Big Mom lived in the aforesaid house two doors up.

Big Mom (on left, in case you were wondering)
And Big Moms have bigger moms:
Frances Hungrege; mother of Big Mom
TOF has a photograph of the next mother in line; viz., Magdalena Rieß (1836-1901), who came from the Grandherzogthum Baden in 1852, but said photograph is as yet unscanned. Magdalena's mother was Franciska Stefan (1799-1856), whose mother was Maria Anna Pflüger (c.1772-1845) Both well before photography. So TOF is descended from a long line of mothers. And if 50% of TOF's ancestors being German makes him half-German, what does it mean that 50% of his ancestors were women?

But we digress.

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The area was known as German Hill for reasons that even the most stolid of TOFian readers may easily discern; and more specifically as "Schwar Town" after Big Mom's family. The name is pronounced "sh-where" because it had once had an umlaut gracing it thus: Schwär.* The Schwars were a family of stone masons going back centuries**, and many of the houses in the neighborhood were their work, including their own houses and the local church:
Big Mom before she was Big Mom
Brothers Leo and George building church.
*Schwär. In German records it is variously spelled Schwär, Schwähr, Schwör, Schwehr, etc. Don't suppose English is the only language with Spelling Issues.
** going back centuries. The earliest Schwar of which we take cognizance is Märtinus Schwör, b. ca. 1643 in Gemeinde Oberhausen, Baden.

During the Depression, Mut remembered eating carrot sandwiches, that being what they could afford. Mut went to the parish school, where German was still even at that late date a required course. She once told the TOFling that she remembered her prayers in German, reciting, "Fadder onser der du bish in Himmel...," a rather Swabian pronunciation. Past 8th grade, she took the 2-year "commercial" course, and then went to the Catholic high school across the river in New Jersey. To get there, she walked along the Lehigh Valley RR tracks and across the RR bridge. The kids knew the train schedule and so knew when no trains would be coming. Still, you didn't want to dawdle along the way, nor for that matter fall off the bridge into the river.

At school, she met Joe Flynn, a geeky guy who built radios and once blew up his bedroom with a chemistry experiment. When Joe was away with the Marines, she sent him a pin-up picture of herself. TOF has seen this picture and avers that his mommy was a major babe.

Half the Seventh Fleet got that picture. Morale ran high in the Pacific Theater.

+++++

After the war, she married Joe and remained in that state of matrimony for the rest of her life. For five years her family lived in her parents' house, until Joe finally convinced the GI Bill people to let him build a house. (At one point, the bureaucrats demanded to know how many rings would be in the shower curtain before they would release funds. Pere snapped and went to the American Legion, which then mentioned the matter to Congressman Walters, who told the aforesaid bureaucrat get stuffed and shook the money loose. The apotheosis of the "Greatest Generation" came quite a bit later.)

The new house was built of stone (of course) by her uncle Leo (of course). During the building of it, Young Joe served as a helper, lugging stones from the pile and lifting them to the scaffold for Uncle Leo. He came back on one trip to find a stone on the ground. Helpfully, he picked it up and replaced it on the scaffold. When he came back again, he found the stone once more on the ground. As he lifted it back to the scaffold, Uncle Leo told him, "If you put that back, I hit you in the head with it." An expert stone mason, he knew by eyeballing the shape and dimensions that the stone would not work.)

The Mut, pbuh.
 The Mut had been working as a secretary at Taylor-Wharton Iron & Steel Company. Now she quit to devote her time to TOF and his sibs. And indeed, this required considerable time even when allowing for TOF's sunny disposition and equitable behavior. Though he is told that on one occasion he and Dennis drove Mut out of the house to run up to her mother's place for counsel. She came back to find #3 son, Kevin, trying to crawl out the front door after her to tattle on some peccadillo of his two older brothers, with TOF and Dennis each holding a leg to stop him. Kevin claims to remember this vividly, though TOF does not.
TOF pauses to speculate that there may be something to this whole "extended family" thingie. Nothing like having the experienced grandmother handy, not as a babysitter, but as a dispenser of advice and counsel. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it surely helps to have a family. Our modern experiment of dispensing with families may prove costly.
Easter 1955: in Big Mom's back yard.
l to r: Dennis, Mut, TOF, Pere, Kev.
Mut provided all sorts of useful life advice. In addition to the aforesaid "Dry up and blow away," there was also
  • "Dry up and bust" (which carried much the same import, but with a more force)
  • "Horsefeathers and donkey turds" (an expression of the worth of TOF's complaints)
  • "Where is last winter's snow?" (regarding the location of stuff since used up. Not to be confused with "I don't play with it," which at least implies that "it" is still around, somewhere.)
By this one realizes that a cloying sentimentality was not her metier. But do not suppose that this Germanic strictness meant a lack of care. In modern terms, she was telling us to "get a grip." (She would have laughed at today's Special Snowflakes wrapped in their cocoons and bubbles, clutching their pearls over "microagressions" and "dog whistles".) It might well be that we became more self-reliant as a result.
(Did she help TOF with school projects? Not that we recall; but then TOF doesn't recall any school projects. Our schoolwork consisted mainly of reading books, recitation, blackboard work, drill, and so on. We built no dioramas or artsy-craftsy stuff. For one thing, the school didn't have the space to spread out for such things. We sat two to a desk in the first and second grades, with both grades in the same room.)
The practice of the era was for free-range children. Mothers released their kids into the wild in the morning and gathered them in again in the evening. Presumably doing a headcount at some point.  We wandered all over South Side -- and beyond. We would bike down to the railroad yards and watch the trains; or we'd hike up over Mammy Morgan's Hill and down the other side and come up along the canal, building fires and cooking wieners along the way. Basically TOF's whole childhood would be illegal today. At the appropriate time, the mothers of the neighborhood would come out on their back porches and raise the Call. It was always done in a sing-song voice: "MIchael come IN here." One by one, the kids in the gang would hear their names and head home. Sometimes Mut would only want one of us, perhaps for some infraction or other. She would start at the top of the list and stop when she reached the name she wanted: "Michael, Dennis, KEVIN come IN here." Dennis and I would then let out a breath or relief. Poor Kevin.

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The Mut was also a member of perhaps the last generation to make meals from "scratch." She made the pie crusts, the noodles, rivels, etc. from flour. Among her specialties:
  • Pepper pot, paring meat from a shin-bone
  • Speck and beans, chunks of ham and green beans boiled together
  • Crumb cake, with a powdered sugar and cinnamon crumbles on top. TOF later encountered the self-same cake in a Vienna hotel.
Every Friday was breaded filet of sole. Yummy. TOF loved fish and never regarded it as a sacrifice.

++++

Because it was Schwar-Town, various aunts frequently dropped in. So did uncles, but we are talking Mother's Day here. These were the sisters of Big Mom, most of whom lived a short walk away. One of them -- I think it was aunt Hilda -- would gift us with a silver dollar, mostly Peace Dollars and the occasional Morgan. We should have saved those cartwheels and not spent them. They'd be worth a bit today.

Once #5 bro was in school, Mut took a position working at the local newspaper as a copyreader. She used this position of power and influence to wangle an interview for TOF and Dennis with a local columnist. We were the "space-writing Flynns" because of our SF stories. Later, she secured an interview for Kevin regarding IIRC his work as a child actor. She saved all of the stories (typed on the old Smith-Corona manual). She never told us to dry up and blow away on something that mattered. Only when we whined.

A while later still she worked as the school librarian. This was in the days before credential-mania had swept the country and the only thing that mattered was whether you could do the work.

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The one time I saw my mother cry was in 1964. Dennis had been getting weaker and more listless and I, not really understanding what was going on, thought to rouse him to greater health by teasing and prodding him to greater activity. Mut took me aside and told me not to tease Dennis anymore because he was really really sick. Then she coughed out a sob and said, "I don't think he's going to make it." She did not indulge in dramatics; that was not the way. Just a quiet, almost dignified, insuperable sorrow.

A while later, after Dennis had gone into the hospital, while I was playing football in the street a block over, the Mut came out in the back yard and hollered me home. Somehow at that moment I knew that Dennis had died, although she said nothing until I reached where she stood in the back yard. I've always supposed that that was how the banshee worked. Nothing dramatic; just that dread certainty, that knowing before anything was said.

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In later years, when Pat the youngest had graduated, the Mut began to travel. She bussed to Atlantic City to the casinos. Theater trips. The Caribbean, Alaska, the Black Hills, all sorts of places. She came out to Colorado to live with us for a couple months when our kids were born. After all, it takes a grandmother, right? And Margie could not exactly run up the block if the kids got to her.

The Incomparable Marge was the daughter Mut never had, and whenever she called out to Colorado and I, her eldest son, answered the phone, she would say, "Let me talk to Margie."My brothers and I took up the cry, "Mom always liked you best!"

Later, she collected some more "daughters."

++++++

The women in Mut's genealogy tended to die at fairly young ages, but Mut lasted longer than most of them. She went in the hospital and the surgeon thought he had gotten most of it, but wanted to see her again after a time. So at home, for the first time in a long time, all her far-flung surviving sons were together with her. We sat in the kitchen because that's what you did and talked about Stuff until one of us -- methinks it was Kevin -- mentioned "Ruth." Now there was more than one Ruth in the family tree, and Mut says, "Ruth? Aunt Ruth?" as if it were the most unbelievable thing in the world. For some reason, this struck everyone as terribly funny, and set of a series of jokes and puns each more hysterical than the one before until we were all ROFLOL!! And ever after for the time that was left, simply to say "Ruth!" was enough to start it up again.

TOF was living then in Edison NJ and when not on the road for a client had some latitude on his when and where. Mut had returned to the hospital. The second operation had not been a happy one, and matters were now a foregone conclusion. TOF held out hope because that is what TOF does, but each day he mourned just a little bit.

One day, he gathered up his son, who was out of school. (The Marge was at workd and his older sister was in Arizona.) We drove across the State to the Commonwealth, where we stopped at the house that Mut's uncle had built for us. #4 and #5 brothers were there, Sean and Pat, having just returned from the hospital. Pere and Kevin were there now, they told me. So we chatted a while and Young Dennis and I set out for the hospital. "I don't think she's going to make it," I told Dennis.

When we reached the hospital something was different. I had paid a number of visits already, but this time the door to Mut's room was closed. Hesitating a moment -- there might have been something medical going on -- we pushed it open and stepped inside.

Pere and Kevin were on opposite sides of the bed, holding her hands. Pere looked up and said, "She's gone."

It had happened only moments before I stepped in the room. Pere had called the House with the news and learned that I was on the way. Shortly after, Sean and Pat returned and burst into the room. And I thought, she had seen and spoken with her life-long husband and all four of her sons in the past couple of days, and Margie too. There are plenty worse ways to go than to fall asleep in the midst of your family. So all I can say at this point is

"Ruth?"

and listen for the heavenly laughter.














4 comments:

  1. Beautiful, thanks for sharing the story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fortunately, despite our disputes, my mother abides and nears her 76th birthday.

    The portrait you drew of yours was poignant, funny, and vibrant. This doesn't surprise me.

    What does surprise me, Michael, is that **my** mother's mother's mother was one Sarah F. "Sadie" Rieß, born in Pennsylvania 1874 and died in Camden, NJ, 1909 from tuberculosis.

    JJB

    ReplyDelete
  3. It wasn't pronounced "sh-vhere"?
    You said your Mut "... bussed to Atlantic City to the casinos." Does that mean she kissed her way there? Waverly East Middle School, here in Lansing, still has a sign announcing "Busses in back"; I presume that is to instruct the kids to make out somewhere they can't be seen from Michigan Avenue.
    My "Mut" and my "Vat" are still alive, God be praised, and pretty active as they near the mid-point of their ninth decade. She was raised just up the road from you in Reading and being part-Greek bequeathed to my German-extracted father the sobriquet "Papou" amongst his grandchildren, thus sparing them the confusion of having two "Grandpas" to choose from. But now I am "Papou" to my grandchildren and they have two Papous to choose from, which they resolve by calling my elder "Big Papou" even though I am somewhat taller. Happy Mother's Day, happier no doubt for the joyful memories.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It wasn't pronounced "sh-vhere"?
    You said your Mut "... bussed to Atlantic City to the casinos." Does that mean she kissed her way there? Waverly East Middle School, here in Lansing, still has a sign announcing "Busses in back"; I presume that is to instruct the kids to make out somewhere they can't be seen from Michigan Avenue.
    My "Mut" and my "Vat" are still alive, God be praised, and pretty active as they near the mid-point of their ninth decade. She was raised just up the road from you in Reading and being part-Greek bequeathed to my German-extracted father the sobriquet "Papou" amongst his grandchildren, thus sparing them the confusion of having two "Grandpas" to choose from. But now I am "Papou" to my grandchildren and they have two Papous to choose from, which they resolve by calling my elder "Big Papou" even though I am somewhat taller. Happy Mother's Day, happier no doubt for the joyful memories.

    ReplyDelete