by Barbara Keffer
The first word that comes to mind when I think of my mother is resilient. She grew up during the Depression in a family of eight siblings, survived spinal meningitis as a child, was the first in her family to go to college, married during war time, and kept going through some hard times in her marriage, when my father tried to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the war with alcohol, and went bankrupt. In later life, she bounced back from Paget’s Disease, macular degeneration, a shattered femur, many falls, breast cancer, depression, brain seizures that took away her ability to talk for a while, and two near death experiences, one where her heart stopped and one where she choked on something. Two weeks before she died, I was sure she was going to live to be at least 100.
Mom valued education. She was the first in her family to go to college. My Uncle Ted told me her siblings used to call her The Princess, because she got out of many chores because she was studying. She and my father moved our family when we found out there was a really good high school my brother,Bob, and I could attend for free in the Detroit school district. It never occurred to Bob or I that we wouldn’t go to college, despite the family’s lack of resources. Mom taught school after Bob and I left home, and went back to school in mid life to get a Master’s degree. She mentored one of my cousins as a teacher.
Another adjective that comes to mind is creative. I saw her creativity as she made me a college wardrobe, including one dress she made out of a dress of her own that she took apart, dyed, and completely remade. We had little money, but I never felt poor in the outfits she made. Bob remembers a mug she made him when she took a ceramics course with a cowboy handle. In later life, she loved taking art courses, knitting and crocheting, making afghans for all of us.
Bob and I wondered why we had many memories of our father growing up, but not many of our mother. Growing up, she was always in the background, doing things that mothers did in the 50’s and 60’s–regular meals on the table, cleaning house, going to school conferences–we took those things for granted. But we didn’t have a sense of her personality or as much connection to her. She deferred a lot to our Dad.
That all changed in the in last twelve years. To quote Mom: “When I was younger I was shy, but as I grew older I grew bolder.” And she grew very bold indeed. In her last days, I noticed one of the nurses she hung out with in the office lovingly called her “Your Majesty.”
In the last twelve years, when she moved from Michigan to Minnesota, I grew to to treasure my mother as quite a character, and to enjoy her zest for life and sense of humor. One time as she was recovering from a major surgery for a fractured femur, we were invited to my sister-in-law Joan’s bat mitzvah in the Boston area. I thought I would go myself because the thought of navigating the airport with two suitcases and my mother’s walker seemed daunting, and I was not sure we both had the energy for that. Joan challenged me to ask her, citing all of the help that we could get at the airport. So I asked Mom what she thought. Oh yes, she wanted to go. “I want to live until I die.” For Mom, that especially meant attending family celebrations. She stayed up way later than I did to dance at her granddaughter Elizabeth’s wedding. And she loved simple family gatherings where she could see her great grandchildren. Even in the last couple of years, as dementia developed, she would tell my husband Charlie over and over again how much she enjoyed herself on the way home from a family dinner.
In the last five years, when she lived in Episcopal Church Homes, she would cruise around in her wheelchair through the various houses looking for the best party. She wanted to be where the action was. She hung out at the nurses station and somehow especially found her way there when they had their change of shift meetings. And while I never knew her preferences for things growing up, those were made very clear to all in her last twelve years. The staff at the nursing home knew exactly when she liked her coffee during her meal and what she took in it.
She loved music and had many songs committed to memory. If a word reminded her of a song, she would sing it to whoever she was with. She especially loved going to Bob’s concerts, and was his best publicist. At one concert she said to me , “I have the best seat in the house, I can hear Bob singing clearly and I have you next to me singing along.” After many performances, she made it a point of going up to the musicians and telling them how much she enjoyed their performances. When she could, she would stand up next to her chair and dance, and when standing became a problem, she danced in the wheelchair. As her memory faded about many things, she still remembered the words to the chorus of Bob’s song “Alleluia the Great Storm is Over,” but she thought that she was really the composer.
“I want to live until I die.” A great legacy to leave her family. “When I was younger I was shy, but when I got older I grew bolder.” I am glad I really got to know her in the last twelve years. She taught me how much you can get away with and still be loved. That says a lot to me about who God is, and reminds me of a story of Zusia.
Once, the great Hasidic leader Zusia came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”
“The other day I had a vision. In it I learned the question that angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled at his anxiety. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You lead a model life. What question could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘why weren’t you a Moses leading your people out of slavery?’”
His followers persisted, “So what will they ask you?”
“And I have learned,” Zusia said with a sigh, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’”
One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “What will they ask you?”
“They will say to me, Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming. They will say, ‘Zusia, Why weren’t you Zusia?’”
In the end Helena was fully Helena.
She had a little poem she would introduce herself with.
Helena Franke is my name
Staying healthy is my aim
And if I can’t it’s a doggone shame.
Thanks Mom for teaching me how to be bold in my later years.
Barbara Keffer has been helping others listen contemplatively to the sacred dimension of their life experience for over twenty-five years. Trained in Spiritual Direction by the Cenacle Sisters, the Catholic tradition and Ignatian Spirituality form her own horizon for meaning-making. As a psychologist, she has also reflected with seekers in the language of transpersonal psychology. She currently is a supervisor of spiritual directors in training with Sacred Ground. Barbara is married, with four adult children and five grandchildren.