The three of us are squinting into the sun in the old Polaroid photograph. My Mom is wearing white Greta Garbo sunglasses and a mink jacket. My mom and I both have “frosted” hair. The style doesn’t last very long for me. Even though I like the way it looks, it is way too much trouble. My mom likes being stylish and she doesn’t mind taking the time to look good.
We’re standing next to my Mom’s forest green Mustang convertible. She learned to drive at age 45, and this is her first car. Dad bought the car for her. He likes to get deals on used cars. Low mileage, sporty vehicle. My dad had lost his job, and we moved to the Twin Cities where he could find work. The only job my mom could find requires her to drive an hour each way, from Golden Valley to Saint Paul, in city traffic. She has never driven on a freeway, so my older brother Brad takes her out for a trial run. “Mom, you’re going to have to drive a little faster.” She steps on the gas, up to 40 mph. “A little more, Mom. You have to keep up with the traffic.” She eventually figures it out.
The Mustang has white sidewall tires, which I painstakingly scrub with a brush and cleaner whenever I want to borrow the car. The black ragtop folds back, with a plastic rear window. The top is down in the photo, and reminds me of many times that I jumped back out of the car as fast as I got in, because the black leather bucket seats got scorchingly hot in the sun.
A note on the back of the fading Polaroid picture says Easter, 1969. Brad is not with us. He is in Georgia, reporting for duty at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. He has just enlisted in the Army, fearing that if he waited he would be drafted and his choices would be limited. We all worry about whether he will be sent to Vietnam, though none of us talk about it out loud.
Discussing negative feelings is not something that is done easily in my family. Talking about fears or disappointment is just not part of the drill. We didn’t actually talk that much about positive feelings either. I knew that my parents loved me and were proud of me, but I can’t recall either one of them actually saying, “I love you.” My dad likes to buy the mushiest Valentine’s Day and birthday cards that he can find in the store. I guess it’s easier to let Hallmark find the words.
Dad, Mom, and I are standing in my aunt Lois’ driveway, and there are pine trees in the background. It’s too early for Uncle Marvin’s marigolds to be in bloom, so we’re not in danger of backing over them as someone invariably does no matter how hard we try to be careful. It’s a running joke in the family, along with Marv’s penchant for getting peace and quiet away from the four kids by doing laundry.
There’s a small porch leading to the front door. If you look closely, you can see my cousin Cindy coming out the front door, interrupting the picture. She always likes to be where the action is. Or maybe she’s just coming to tell us that dinner’s ready. We all try to make sure that we’re between Cindy, Uncle Stan, and the mashed potatoes, as there will be none left when the two of them get the bowl. Uncle Stan is as skinny as a rail, even though he can pack away more spuds than any three men.
I decide to go to Georgia to visit my brother and his wife, Beth. It’s the first time I’ve flown by myself. My brother gets a weekend pass from Officer Candidate School, and it’s hectic at the house that Beth shares with two other military wives. The Army has taken its toll on my brother, and I am shocked at his gaunt appearance. He has lost a lot of weight, and didn’t have any extra as it was.
We spend Saturday at Calloway Gardens, a beautiful sandy beach halfway between Fort Benning and Atlanta. My aunt Ebbie, who is always the life of the party (like my mom), makes the most amazing sand castle I have ever seen. The most exciting event of the day is when Beth mistakenly goes in the men’s restroom. She is greeted by a gentleman, who tells her, “Ma’am, one of us is in the wrong place, and I’m pretty sure it’s not me.”
May 4, 1970
The news is painful to watch. I can’t take my eyes off the television. “Four students were killed during a protest at Kent State. Details are sketchy, but it appears that National Guardsmen shot several students in an attempt to break up a rally on the campus of Kent State.” Nixon has just committed more troops to Cambodia, and the natives are restless.
My friend Jan is coming for the weekend so we can see Peter, Paul, and Mary in concert. Jan is the kind of friend that I can talk to about anything. We share a love of folk music, and an aversion to the war, Republicans, and the National League. We talk about men (or our lack thereof), God, the Minnesota Twins, parents, freedom, and Vietnam. The concert soothes a lot of raw nerves. We cry. We’re hippie wannabees, all peace and love minus the sex and drugs. I get goosebumps when we sing, “I’d hammer out justice, I’d hammer out freedom.”
That summer I work as a typist at a manufacturing company in Northeast Minneapolis. In the breakroom the following Monday, Kent State is the main topic of conversation. Most of the women are unsympathetic to the students. They assume that I will be, too. I am reluctant to say much, as I’ve just started working there and don’t want to make waves. One woman, Liz, is particularly vocal. “They should have thought about getting hurt before they protested.” I finally can’t keep my mouth shut any more. “So you think they deserved to die just because they were protesting the war?” “That’s exactly what I think.” Liz has a high school-aged daughter, so I ask “What if your daughter had been one of them?” “She would never do anything like that.” “Maybe you should ask her.”
The next morning, Liz comes straight to my desk when she gets to work. “I asked my daughter if she would ever participate in a protest march. She said if the war was still going on when she got to college, she absolutely would join a march. I couldn’t believe it. We had a long talk about Vietnam. Even though I don’t agree with her, I guess it’s not just the crazy hippies who are marching.” To my relief, breakroom conversation for the rest of the summer stays away from politics. I hate Richard Nixon, and rejoice when he leaves office in disgrace.
May 11, 1970
My mom has been feeling tired and weak. She notices a yellowish tint to her eyes when she looks in the mirror. We take her to see her second cousin, who is a doctor. He admits her to the hospital for testing. A few days later, he says she has “low blood” and he wants to transfer her to a hospital in St Paul. Over the next several days, her abdomen swells up like a balloon. I drive my Mom’s Mustang from my job in Minneapolis to see her every day. They’re having a lot of difficulty pinpointing what’s wrong. They finally drain the fluid so she can breathe more easily, and decide to let her come home for the weekend. On Saturday, when Mom and I are alone while Dad gets a few groceries, she says, “I don’t want to die.”
I am not expecting this, and have never considered that she might not survive this illness. “You’re not going to die. You’re home with us for a few days, and the doctor will figure out what’s wrong. I know he will.”
A couple weeks later, the doctors let Mom come home for the weekend again. She is very weak, and needs help getting out of the car and into the house. Brad has been granted emergency leave from the military so he will be home for a few days. The significance of his being granted emergency leave is lost on me. I have no idea at the time that Mom’s physicians have let her come home for one last time, to say good-bye in familiar surroundings. If my dad knows, he does not tell me. She is too sick to stay at home for long. Mom goes back to the hospital Sunday night, and Brad returns to Fort Riley in Kansas.
About a week later, I am overpowered by the smell of acetone when I enter her hospital room. My mom’s liver disease is caused by an autoimmune disorder, and she has developed an insulin reaction related to the steroids they have been giving her. The nurses are working feverishly to get the problem under control. I hold up okay while I am with my mom, but when I get to my aunt Lois’ house I nearly faint. Maybe I know more than I am willing to acknowledge.
Going to Lois’ house is a refuge for me. It brings back happier times. When I was growing up we spent a lot of time with my dad’s family. Traveling with Knopfs was always an adventure. They packed enough food to feed a small army, and we entertained ourselves playing cards and listening to 8-track tapes.
There were eight cousins, all within about ten years of age of each other. We played whist, drank Dr Pepper in glass bottles from Grandma Laura’s “cool room” in the lower level of their house, and ate her famous molasses cookies, which we have tried to replicate but never quite get right.
After resting for a while on the couch, I’m ready to get up. We eat dinner, and I tell them about my mom’s episode. My dad is still at the hospital and will join us after visiting hours are over.
The next week, Dad calls Mom’s sister, Josephine. She and my uncle Alden fly to Minnesota from Oregon the next morning. I know mom doesn’t have much time left. She knows it, too. She is in the ICU, and we spend the next three days at the hospital, taking turns keeping vigil. The hospital only allows two visitors at a time, but they allow us all to gather around her bed to say The Lord’s Prayer when the pastor comes to see her. My mother’s last words to me are, “It’s tough to see your old mother like this.” Indeed.
I am in the waiting room when my dad comes in, shaking his head. She’s gone. We stay for another half hour or so, comforting each other and talking about what has to happen next, who needs to be called. Walking to the parking lot with my aunt and uncle, I am overwhelmed by the thought that I will never see my mother again.
There is much to do in the next few days. We will have a memorial service in Minneapolis, then the funeral and burial in Ortonville. At the memorial service, I sit next to my pregnant sister-in-law. She winces as the baby kicks. One going and one coming.
My dad borrows the bank’s skybox for a Twins game as a way to thank our family for their support, and for us to enjoy being together before everyone leaves. Over the next few days, the out-of-town family members leave. Brad and Beth stay a few more days, then he has to get back to the Army. Saying good-bye is very hard, as we don’t know when he will be shipped out, or where he will go.
July 15, 1970
Brad calls to say he has received orders for Korea. Not Vietnam! This is the first good news we’ve had in a while. Most of the soldiers in his company have already been sent to Vietnam. We are elated, at least until the reality of his being overseas for a year hits home. We’re together at Beth’s sister’s wedding in Chicago right before he ships out. All of us hope the baby will come early, before he goes.
August 20, 1970
I take the Mustang to Moorhead when I go back for my senior year in college. The inside windows frost up when it gets below freezing, and it doesn’t start when it gets below zero; otherwise it is reliable transportation.
Having the car will make grocery shopping easier, but I’ll missing walking ten blocks to the store, pulling an empty Red Flyer wagon, and lugging it back home loaded with groceries. The carryout guys loved to see us coming.
In some ways, going back to school is good. It means getting back into old routines and seeing friends again. But it is hard to leave my dad. Brad is in Korea, Beth has moved to Northbrook to live with her parents until the baby is born, and my dad is on his own for the first time since he and my mom were married in 1945. Our small family has just four people now, and we will all be miles away from each other, trying to cope with my mother’s death.
September 24, 1970
“It’s a girl. They named her Sara Beth. Everyone’s doing fine.” My dad says the Red Cross will deliver a telegram to my brother in Korea to tell him he is a dad. About two weeks later, Brad arranges to call Beth over MARS lines, where he can place a call to a ham radio operator, who will relay it on to Chicago. So for $60/minute, they listen to each other cry.
“Hello, Beth. Over.”
“Hi, Brad. Over.” Sniff, sniff.
“How’s Sara? Over.”
“She’s fine. Over.” Sniff, sniff. They decide to stick to writing letters and exchanging reel-to-reel tapes after that.
October 30, 1970
I drive the Mustang back to Golden Valley, and Dad and I fly to Chicago for Sara’s baptism. It’s good to see Beth again. Sara is beautiful. We all cry our eyes out during the baptism. Saying good-bye is almost as hard as it was after Mom’s funeral. We all miss Brad.
I send him a CARE package of cookies packed in popcorn every few weeks. For Christmas, I make him an audiotape of myself and my guitar. “Proud Mary,” his favorite song, is the title cut. He writes to tell me that he broadcast it over the PA system in the barracks. I’m horrified, until I realize he’s teasing.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, whose book On Death and Dying has just been published, is giving a seminar on campus. She is a very soft-spoken woman, with a German accent, and every word she says applies to me. Her discussion of the stages of dying rips the scabs off my healing soul, and makes me face squarely the opportunities I had missed for talking with my mom about her dying. I know that my mom understood, but I would give anything for a chance to talk to her about what she was going through, share wonderful memories, and tell her that much of who I am is because of her. That’s the hardest part of death for me. No do-overs.
I notice that Kubler-Ross is always surrounded by crowds, even during break time and before and after she speaks. I write her a letter, saying that it must be exhausting to always have to be “on” during public speaking engagements, and wishing I could just say, “Hi, Liz. How’s the family?” She writes back, saying it was rare that other people acknowledged that she had a personal life, too, and she invites me to drop by her office for coffee if I am ever in Chicago. I never do.
July 4, 1971
“Hi, it’s Brad.” I burst into tears as I yell for my dad to come to the phone. “He’s back!”
It is the first time I have heard my brother’s voice in over a year. He is being discharged from the Army today, Independence Day. It takes a couple of days for him to get processed out of the Army. He and Beth stay in Chicago for a few weeks, then move back to Minneapolis where he will return to law school.
That summer, our attention focuses on Sara. She is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. She loves to pull up on our coffee table. It’s just the right height, and is testament to the work of my mom, a grandmother she will never know. People will tell her stories. Like the one about the table. Mom found it in a barn somewhere, and spent much elbow grease and not a few swear words bringing out the beautiful mahogany lines. Its main purpose now is to support this suntanned little girl, hands soft as silk, as she gently pats the sturdy coffee table, as if to say thanks for being just the right height for a little girl learning to walk. We applaud vigorously every time she pulls up, and every time she plops down. Her smile lights up our living room. Little messenger of possibility, she shows us that we can get on with life. Her grandma would be proud.