Langston Hughes wrote a wonderful poem that is basically a mother speaking to her child. She tells her son, ”Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Instead her climb up the ladder of life was filled with tacks, splinters, boards torn up, bare worn out spots, and sometimes grasping in the darkness where there is no light to be found.
Every time I read this poem the images of my great-grandmothers come to me. My Great-Grandma Soderstrum, in the photos I have of her as a young woman, was perhaps one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. She was truly breathtaking. In another time, another place, it would have been easy to imagine her in Hollywood gracing the silver screen.
Instead she married a farmer and had three sons. One of them was a blue baby, which means his lungs were not fully prepared for this world. I cannot even imagine was like for her to stand over his bassinet, holding that baby in her arms, hearing him gasping for life, and knowing all the love that is bursting out of her for this child is not going to stop him from going away. Maybe tomorrow or the day after that, or next week, she was going to wake up and he would be gone. Yet, she had to go on, because there were two other little boys that needed her.
If life as a farmer’s wife wasn’t hard enough, she got a bone disease in her 30s that crippled her up. Today we know what it was, Paget’s disease. Back then they did not have the foggiest clue. Her bones became fragile and misshapen, and snapped easily. It even robbed her of most of her hearing and changed the shape of her face. She saw every physician she could and a few that probably should never have been allowed near a patient. Some of the treatments handed out in hindsight were just medically sanctioned torture. Still, she had a household to run and boys to raise.
Because she could not raise her arms above her waist, she dusted by putting a rag on the end of a stick. When she was older, there was a bare dirt trail in the front yard from the front door to the mailbox formed by the leg she drug as she walked. A journey of a few steps took her a good forty-five minutes or more. It was painful to watch. Her sons, grandchildren, and even the mailman told her they would be glad to bring her mail to her in the house. She always refused. If she stopped doing it, she would never be able to make that journey again.
If that was not enough, her husband killed himself one day. Where most of us would give up, she raised two of the most gentle men to ever grace this planet, made her grandson’s baseball games, always sitting in the car, apart from the crowd, but still there, and spent hours with her granddaughter making those thick noodles a person rarely comes across anymore.
My great-grandma Opstvedt lost a farm before she was even out of her teens when her young husband died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1919 and returned to her parents’ home with a baby boy in tow, my grandfather. She did day labor, scrubbed floors, washed other people’s laundry, or whatever menial tasks that needed to be done. It must have been tough on her; a newborn baby at home and she could not even be there to feed and change him.
Finally, after a few years, she remarried and had three other children just in time for The Great Depression to hit. Few of us can even imagine the hardscrabble life people endured on a rural Iowa farm when the economy went belly up. Every day was a struggle just to make it to the next. Then came World War II and rationing.
Things were starting to look up, the end of the war just in sight, and her second husband died in the hospital after a surgery.
She became the lunchroom lady at the local school and cooking for the Lions Club and for various weddings and social events to make ends meet. She had to walk everywhere, no matter what the weather, because she was never able to afford a car. Her residence was a one-bedroom cracker-box of a house. In the 1960s, my parents moved a block away from her and with a simple phone call she was always ready to babysit a bunch of out of control boys. Her children finally talked her into retiring because she had this wonderful thing call Social Security. She could finally relax. Instead she died a few months later when her wonderful big heart finally gave out.
My Great-Grandma Walker was a farmer’s daughter. Hers was the ideal life of playing with her siblings in the fields and pastures surrounding their farm until it all
came to an end when she was eight-years-old. Her father died of tuberculosis. A small house, the blood stained pieces of cloth, the constant coughing that echoed through each room, and then the shattering silence that probably seemed even louder.
Her mother was forced to sell the farm. They moved to town and survived by what used to be called clipping the coupon. (People would clip a piece of paper off of a bond at certain intervals (usually every six months). It entitled the bearer to go to the institution that issued the bond for a fixed amount of money each time until the coupons were exhausted.) It was never an easy life. Her mother could never afford such luxuries as a car and, yet, she somehow found enough spare change to send my great-grandma to college.
After graduating, she married my great-grandfather, who was gone most of the week trading cattle and when he was home he was not the most sensitive man towards her or women in general. With the help of a dollar-a-day man, she kept the farm they rented above water and made ends meet through sewing and egg money. She was considered a saint by everyone who knew her and even in her 80s, after her legs had given out on her and her health was failing, she was still the strong center that everyone else in the family circled around.
My Great-Grandma Goodmanson was another woman who worked hard all her life, somehow kept her children together and made them into decent, truly kind people, and never had much to show for all her hard work. My great-grandfather had stomach problems that made him difficult to live with for most of their marriage until he had a surgery that took care of his problem late in life, but she always found a way to get those around her to smile, even on the darkest of days.
When I knew her, my great-grandparents were spending their golden years in a small trailer on a piece of ground behind my dad’s business. Her amazing cooking skills and memory were slipping. Still, when I think of warmth and love, it is her arms I remember.
We celebrate Mother’s Day not because our mothers love us when times are good. We honor them every year because they somehow keep things together and give us unconditional love when things are tough, when life “ain’t no crystal stair.”
I knew a woman in her 70s who had a stroke and was near death. Walking into the hospital room, there sat her mother in her 90s, holding her daughter’s hand. This woman who had seen nine decades of life looked up with ancient sad eyes and said, “You never stop worrying about them.”
Great mothers never have a carefree moment again after their first child is born. They are the ones that make a home out of seemingly nothing at times. They are the inspiration that keeps us climbing upward and help us become better people than we have a right to be. Most importantly, they give those hugs that stay with us. There are days when things are hard, when everything seems to be falling apart, and that hug, even if it is a lifetime ago, truly makes all the difference in the world.
Love your mother and those who have acted like mothers in your life.
Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.