Friday, November 27, 2015
On Oct. 2, 2010, my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at a large family reunion in Lancaster county. That day, I read this testimonial to my mother. Agnes passed away peacefully in her sleep yesterday at 1:15 p.m. in her 24 hour care facility in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My sister Heidi and my brother Mark were with her at the time. The family is holding a small (family only) ceremony for her in Wisconsin tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 28. We will hold a much larger celebration of her life in a month or so here in the Philadelphia area, once arrangement are made. Thanks to all of you who kept her in your thoughts and prayers these last few weeks as word went our that my mother was nearing the end of her life. And thank you again for reading this.
"Cheers to you, Mom!"
It goes without saying that most young men love their mothers and that their mothers become the template against which all other women are measured. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble finding the right one, Mom! You were just impossible to replace!
It finally dawned on me – just how special you are, and how difficult it would be to find someone like you to spend a life with – when an old friend who’s never met you read my Mother’s Day story from the Inquirer Magazine and said how touched he was to read that story. He told me it must be hard to live with a mother who is a saint. He was right about that. It was hard then and it still is hard today. It is hard because you set the bar so high. You and Dad really demanded greatness of us. None of us achieved that, of course. Not yet. I keep waiting for Mark to outshine us all when his graphic novel hits the best seller’s list. Here’s the working title: “My Abusive Childhood: Collective Memories Growing Up Catholic at Kidzaplenty Place”
We know how hard you worked. Just the daily routine of taking care of such a large home and feeding 11 children was exhausting to witness. And coming into the second floor bathroom every morning and seeing three or four piles of laundry that awaited you, was a constant reminder of all the work to be done while we were off in school. That work alone, in a house as large as ours, should be enough to get the beatification process started in Rome. Mother Teresa started out in life as an Agnes, too. Did you know that?
We remember the sacrifices you made for us. We all made them, too! We sacrificed our appetites when we were fed macaroni and cheese once a week, or liver and onions twice a month; or broccoli stalks and brussel sprouts and blood-red beets and other inedible vegetables we hated but that you knew we needed. We remember how you fed a family of 11 for years on a $60 grocery allowance. We always hoped for spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausages, and, despite how much work that took, we were fed that meal more than any other because you knew how much we all we all loved your sauce.
We remember seeing you stooped over the family sewing machine, sewing missing buttons on our shirts or hemming hand-me down pants from the Hopkinson boys or mending torn kneecaps and holey socks or making the girls dresses or even sewing clothes for their baby dolls, doing all you could to ensure we were not dressed like street urchins out of a Dicken’s novel. You might think all that work was God’s penance for having such a large family, but we tend to think you were doing God’s will. There’s grace in performing those mundane motherly tasks that all mothers do and you earned a ton of it, Mom.
We remember the stories you told us growing up in Holland. We experienced first hand a treasure trove of those Dutch customs every Christmas. The time you spent in the kitchen making saucijsbrooges and stollen, and separating each and every piece of a dozen grapefruits with the curved edge of a grapefruit knife and then sprinkling sugar on top. We remember the tales of Black Peter putting coal in stockings and of the Dutch songs you would sing to us in words we couldn’t understand but that delighted us anyway because they always made you laugh when you finished them. We all remember the way you and dad turned Christmas day into a never-ending event of good vibrations by making us sit as a pajama collective in a wide circle and unwrap our gifts individually, one at a time. It stretched that glorious holiday out for hours.
Only rarely did any of us get the present we most wanted, but none of us has forgotten the experience of those Christmases past or forgot how much they brought us close as a family. We learned then to appreciate the things that really matter in life. Some of us went to our friends’ homes on Christmas afternoon to play with their shiny new Erector sets or slot car tracks or their Lionel trains or to play with their soft, new Care Bears or My Little Ponies or their shiny and leggy Barbie Dolls. We likely wished we had those presents too.
But I know none of us would ever trade the lessons we learned about the real meaning of Christmas for the neighbor’s presents. All of us wish we could bottle those Christmas mornings and sell them to the rest of America. Not because it would have made us fortunes, but because it would have made us all rich in love and people everywhere would thank us for sharing those wonderful vibes of sheer joy. You earned some heavenly points there, too, Mom.
You made all of the holidays special in some way. We all remember your incredible pies at Thanksgiving we somehow forgot to save room for but devoured anyway; the painted Easter eggs at Easter we hunted in the vast uncut openness of the spring front lawn; the costumes you made at Halloween. Points, points, more heavenly points.
You were a Queen among moms. And I suspect my friend from Loyola knew all of this when he made his comment to me about what a saint you were. But that’s not really what he was talking about. When he mentioned how difficult it must be to live with a mother destined for sainthood, he was talking about your courage, your willingness to show the world of powerful men that mothers count too; that the opinion of mothers was what got politicians elected and that they should be held accountable for their decisions, especially when their governments ask America’s mothers to send their sons and daughters off to foreign lands to protect the nation’s economic interests.
You wanted them to take their oaths of office as seriously as you took your own responsibilities as a mother. You knew that the lives of American youth was too high a price to pay to fight unnecessary wars. You knew that the very idea of war was something people had to start to question. You knew that “Question Authority” was not some trite political slogan but a social responsibility all citizens have. I never personally knew anyone who was willing to go to jail for this just cause, Mom. Until you did. You showed us all that one person could make a statement of goodness and purpose with her life; that in fact, there is no higher purpose in life than that: to try to speak the truth and to embrace life itself and all its goodness.
I don’t think too many of us ever really understood or appreciated the toll those actions took on you, Mom; on your marriage and on your relationship with your siblings. But God knows. And he loves you very much for those sacrifices and maybe we are all a little bit jealous of you for that. That’s probably what my friend was thinking of when he told me how hard it must be to have a saint for a mother. It’s hard because none of us possess the same amount of fortitude to follow our hearts as you do. We look up to you for a wide variety of reasons, most of all for showing us how to love our own children, and we emulate you and honor you and we sing your praises in birthday cards and in anniversary parties like this. But we find it impossible to follow in your footsteps and place our personal freedom at risk to live a life of conviction.
All of this is just prelude to a moment we shared together. You and I. You probably won’t remember it, but I can’t ever forget it. It held for me the secret of who you are and why you did what you had to do when you took on the government and the war machine and the arms dealers. I knew in my heart I would write about this moment some day. All of us have some very private and special moment with you we hold sacred, Mom. This is mine.
I had gone with you and some of the siblings to the Schretlen family reunion in Holland in 1988. It was July and I was leaving my job soon at the newspaper in Virginia and I was coming home soon to start my teaching job at West Chester. Isabel turned one during the week I was away in Holland, so the trip cost me the experience of sharing her first birthday.
One day the Schretlen clan planned an afternoon trip to your parish church. It was centuries old, made of old brown stones from some local quarry. As we walked into the interior of the church, it smelled musty and the sanctuary seemed smaller and darker than churches I was used to in America. The pews were made of an old hard, dark wood and the kneelers were worn. After 10 or so minutes, I followed you and one of my aunts up a small path towards a grove of tall trees, mostly pine. It looked like we were approaching a park. When we got to the summit of the hill, I was surprised to see a series of small plots of ground encircled by stone walls about three or four feet high. Initially, I thought they were small gardens. They were meticulously cared for and, because it was the middle of summer, all of them had a variety of blooming flowers in them, a blaze of color. Primroses, daffodils, irises, nasturtium, scarlet sage, sunflowers, violas, catmints, polyanthas, and foxgloves. It was as if I had stepped into a well-tended English arboretum.
It was stunning and peaceful, quiet except for a slight rustle of the tree branches and birdsong that filtered gently through the pines and leaves. I thought to myself I had found a small slice of heaven. But I couldn’t quite figure out why the garden was separated by these small stone walls and divided into plots. It was almost as if this sacred place were a 4-H competition…. each plot more meticulously planned and carefully tended than the next, as if someone were coming soon to judge them and one of them would win the gold medal.
Then we walked to a small plot that was less well tended. Flowers bloomed there too, but it hadn’t been weeded in quite some time. Soggy leaves left over from the last year’s fall were stuffed into corners of the stone walls and the lush, emerald grass was uncut, growing wild, several inches higher than the trimmed plots that surrounded it. I was puzzled and couldn’t understand why this one was different than the others. The overall effect of the place was one of serene, lush beauty, a place as alive as any I had ever been in. Even this untended plot had been lovingly cared for, but just not as recently as the others.
You and Aunt Celine stopped and looked around the plot and you both became quiet and respectful. When you looked down at the ground, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in a cemetery. And then you started crying. Very softly, as if you didn’t want to worry us or to interrupt our own thoughts. Then I finally realized where we were: at the grave site of your sister Mary and your brother, Bluffy. The aunt and uncle I had never met. And I knew that it had been a very long time since you had been back to visit them.
Maybe you were crying because of things you remembered about them. The shade of Mary’s ash blonde hair in her teenage youth or the way she sang to you to sleep at night. Or maybe you were thinking of Bluffy’s small and tender hands and they how they felt in your own fingers when you took him for a walk over the shady streets of your neighborhood. Maybe you were remembering back to that tragic day when the Americans were trying to drive the Nazi’s out of Nijmegen and they were killed by American bombs in an air raid. Maybe you were crying because there was no one from the immediate family left to take as good a care of their final resting place as the other cemetery plots were so lovingly cared for. Or maybe you were crying because you were afraid you might never come back to this serenely quite place, where your sister and brother would spend eternity, thousands of miles away from you and your other siblings.
I knew then Mom, why you did what you felt you had to do when you were breaking laws and going to jail and becoming the disgraced sister of your siblings, the family’s embarrassment to many of us. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I was coming to the burial plot of Lisa and Matt and their graves were so far away that I would not be able to leave flowers there or trim the grass and tend to their garden so others would feel welcomed there. I tried to understand the complex emotions you were feeling but I failed utterly to do so. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that much pain in my life and I hoped I never would.
The searing memory of those five or six minutes with you at that small plot of land surrounded by small stone walls has never left me. It made me understand so much about your desire to try to change the world, try to make it a better place; to do what little you could, as a single person, a mother and a grandmother, to eliminate the violence and the horror and the implicit, everlasting sorrow that reside in weapons of mass destruction. I am so very proud of you for that. And I feel more than a little shame that I have not yet been able to bear your torch and carry on the fight you so nobly waged against what President Eisenhower once called the “military industrial complex”.
You have set an example for all of us with your service to peace and justice,
Mom. And those minutes in the cemetery in Nijmegen at the graves of Mary and Bluffy told me all the reasons I ever needed to know about why you had to speak out about war.
And dad, I know you initially were reluctant to embrace mom’s acts of civil disobedience. It was more than an inconvenience to you…and I know how hard it must have been to field questions about mom’s behavior from her siblings. She didn’t ask you for your blessing when she went and got herself arrested. But I have to tell you, I never felt prouder to be your son when you fielded those questions gracefully and told the relatives how much you admired her and that she had a mind and will of her own and she was following her conscience.
At that point, it finally seemed to me your marriage to Mom was one based on trust and respect. It seemed to me you had learned the hardest lesson of marriage one has to learn: how to adapt to your partner and support your partner when your partner’s life suddenly takes a course you never expected and that you don’t necessarily trust or approve of. Surely you turned to your faith in God in those moments and surely you heard God’s answer: that Mom’s work here on Earth was pretty darned important too and that you would have to make some personal sacrifices to adapt to Mom’s newfound purpose.
In those moments, it seems to me, you and mom really forged a marriage for the ages, one we honor here today. You have given us all more than a lifetime of love and blessings. You have shown us the meaning of personal sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. We are all so blessed to have you as our parents.
So in closing, Yes, I must agree with my old friend. It IS hard to live with a mother who is a saint. But I thank God mothers like you, mom, walk among us.
You inspire us to greatness and to accountability. That’s the best kind of work that parents can do. You both did your jobs very well. We all love both of you very much.