The Song of a Hero

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“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous. In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person of solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse, the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, underpaid, unglamorous, unpublicized jobs.” ~ Daniel J. Boorstin

What defines a hero? We honor our veterans; the men and women who served, and are serving in our armed forces are called heroes. Firefighters and policemen commit acts of bravery nearly everyday that can be considered heroic. The doctor who saves a life – certainly she is a hero. The man who holds the hand and comforts the victim of a car accident, until help arrives – he is a hero too. The media grants sports stars and celebrities hero-like status, many of them, undeservedly so. But can an ordinary person who accomplishes no feat other than to live life well, be called a hero?

Mom’s a first generation American; both her parents immigrated to Detroit from Austria/Hungary. She was born in 1928, a tough time in our nation’s history, right before the start of the Great Depression. People then made due with what they had; Mom slept the drawer of a dresser as a baby. Her mother cleaned houses for a living. After work, her dad grew tomatoes for the neighborhood … and roses too; his rose garden was quite extensive, and he was proud of it, grafting and experimenting to come up with his own varieties. The city was a good place to live back then; there were no gang shootings, drug wars, abandoned houses, and burned-out cars on the streets. Just nice family neighborhoods. As a teenager, Mom would take the bus to Harper Theatre, built in 1938, see a double feature, and get ice cream at Sanders afterward – all for less than a quarter.

We’ve heard the Harper Theatre story many times – it was repeated nearly every time my brother and his friends drove to the city, piled into Dad’s beat-up old Suburban which was kept for such things even years after he died – you dare not risk a parking a newer car in such a bad neighborhood. Their destination was Harpo’s – the old Harper Theatre is now converted to “America’s Oldest Concert Theater”, featuring heavy metal and industrial rock bands with names like “Impending Doom,” “Burning the Masses,” and “Decapitation” (all showing this month, in case you’re interested). The old neighborhood has changed quite a bit since the days of Mom’s youth. All of these things about Mom’s childhood – and most of what I know about our family, on both her and Dad’s side, comes from her storytelling. Mom loves a good story.

She still has friends from those old days – people we call “Aunt,” “Uncle,” and “cousin,” though they aren’t blood relatives. Then there are the Card Club Ladies, friends of hers who for 60 years met once a month to play pinochle … or pretend to play pinochle, we teased. When it was Mom’s turn to host, we never saw them play cards – all we heard was a bunch of yakking and laughing.

Mom’s laugh … you know those people who laugh with their entire bodies? It starts off slow, just a giggle, but then grows until every part of them seems to be laughing. They soon become silent, so that you only know they’re still laughing because they’re shaking. It all ends with a big sigh to catch their breath, before it starts all over again. That’s Mom’s laugh.

Mom enjoyed playing cards even without the Card Club Ladies – Euchre, and Michigan Rummy are favorites. She was on bowling leagues, off and on for as long as I can remember; she was quite good actually, with an average well above 200, and a lot of trophies to prove it. Most family vacations were camping trips – something she and Dad continued to do even after us kids were grown and out of the house. Simple pastimes in this day and age.

There was a brief time when I was younger that I was embarrassed by Mom. She was too fat, too old, and didn’t wear the latest clothing styles. She was a stay-at-home Mom, when all my friends’ mothers worked – for whatever reason, I saw this as a bad thing then; to me, it was old-fashioned. But it enabled her to do things I wish I had the time to do with my girls. She was room-mother at school for all three of us kids, running between classrooms during holiday parties, helping out during school assemblies, plays, recycling drives, and wherever else she was needed. She helped at the 4-H fairs, she was a Cub Scout Den Mother, and attended all of our sporting events.

Thankfully, the Age of Embarrassment was short-lived. But the ignorance of childhood, is followed by the arrogance of the teenaged years. The Age of Rebellion: Mom and I used to butt heads over everything when I was a teenager. Dad always said it’s because we’re both so much alike – both stubborn to the core, neither of us giving inch, and disagreeing about everything – even simple things. Throughout it all, Mom was still there for me, whenever I needed her. Her answer to all of my teenaged melodramatic crises was, “it builds character”; both Mom and I built a lot of character back then. She’d tuck encouraging notes in my books, my gym bag, to the inside of the refrigerator, and to the steering wheel of the car before each swim meet, wishing me luck, and then I’d see her in the stands, cheering me on. I still have all those notes, along with every letter she sent while I was in the service, after I’d graduated high school. All of our disagreements stopped when I left home to join the Army; none of them mattered, and I can’t remember a single thing we argued about.

We haven’t argued since. In fact, I have never heard Mom direct a harsh word toward anybody. It’s not that she’s a push-over – she stands strong in her convictions, and you definitely know when she disagrees with you. But Mom listens – truly listens to what people have to say. After spending five minutes with a person she’s just met, she can tell you what he does for a living, what her kids’ names and ages are, where he or she grew up and with whom, and what their aspirations in life are.

The only thing I got right about Mom back then was that, in today’s throw-away society, Mom is old-fashioned. Growing up as a child of the Depression, she saves everything. Her closets and cabinets are packed to the brim of things no longer needed, or even particularly useful, but which someday, for somebody, might come in handy.

With today’s technology, we have the possibility to be connected now with more people than ever before, but yet we drift apart, and lose touch with people with who we were once close. Mom’s friendships that have lasted for more than half-a-century seem exceptional.

If it was up to Mom, time would never progress beyond flashing twelve. She’s completely digitally inept and technologically illiterate. “I called your brother; he’s so good with computers.” “Mom, it’s an answering machine, not a computer.” “Yeah … well, he came over and fixed it.” All he usually had to do was erase all the messages clogging the machine’s memory … or program the television remote, or progress the DVD player’s clock beyond flashing twelve. She never figured out cell phones. “Hello? Hello?” “Mom! Your phone’s upside-down!” I’d scream into my end, “Turn it around!” “Hello? Hello?” Click. I’d call back two seconds later. “Can you hear me now, Mom?”

Along with “it builds character,” one of Mom’s often said quotes is “Can’t complain, it does no good.” If I had to pick one of her sayings as her motto, it would be this one. But if there’s one thing Mom always complained about, it was her dogwood. The tree was her Mother’s Day gift one year. My brothers and Dad planted it at the corner of the house, between the living room bay and side windows. The corner blocked its view – you had to crane your neck to see it out of either window. She wanted it out in the middle of the front yard, or the back yard where she could look out the bay window or the kitchen window and see it in all its springtime glory. “It’s too close to the house,” she’d always complain. And it is. Every year my brother would have to trim it, and she’d sit on the front porch, watching and wringing her hands. “He’s cutting too much off! It’s going to die!”

Mom turned 82 this year, the day after Mother’s Day. We brought her a big vase of branches from her dogwood to the nursing home, where she spent nearly the last year. She was delighted – not seeing how much of the tree was cut to get that vase full of branches – commenting over and over how beautiful they were.

Mom died ten days later. Her death was not unexpected; we’d received her terminal diagnosis just about a month earlier. Turns out, her “can’t complain” saying became a shield during this past year to mask how she really felt. She lied, and told people what they wanted to hear to protect her family and friends from the truth. When it became apparent to everyone, including her doctors, that she was not feeling fine, it was too late – nothing could be done.

The days surrounding Mom’s visitation and funeral were good ones. Does that sound strange? There were some very tough moments; we all loved Mom dearly, and she’ll be missed beyond measure. But it was all good. There was lots of laughter amid the tears. When two of Mom’s friends for 40-something years got up to speak and tell Mom stories during the funeral service, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine Mom listening, and doing that whole-body silent laugh of hers.

It was good to be with my brothers; they have always been my rocks, as well as Keith, and even Shelby – as young as she is at fourteen, she is a pillar of strength and support. And Shannon is such a sweetie, it’s impossible for me not to smile when she’s holding my hand, and laugh when she tells one of her funny stories.

It was good to reconnect with extended family and friends, some who I hadn’t seen in a very long time, some I’ve lost touch with since those days of childhood ignorance, and teenage arrogance. And it was good we all came together to celebrate the life of a wonderful, wonderful woman – “a sweetheart”; I heard that word echoed over and over again throughout the weekend, and it made me smile each time.

I believe we could all use someone like Mom in our lives. Someone perhaps a little old-fashioned, who is there to remind us of our past. A loyal friend; someone who is there whenever you need support. Someone with character, who stands strong in her convictions. I’m reminded of Dad’s assertion, “You are just like your mother” … and I think my kids should be so lucky. There are times when I could do well to complain less, listen more, laugh harder, to not be so dependent on technology and enjoy the simple things in life more.

The world did not mourn when Mom died. Her death did not make the evening news. The streets were not lined with people during the funeral procession. Her song remained unsung except to those who knew her well. She was an ordinary woman who lived an ordinary life, but lived it in such a way that she was, and will always remain, my hero.


May, 1928 – May, 2010