This memoir is still in process and not available for sale - yet.This chapter (from the middle of the manuscript) presents a good flavor of the story, though it is rather overpopulated with names. However, it shows that I really didn't get it, there was no trauma for me that my mom was a polio quadriplegic. I never really noticed, until my 13th year, that there wasn't a wheelchair in every family.
The Summer of ‘73Even in memory, the events of the summer of 1973 are surreal to me. Mom and Dad celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on May 1st. I graduated 8th grade in early June. Rose got married two weeks later and Rick’s wedding was in mid August. My maternal grandparents, Helen and Joe, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in September, two weeks after I started high school.
It’s a big growth experience to move from a co-ed grade school within walking distance of home to an all girl high school miles away by bus but that Rite-Of-Passage wasn’t a big deal for me. Both schools required uniforms and were staffed by Notre Dame nuns. Some of my friends would attend the same school and
Two years earlier, Rick had returned home on leave from the seminary before taking his Holy Orders. Focused on the priesthood and music as his life calling since grade school and entering a seminary prep high school at age 14, by age 20, he began having doubts that the life of a priest in obedience to his pope and service to parishioners was really what he wanted. He took a leave of absence, returned home, and enrolled at Cleveland State. There he discovered Biology and fell in love with Carla. When they got engaged, some dinner conversations focused on the sanctity of marriage, in comparison to Holy Orders, and the solemnity of vows. Either path would contain spiritual fulfillment and whole heart commitments.
My friends were the oldest in their family so high school, proms, and driving were the exciting adventures in their future but as the youngest of five I had already been in the back seat during learning-to-drive episodes. The car thing was more a future requirement than an exciting adventure of freedom. Driving was just that next stage of becoming a grown up. However, bridal showers, wedding details and honeymoons were totally new experiences for all of us, so we had lots to talk about that summer.
“I’ll never get married,” I told Rose while admiring her engagement ring. “There’s no way I could ever love someone enough to take care of them every day.”
“Not all marriages are like Mom’s and Dad’s,” Rose said. She was amused then and recently reminded me of this conversation.
When I made that statement to Rose, I was positive I knew what marriage was all about. I was 13 and had been a adult in the Catholic Church since my Confirmation. Mom’s goal was for us to know how to be responsible for ourselves by the time we graduated from 8th grade. While I was still walking to school and back, Mom had direct contact with all the nuns, so I got away with childish laziness. High school would include riding city buses if I stayed for after school activities. I had a very clear awareness of being “grown-up” and being sure I was “never going to get married.”
The drama around Rose’s wedding was huge for three reasons. First, it was a ‘mixed marriage’ since Jon was Episcopalian. This meant Jon believed in divorce and Rose was choosing a horrible burden on her marriage, according to Mom and Dad. Second, Rose had ovarian cysts and required surgery not long after getting engaged. After surgery, the doctor assured Rose that he had left the sliver of one ovary, so God had something to work with if he granted Rose a miracle baby.
The third issue stemmed from my maternal grandmother Helen, who was a stickler for etiquette and wanted a traditional and elaborate wedding for her granddaughter, including white gloves and the bishop. Rose mentioned she wanted to get married in a meadow with flowers in her hair but her fiancé, Jon, had ministers and elders in his family who would co-celebrate the marriage, so the meadow idea never grew and the church was reserved.
Mom and Dad’s concern about the mixed marriage was horribly old-fashioned to me. Jon was a bit expressive but he didn’t believe in divorce, only that it wasn’t a mortal sin requiring excommunication from the church. Years later, Jon joked he and Rose secretly divorced shortly after the wedding so they could add that spice of living in sin to their life.
The ovarian surgery made me feel uneasy because I wasn’t sure what it meant. The scar on Rose’s shoulder from cyst surgery years earlier was noticeable. I’d had enough hospital experience to feel that if the doctor said she was fine, she probably was. Rose would have a child, because she did want one, and Mom and Dad would pray for it. It would be one of God’s miracles, which were part of our daily lives. Mom and Dad pointed out all miracles to be appreciated, including sunrise, food on the table, clothes on our backs, and breathing.
Rose did have her baby but suffered greatly during her pregnancy because scar tissue is a lot less forgiving than skin when stretched. Since Rose endured that with thankful acceptance for the miracle of a baby, God granted her six more.
Sharon and I discussed the “mixed” marriage late at night. Sharon was upset because refused to let us be Rose’s bridesmaids. Mom thought it would send a message of total acceptance if she allowed us young and impressionable girls to be part of the wedding. Mom, Sharon and I shopped through dress patterns and fabrics until Mom was satisfied that our dresses were close enough in style and color to the two attendant dresses. Sharon then made those dresses because she knew how to sew beautifully. She did have help from me but that was mainly me doing her other chores for her. I was a disaster with sewing machines and scissors. We were “obviously part of the wedding party,” yet different enough so we weren’t confused as participants in a mixed marriage not recommended by the Church.
Rose had envisioned herself wearing Mom’s wedding dress with Sharon and me as her bridesmaids but she knew this was a fight she wouldn’t win. Her two best friends were thrilled to be attendants and began making their dress. Rose was more sad that she wouldn’t be able to wear Mom’s wedding dress either.
This was another very clear point to Mom. She couldn’t allow us younger girls to be involved in a wedding not totally acceptable to the church, but it was her eldest daughter’s wedding, and wearing Mom’s dress was not only appropriate but expected. There was an emotional scene of hugs and tears when all this was straightened out, which is a good thing because the dress would not fit either Sharon or me. Rose only altered the sleeves a little. It was an eggshell white, dotted Swiss material with transparent sleeves, a scooped and ruffled neckline and the tapered waist fit perfectly. It was a wonderful June wedding in our church, followed by pictures in the park and a reception held in a nearby Christian church hall. Sharon and my dresses were in the peasant dress style in fashion and blended perfectly with the navy and white dotted Swiss material of the bridesmaid dresses.
However, my memories of the ceremony and dresses are vague because I had already stepped into the surreal sense of awareness and my attention was on the wedding guests. It began in early in the year because Helen was giving Mom daily grief about invitations, decorations, wardrobe requirements, or the guest list for Rose’s wedding.
I came home from school shortly after one of those conversations and Mom was glad to have a listener, so she could vent. It was our routine to chat about our day for a few minutes before I got her into bed and began making dinner. Everyone still lived at home but were busy with work and studies. Dinners were simple, hearty and Mom planned them to be easy so once Mom was in bed, I had the house to myself to play my rock music to dance and sing while I made the dinner.
So that day in late winter, or early spring, of 1973 I thought it was just another day chatting with Mom after school. She was still agitated from her conversation with Helen and I let the latest story go in one ear and out the other, when suddenly she said the words: “I always knew my children would grow up and get married someday. I just never expected to live long enough to see it.”
I obviously didn’t show my surprise because Mom continued on with the same topic, “but it’s a good thing I’m still here because I can run interference for you girls. If your grandmother was in charge of the wedding arrangements, it would drive you crazy.”
My world shifted.
My mom never expected to live? Since when?
Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought much about what everyone else in the family had known for years. Mom had almost died when I was a baby. Her health was fragile, a respirator sat on her counter and she slept in a rocking bed to breathe.
But, I never considered that she didn’t expect to live long enough to see me graduate 8th grade. I was very quiet and subtle with questions the next few weeks but soon realized that the whole family accepted Mom being alive and able to participate in the planning and celebrations was a miracle. Rose hadn’t expected her Mom to be alive to attend her own wedding so didn’t battle too hard for her sisters as bridesmaids. Rick’s studies in biology and medicine had him fascinated that Mom was still alive. He was even clinically curious about the daily routines and Dad’s care since there were few cases of quadriplegics remaining as healthy and active as Mom.
With one off-hand comment, I suddenly knew my parents really were extremely rare, and everything I considered normal, was not. Most husbands did not dress their wives every morning. Most families did not have hoyer lifts in the bedroom. I noticed there were not many people in wheelchairs. During Rose and Jon’s wedding in June, and Rick and Carla’s in August, I remember watching with a strange unreal awe, many couples, married for years and they were both still walking!
This was exceptionally significant for me.
Helen and Joe even snuggled sometimes – after fifty years of marriage!
Before Rick and Carla’s wedding in August, I noticed my Grandma Kramer, as a widow since her thirties, was also uncommon as few woman in our neighborhood or parish were widowed before the age of sixty. I remember this strange sense of euphoria as Rick’s wedding approached. People lived together and remained healthy enough to get really, really old together. It was amazing!
Even today, I see this an epiphany in my life. It was common for people to live for decades, turn gray, gain bunions and arthritic joints, not use the word urinal in daily conversation, and still dance together at weddings!
No man I’ve yet met or seen, can dance like my dad. His sisters, friends and in-laws would line up for a dance with my dad. Graceful and the ultimate gentleman, as Dad’s dancing partner you were treasured and led across the floor with a feather touch, and with just the right space so if you fumbled, you didn’t step on his toes and he hid the mistake.
My husband Ed came close to being the dancing partner of choice when he entered the family because he had the training and the touch. But Dad had that something special. It was the most natural and graceful thing, any time Dad bent over and took hold of Mom’s wheelchair, twirling her around the dance floor face to face. It wasn’t a common sight, since Mom didn’t want to knock anyone over, but during the weddings of their children, it happened. A few turns on the dance floor orchestrated by Dad facing Mom, and both of them laughing.
I had seen Mom and Dad dance this way at others weddings, but it was off in a corner. As parents of the bride or groom, they were front and center. Mom also “danced” with others when they switched partners during the bridal dance.
Preparations for Rick and Carla’s wedding in August were quiet by comparison. As parents of the groom, Mom had much less to do. Also, Carla was a lovely, very Catholic girl, so religion wasn’t a problem. But, both her parents were divorced from an earlier marriage, and were married outside-of-the-church, so were living “in sin,” since before Carla was born. Mom had to adjust her acceptance level, to respect Rick’s new in-laws as they deserved. Her almost-priest son had excommunicated in-laws. I think this one was easier for Dad because he had more public interaction with people who weren’t Catholic.
Being excommunicated in the Catholic Church wasn’t like being shunned. Carla’s parents were encouraged to remain participants of the parish, including the tithing practice. Carla and her sister attended the church schools and received all the sacraments, but her parents were forbidden to participate in any of the sacraments, including penance, because being excommunicated was a mortal sin and no Grace from God was allowed.
However, the “excommunicated” status wasn’t by official decree from the church. It was more a misunderstanding of dogma by Carla’s parents from years ago. They knew what they did was wrong and never considered asking a priest. They kept their sin a family secret. But Rick almost became a priest, so had to be told before he joined the family.
Mom and Dad prayed to accept these new people into their family. The always achieved a peaceful level where they put all the issues “into the Good Lord’s hands.”
After Rose’s wedding, and my epiphany, I forgot about the excommunication issue forgotten shortly after Mom told me about it. I don’t know what the lesson was she wanted to make about it. Rick and Carla’s wedding plans in August were smooth as silk, until Carla’s beloved grandmother died three days before the wedding. Dad asked her if she was going to cancel the wedding. Carla said, “No way, she’s just assured herself a front row seat!”
The funeral was the day before the wedding. About 30 of Carla’s relatives, who were not planning to attend to the wedding, arrived from out-of-town for the funeral. Since they were in town, those additional 30 guests remained in town and were included at the wedding and reception the next day. Fortunately, the hall rented for the reception was able to accommodate this addition. Also, the flowers from the funeral were delivered to the hall and enhanced the atmosphere. The huge display of white flowers over the casket the day before were placed front and center before the bridal table and is something Carla is still thrilled to recall. Her grandmother’s funeral display dwarfed the bridal table and took up a three-foot strip of floor space where we danced later.
It wasn’t a very good floor for dancing and when I heard a woman behind me comment how cute “that man was dancing with the lady in the wheelchair,” I remember turning and telling the woman, “When they were dating it was ballroom style dancing on roller skates. Sort of the same concept I guess, just bigger wheels.”
About a year and a half later, Mike’s wedding took place at our church and it was another Catholic wedding with all the trimmings since Mike and his wife met through our parish groups. This was a relaxing event for Mom and Dad except for a “concern” that Mike was only 21 and didn’t really have a career, or a plan to get a degree, whereas his fiancé was two years older and already had graduated college.
The one interesting memory I have from Mike’s wedding was learning his wife was meeting her Dad’s family for the first time. The story I heard was there was some rift, years ago, and whoever caused the rift recently died, so all could be forgiven and forgotten. It was a joyous event for the bride’s family. Whether this is a true story or not, it is what I remember being told as a teen. I now know a family rift was a foreshadowing of events to come with Mike. At that time, I didn’t know it was possible for anyone to not know an entire side of their family. Family feuds puzzled me because by then I was in high school, older and wiser, and accepted that people got married with the expectation of good health for both. Divorce was still outside my radar too.
Mike’s wedding was in the early winter and the bridesmaids wore forest green, burgundy, and deep blue. It was a gorgeous and fun wedding, and of course, Mom and Dad danced.