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 ‘73
Even in memory, the events of the summer of 1973 are surreal to me. Mom and Dad celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary on May 1. I graduated eighth grade in early June. Rose got married two weeks later, and Rick’s wedding was in mid-August. My maternal grandparents, who preferred to be called Joe and Helen over being “grands,” celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary that September, two weeks after I started high school.
It’s a big growth experience to move from a coed grade school within walking distance of home to the all-girl high school three 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 as me, and Sharon would be a senior there. But the grade-school-to-high-school transition was not my most transformative event that year—it was family drama, not just weddings and anniversaries but also discussions about divorce, excommunication, and even Holy Orders. Growing up was not on my radar.
Rick, after six years focusing on a career as a spiritual leader and music major, returned home from the seminary before taking the next step that would lead to Holy Orders. He’d focused on the priesthood and music as his life calling since grade school and had entered a seminary prep high school at fourteen. But by age twenty, 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, medicine, and 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 commitment.
While my friends were fixated on the exciting adventures of high school, prom, and driving, 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 my friends and I had lots to talk about that summer. But there was one thing I didn’t share with my friends.
“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.”
I was positive I knew what marriage was all about. Not only had I been witness to my parents’ marriage, I was also thirteen and had been an 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 eighth grade. Before that, while I was still walking to school and back, Mom had been in direct contact with all the nuns, so I got away with childish laziness and a certain level of irresponsibility. But high school would include riding city buses if I stayed for after-school activities. I had a very clear awareness of being grown-up. I could take care of myself, and I didn’t want to take care of a spouse, so I was sure I was never going to get married.
“Not all marriages are like Mom and Dad’s,” Rose said, amused.
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 Jon had ministers and elders in his family who would concelebrate the marriage, so the meadow idea never grew and our parish church was reserved.
Mom and Dad’s concern about the mixed marriage seemed 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 that 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 still noticeable, so I figured she’d have more scars, but I’d had enough hospital experience by then to feel that if the doctor said she was fine, she probably was. I believed Rose would have a child because she wanted 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 that were to be appreciated, including sunrise, food on the table, clothes on our backs, and breathing.
And I was right for the following year, Rose did have her baby but suffered greatly during her pregnancy because scar tissue is a lot less forgiving than healthy tissue when stretched. Since Rose endured that with thankful acceptance for the miracle of a baby, God granted her six more.
Late one night that busy summer, Sharon and I discussed Rose’s mixed marriage. Sharon was upset because Mom 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, so there had to be a compromise. 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. I was a disaster with sewing machines and scissors. My help on those dresses was mainly me doing Sharon’s chores. 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 and having 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 dresses. Rose was more sad that she wouldn’t be allowed to wear Mom’s wedding dress.
Mom saw this issue differently, though. While she couldn’t allow us younger girls to be involved in a wedding not totally acceptable to the Church, this 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 that wedding dress would not fit either Sharon or me. Rose only altered the sleeves a little. The dress was an eggshell-white, dotted Swiss material with transparent sleeves, a scooped and ruffled neckline, and a tapered waist that 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’s and my navy-and-white dresses were in the peasant dress style in fashion, blending 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 a surreal sense of awareness and my attention was on the wedding guests. It had begun early in the year because Helen was giving Mom daily grief about invitations, decorations, wardrobe requirements, and especially 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 for a rest and then began making dinner. Everyone still lived at home but was busy with work and studies. Dinners were simple, hearty, and Mom planned them to be easy, so once she was in bed, I had the house to myself to play my rock music and dance and sing while I made the dinner.
So that day in 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 was letting 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, “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. I knew her health was fragile—a respirator sat on her counter in the back room, and she slept in a rocking bed to help her breathe. But I never considered that she didn’t expect to live long enough to see me graduate eighth grade.
I was very quiet and subtle with questions the next few weeks, but I soon realized that the whole family appreciated that Mom being alive and able to participate in the wedding planning and celebrations was a miracle. Rose hadn’t expected her Mom to be alive to attend her own wedding, so she didn’t battle her too hard. Meanwhile, Rick’s studies in biology and medicine made him even more fascinated at Mom’s health. He was clinically curious about the family’s daily routines and Dad’s caretaking since he’d learned there were few cases of quadriplegics remaining as healthy and active as Mom.
With this one offhanded comment from my mother, 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. Rose was right that not all marriages were like Mom and Dad’s. During Rose and Jon’s wedding in June, and Rick and Carla’s in August, I remember watching the many couples attending with a strange, unreal awe—they’d been 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 that Grandma Kramer, as a widow since her thirties, was also unique. I realized that few women in our neighborhood or parish were widowed before the age of sixty, and this gave me a strange sense of euphoria for my siblings as they were getting married. People lived together and remained healthy enough to get really, really old. It was amazing!
Even today, I see that moment as 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!
There was lots of dancing in my family. 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, Dad treasured his dancing partner and led her across the floor with a feather touch, and with just the right space so if you fumbled, you wouldn’t step on his toes and he could hide the mistake. I loved having him as my solo partner during daughter-dad dances when I was in high school.
A few years later my husband, Ed, also became a dancing partner of choice when he entered the family because he had the training and the touch. But Dad had that something special.
He didn’t leave Mom out of it either. 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 were laughing.
I had seen Mom and Dad dance this way at other 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 simple by comparison to Rose and Jon’s. 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 earlier marriages and had married each other outside of the Church, so they had been 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 Catholic dogma during the 1940s, but there was never anything official or public to ban Carla’s parents from Church events. They knew what they did was wrong and never considered asking a priest for decades. They kept their divorce sin as a family secret and just refrained from going to confession or taking Communion or participating in any sacraments by which good Catholics earned grace or forgiveness. But Rick had almost become a priest, so Carla’s parents felt they had to tell him before he joined the family. He felt sorry for their concern but fortunately knew that strict excommunication dogma was no longer enforced and didn’t impact their children’s status as good Catholics.
Mom and Dad prayed to accept these new people into their family. They 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. 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 thirty of Carla’s relatives who had not been planning to attend to the wedding arrived from out of town for the funeral. Since they were in town, those additional guests remained 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 that had draped over the casket the day before was placed front and center, dwarfing the bridal table and taking up a three-foot strip of the floor space where we danced. Carla is still thrilled to recall it.
At this time, it had only been a few months since I realized wheelchairs were uncommon at public events, so I got angry 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.”
After that summer I entered high school and met lots of new friends who didn’t have wheelchairs at their family events. School concerts were now performed in a huge auditorium, sporting events in a large gymnasium, and there were very few wheelchairs at either. I didn’t think about changing my view of never getting married, but I was becoming very interested in different family cultures and traditions.
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 had met through our parish groups. This was a relaxing event for Mom and Dad except for the concern that Mike was only twenty-one and didn’t really have a career or a plan to get a degree, whereas his fiancée was two years older and already had a college degree and a career.
However, I was shocked to learn that Mike’s fiancée would be meeting her dad’s family for the first time only a week or so before the wedding. The story I heard was there was some rift, years earlier, and whoever had caused the rift had 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. 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. I also accepted that people got married with the expectation of good health for both. Divorce as a part of reality, as opposed to a theoretical issue, 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.
Little did I know that the family rift was a foreshadowing of events to come with Mike.