My Mother's New Home
Just before my birth, in 1953, my parents purchased a home that was to be their ideal for many years to come. My mother appointed this fashionable new rambler with all the latest decor: "blonde furniture" with sharply styled lines; a Kroehler couch and chairs upholstered in the new man-made fibers; a China cabinet for Franciscan "apple plates;" and a 24-inch Philco television in matching motif. Parked outside in the driveway was a brand-new maroon Cadillac equipped with a bull-horn to warn interlopers who ventured too close. The driveway pavement was nearly always wet, since Dad washed the car on a regular schedule. The close-cropped lawn on which I played was fenced all around to keep our purebred Scottish Terrier, and I, safely within. All was well in our home according to the sense of style of Marilyn Nordgren.
My cousin, Karen Fitzpatrick, has shared about a visit to our home at this time. Here, the standards for proper 1950’s behavior had evidently taken effect. My parents bearing and carriage seemed to her, very stylish and even sophisticated. Dad frequently wore a tailored suit and tie, while my mother wore the smartest new fashions from Hong Kong. Karen told of learning new manners, even those dealing with the "correct" way to sneeze, which doubtless issued from the trusted Emily Post. As for myself, I can remember being taught about proper dining etiquette for those important occasions my parents entertained guests. Today, while I sometimes forget which is the salad fork, I always remember that such choices are important.
Then came a turn in fortunes for my Dad who had made his money fast in a volatile logging industry. After the baby-boom housing industry peaked, the market for lumber took a sharp turn downward and with it went my parents hope of retaining their ideal new home. But the early pattern of my mother's character revealed the wisdom to focus on what good remained. While my father's dreams began to crumble, my mother's dreams began to mature. And so my mother chose to honor and support her husband, wherever that may lead. Soon they were forced to sell their home, and with two young children, they moved into a rental house in a shipyard town far from family and friends.
This was a humble house as compared to the first, but my mother quickly accepted its ordinary simplicity and focused on building good friendships, childhood memories, and family closeness. The well worn pathways between our house and those of the neighbors gave silent testimony of my mother's gift for building friendships. And these were no ordinary friendships, they were the kind that would last a lifetime. I can still remember the trips to Island Lake with the Schwartz family where we learned about the simple pleasure of a summer picnic. It seems to me that these ordinary times were among the best in all our family history.
After this came a series of six rental houses that we lived in for as little a six months, and at most a year and a half. My father continued to seek the opportunities that may be at the next horizon. But each of these houses was variously a step forward or back from the ideal, first home. On the other hand, my mother simply hoped for a place to settle her family and grow deep roots. In each of these transitional houses my Mom would attempt to build friendships and in this she was successful, but often there was too little time for growth.
After living in eight different houses over twelve years, my parents finally found a house worthy of being called a home. However, even though the place had potential, it would require a lot of work before Mom would consider moving in. With an unreasonable deadline to clean and prepare for a move, Mom threw herself into the task. My mother had a very high energy-level to work long and hard, and so each night after a full day's work, she went to scrape, clean, and paint her new house. In such a place, her children could each have the kind of bedroom that would satisfy the teenage desire for privacy. And in such a place, her family could finally settle down and grow.
Mom was in her new house for less than six months when my father had a massive heart attack that quickly took his life. At thirty-six years of age, and with two teenage children, my mother was on her own in the world. This was a staggering blow to my Mom, for which she could not have been prepared. I have to believe that at this point she felt there was no future. Yet my mother was constructed with a mixture of a both iron and clay. Even while she was crumbling within she was resolutely determined to remain strong for the sake of her children and their home. As I remember it, throughout this stressful time, my mother managed to keep her home in order and immaculately clean.
After this came many more challenges to the strength of my mother. Now that I had no father to keep me in check, I began to push back on the previously immovable boundaries. One of those boundaries related to my choice of friends. Yet in spite of the poor choices I made with friends, my mother kept an open door policy, since she also had an open heart. We, in turn, took advantage of her hospitality, not to mention that we almost ate her out of house and home. This is not to say that my Mom did not try to set firm boundaries, but only that she sometimes felt weak to maintain her ground against my youthful determination. But in spite of her mixture of firm and weak boundaries, my friends came to respect my Mom because of her commitment to our family and home.
At one particularly difficult time for my Mom her usual resolve began to waiver. As a teenager I was not generally concerned about the feelings of anyone but myself, but at this time I could not ignore the fact that something had gone very wrong in our home. My Mom had allowed her normally orderly home to fall into an uncharacteristic disarray. So I immediately proceeded to tell her about the error of her ways. Of course, it never even occurred to me that I could help her clean the house; however, she soon "came to her senses" and so it seemed to me that such drastic measures were "unnecessary."
As my sister Kathy and I matured we each took turns at moving out and then back in again as we progressed through the rites of leaving home toward maturity. On one particular occasion I left after an emotionally charged argument about my future plans. My estrangement from the family was evidenced by my first absence from the family during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Eventually my "plans" for the future were exposed as selfish immaturity and I found myself alone and despondent in what seemed like a far away country. When my mother realized how low I felt, she called upon my friends—the same ones who owed her innumerable meals and lodging—and offered to pay them to bring me back home. Without any other options, the prodigal returned to find his mother preparing the "fatted calf" and willing to give him the "golden" key to her home without reminder of past failures. Such was the nature of my mother's unconditional love.
Over the years, my mother's home was the center for the celebrations of our lives. My sister's garden wedding to her high school sweetheart was followed by one of the great parties of all time. My own marriage to the young and beautiful friend of my mother, whom she knew to be my true flame, was celebrated with a garden reception which strengthened our relationship with family and friends. The visits of her cousins Laura and Linda, and especially the "cousins birthday" gathering which was really just a good reason to have a wonderful party. And the baby showers and children’s birthdays that were enjoyed outside on the deck with the fragrance of her beautiful roses in the air. It is hard to recall these memories without a mixture of gratitude and regret, since I now see how fleeting are the precious moments of our lives.
Without a doubt the most meaningful of such times were during Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother was truly one of the world's greatest cooks and it was with great expectation that I looked forward to her traditional holiday fare. In truth, family tradition was at the center post of my mother's holiday celebrations as she executed them in a wonderfully predictable way. Early-on our family had established a pattern of opening Christmas presents on Christmas Eve and this had never changed. My mother always made the same Christmas Eve meal—the same as her mother’s—which started with a shrimp salad, freshly raised dinner rolls, and Swedish meatballs for the sake of my father. If the truth be known, this comparatively light meal was actually the appetizer for the deserts that would follow. My favorites were the steamed carrot pudding and candied-fruit freezer cookies which were made only for this one time of the year. Afterward we simultaneously opened all our presents in a flurry of torn paper, each accompanied with a "thank you" and a hug and these interspersed with the sound of more crumpling, ripping, and more giving of thanks.
My mother's home was a source of great pride for her and all of our family. She decorated it with the symbols of her life. Chinese prints and curios were the momentos of her trip to the Orient. Irish books and heirlooms were the evidence of her quest for her family heritage. And various fine feline nic-nacs were the sign of her devotion to her cats. But most prominently displayed were the pictures of her family and grandchildren in joyful embrace. The layout of her home, from the living room to the dinning room, through the kitchen and on out to the rose garden deck, were arranged as an invitation to all her family and friends. Open and gracious hospitality was the style of her interior decorating theme.
In the last few years of my mother's life she was increasingly burdened by the everyday responsibility of caring for a house and garden, and so she finally warmed up to an offer to sell her home in order to go live with my sister's family, and especially her beloved granddaughter Mari. Though I had misgivings about the sale of "our" home, eventually I realized that it was the best thing for my Mom. And even when she entered a time of persistent illness we all encouraged her to press on with her plans to move. We later learned that this decision was God’s providential provision for what would later unfold. The place they finally selected was beautiful and big enough for my mother to live independently while my sister was close by.
It was soon after the purchase of the house that my mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme—a terminal brain tumor. My mother, who had always been so strong and sharp, soon became confused, fearful, and discouraged. We all tried to uplift her spirits as best we could and began searching for ways to maximize the quality of the remaining time. During Mom's illness I often stayed overnight in her home and when I was alone I felt deep emotions stir in my soul. Remembrances of good times and hard filled my mind with many questions about our choices in the past and their effect on the future. And I prayed for God’s wisdom and strength to help my Mom through the months to come.
Over the years my mother shared with me that she did believe in God, but that she never had a peace about her eternal destiny. I often tried to share with her the peace I had experienced through faith in Jesus Christ. She, in turn, always sought to affirm me by saying nice things like, "Oh, you speak so well," and "Maybe you should become a minister," and that "she was glad that it worked for me." And yet she made it clear that she did not feel that such faith was possible for her. Therefore it was with a heavy heart that I considered her illness and the certainty of its outcome.
Then one day, as I took Mom to a radiation treatment, she shared a desire to "do more good works and pray more" in the time that she had left. I did my best to explain that we don't need to make points with God, but only receive His forgiveness through faith, however; she now had difficulty with her understanding. When we finally returned to the quiet of her home she asked me to read a letter she had received from a gradeschool friend. While we sat at the dinning table I read the letter and we came to realize that her friend was simply sharing, from her own experience and the scriptures, how to have peace with God. In this letter, she explained how she had once seen God as a judge ready to punish every sin, but at a certain point in her life she finally realized that while God was indeed the judge of the universe, he was also the loving Father of forgiveness. Then she wrote out a few short verses from the Bible that explained The Way to Peace with God. Finally, her friend included a card on which she wrote out what has been called the Sinner's Prayer. I told my Mom that this was the single most important prayer she could ever pray. My Mom responded by saying "Then let's pray." And with the faith of a child my Mom found peace with God by saying yes to Jesus.
The weeks that followed were extremely difficult for my Mom and all of our family, but I am forever thankful for God’s gift of time. In these days I discovered ways to show my Mom the Bible promises for believers in Christ and she gratefully received each one. Because of my sister’s loving care for my mother and the many care givers who supported her in this exhausting effort, my mother was able to remain in her new home. Many came to visit her and she ever retained the dignity and spirit of a gracious hostess. It was only in the last days and hours of her life that we seemed to lose contact with her, but even then she would rally to communicate some kind of blessing to those she loved. At one particular time Dorothy brought in our daughter, Christine, to report that she had been accepted in the cheerleading team. My mother’s last words were, "Oh that’s wonderful!"
At my mother’s memorial service there were many wonderful things expressed about her, and I also tried to share as best I could, but the single most helpful thing I heard that day was when the minister shared the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John:
I was so thankful that my mother had finally found the way. And I released her to Jesus who took her to my mother’s new home.
11/10/1930 ~ 4/5/1998
Tim Nordgren, 1-16-99