“Rest in peace, Mama.” Even though I am sixty-eight years old, I still always spoke of and addressed her as Mama. It was a habit that I never cared to break. Now she is gone, and it will be a while before I can speak with her again, when I can once again call her Mama. Until that day, my memories will have to sustain me.
Perhaps the earliest memory I have of my Mama involves an ironing board and a rosary. Her beads were on the kitchen table in the house on Adler Street. While she pressed the wrinkles from our shirts and pants, I was fingering her beads. She took the opportunity to teach me how to say the rosary. When I made my First Communion, I was thrilled that I got my own rosary.
My mother and father were both converts to Catholicism. Mama attended a Catholic nursing school which required all the student nurses to attend chapel services. She approached the hospital chaplain and asked him about becoming a Catholic, but also asked him not to tell anyone that she was thinking about it. After she took instructions from him, she was baptized conditionally one Saturday evening with her classmate Audrey acting as her Godmother. The next morning at Sunday Mass she went to communion with the rest of the student nurses – to the absolute horror of the Sisters. After Mass the sisters challenged her. She told them that she had been baptized the night before. They were a little put out that she had not told them, but they forgave her and welcomed her into the Church. When they asked her how she came to the decision to convert, she told them that she had been intrigued by her “favorite saint,” Mary.
In 1954, my father passed away leaving her a widow with four children under the age of six. She moved us all to Fond du Lac where my aunts and uncles lived. There were four Catholic churches in Fond du Lac at the time. My mother was happy to learn that we were to be members of St. Mary’s. It was there that I made my first communion and attended three years of grade school under the guidance of the Sisters of St. Agnes, many of whom knew my mother from her days in nurse’s training.
In 1957 she remarried, and we moved back to Milwaukee. Before the wedding, a package appeared in the mail one day. There was no return address and no indication who had sent her a beautiful crystal rosary as a wedding gift. Though she had her suspicions, she never learned for certain who sent her the beautiful rosary which she cherished for the rest of her life.
When she and my stepfather found a home for us in Milwaukee, she was thrilled to find out that it was called Mother of Perpetual Help. Every Tuesday, the school children ended their day by going to the devotions to the Mother of Perpetual Help. The devotions were repeated in the evening. During the summer months, I remember walking to church on Tuesday evenings to go to the devotions.
After I left for the seminary, it became necessary for my family to move again. This time they ended up in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Again, my mother was delighted. I offered my Mass of Thanksgiving in that Church after my ordination. I asked the organist and soloist to sing one of my mother’s favorite hymns as a prelude to the Mass, “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.” Tissues were necessary.
Though they attended St. Gregory the Great Church after they moved to the senior apartments, my mother never lost her devotion to Mary. Another cherished memory involves my mother sitting in the living room in her chair early in the morning with her prayer book entitled “A Mother’s Love.” The title of the book described who she was and who she wanted to be, a loving Mother. The prayer book became worn and eventually was filled with memorial cards of loved ones who had died. However, it never left the table next to my mother’s chair.
She died on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, January 3, 2016. This day prompts yet another memory. When we were living in Fond du Lac, she purchased the first three pieces of a nativity set. That first year a shoe box became a stable. Mary and Joseph knelt beside the manger where the little Baby Jesus lay. As the years progressed, she purchased more pieces, and Gregor Schmitz, my uncle’s father-in-law, fashioned a proper stable. However, because the pieces were purchased at different times and in different stores, they were not a matched set. In fact the kneeling figures of Joseph and Mary towered over the standing kings and shepherds. The little donkey would never have been able to carry Mary two blocks let alone from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Two of the kings could have been twin brothers. We were also the only house that had two black kings. One year I suggested that I could get her a beautiful nativity set as a Christmas present. She shutdown that suggestion as fast as it was made. There were too many memories attached to our crazy-quilt nativity scene.
So when I got the news that she had died, I thought to myself that those three wise men had probably decided to come and get her and take her with them as they went to see the newborn King in Bethlehem, much the same as they did in one of my favorite Christmas traditions, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
She is free of pain now, for that I am grateful. I look forward to the day when we will meet again. One of the last things she said to me was, “This business of living to be ninety-two is ridiculous.” She had outlived her brother and her sisters and most of her cousins and all of her aunts and uncles. She had buried a daughter and several of her nephews, her sisters’ boys. She was tired and wanted to go home to be with her family. So until we meet again, I simply say, “Rest in peace, Mama. I will miss you.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator