A Tribute to my Mother – a life of grit and humor

I wrote this Tribute about my mother for my granddaughter Rachel in 2005, which she needed as part of a school assignment. I have left it very much as I wrote it, because its content is as relevant now as it was then.

I have copied most of the last paragraph of this tribute to the front of this account, because my mother’s advice is quite profound and I want it to be “up front”.  But read all of what is below to get a full measure of her life.  Here is her advice:

  • Look at life as a wonderful journey, not as a trial to get through.
  • When things get tough, talk to your parents for their good council, and then try to find some humor in your predicament.
  • Remember that no one can do everything perfectly, and you can never make everyone like you.
  • Be loving and happy with all your accomplishments, and when things don’t go right and you want to cry, try to find or think about something that makes you happy, even if you cannot find something to laugh about.

________________________________________________________________________

Rachel, I will try to answer your questions about my mother and how her sense of humor saw her through some rough and great times in her life. As I told your mother tonight, when I think about my father I usually get tears in my eyes (even at my ripe old age of nearly 68), because we were so close and I miss him so terribly much.  Sometimes when I think about my mother I also have tears, but more often I smile or laugh, because I am usually reminded of something funny or crazy that she did.

My mother was probably not born with the keen sense of humor she had through most of her life, though I suspect it was always hidden below the surface. She never knew her mother (who died of complications of child berth in a dingy little mining town in Nevada), and was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Salt Lake City. She almost died as an infant because she was allergic to cow’s milk, and a nursing mother could not be found who could also feed her. It was only when an immigrant women from Europe (who had just moved to America as a convert to the Mormon church) learned of her plight, and came to their door with a solution, did she thrive. The woman told my great-grandmother to boil the milk and separate the curd from the whey (the liquid part of milk) and feed mother the whey – she did that and my mother for the first time began to grow. In fact, she grew rapidly into a very pretty, but very tall young girl (her father was 6 feet 6 inches tall, so my mother also was destined to be tall). Her height caused her a lot of unhappiness because she was taller than the boys her age, and she felt very self-conscious. Her father (who was a mining engineer and spent a great deal of time in South America) came home after a couple of years away and saw how she walked slumped over with shoulders bowed.  He said, “Mary, stand up straight – you are an Ek (my grandfather’s surname) and a descendent of the Vikings, so walk with pride.” She did from that time onward, and one of my constant memories of my mother was how regal she looked when she walked.

I am telling you a little about her early life, because she did not have many opportunities to laugh. She had some very loving cousins (one of whom quit school to stay home to take care of her when she was a baby), and they did what all kids do and joked and had a great deal of fun, but she missed her father a great deal and was often sad, and always worried about living up to his expectations.

But when she was 15 years old she met my father (who was 17 years old) and it changed her life. He was handsome and was more than 6 feet tall – mother never had to slump around him. My dad’s father was a very stern Englishman, who was not affectionate and did not show much love for anyone, but his mother (who was about 25 years younger than her husband and Scottish) was a wonderfully warm woman who radiated love, and spent all of her life hugging her children and grandchildren (I still smile at the memory). She also had a well-developed sense of humor and, because of this, my father and his younger brother were born comics and learned to express themselves warmly to others. My mother fell in love with my father and his family and spent a great deal of time with all of them, and it was during this period that her sense of humor was finally allowed to develop. Once, she baked a pan-cake to take on her first picnic with my father and his family, but proceeded to put her own foot into the cake on the ride up to the picnic grounds. Can you imagine – she was trying to impress her “new” family and did something that was so embarrassing? My father and my grandmother laughed and laughed, but made sure she knew they were not making fun of her, just laughing at what had happened. My mother benefited a great deal from that. and learned to laugh even when she wanted to cry, and her sense of humor made her who she was – a happy and funny woman who found joy in almost everything.

They married after she graduated from high school, and the sense of humor that both my mother and father had, gave them the courage to get over some rough times. They lived through the Great Depression together and worked at any job they could get to pay the debts they had incurred, and always tried to find something to laugh about. My parents used humor even when my father’s health began to deteriorate. He had a damaged heart valve (from having rheumatic fever as a child), and survived multiple heart attacks and strokes before he died when he was only 55. My mother was always at his side, making jokes and getting him to laugh. My father would reciprocate, for instance, by sitting up in the hospital bed and putting my mother’s hat on his head and covering his face with her veil (a picture your aunt Janet took and may still be in one of my old scrapbooks, which I gave to your mom). He did this usually when mother left the room to get something, and would be caught off-guard by his antics when she walked back into the room. My mother also joked about her own bald head when she was undergoing chemotherapy for her breast cancer and helped keep hidden, from her children and grandchildren, just how very ill she really was.

When I was a teen, my father was the manager of the Ogden Union Stockyards and finally had a salary that was sufficient to do extra things – such as taking my mother out to dinner. They often made a game out of it, however, and it made for many fun times. The rule was that if mother wanted to go out to eat and could prevent my father from driving his car into the garage, then he had to take her to dinner. Once, my mother said to me “I want beef!”- her signal that she was going to get my father to take her to dinner – and enlisted my help. She had me put boxes in the driveway to keep him from getting into the garage. She got me to print signs that read “Stop, do not go any further – I want beef” and taped them to the boxes. Then she got dressed with her hat and best dress, and sat up straight with her purse on her lap in the chair in the living room. We heard my father drive up and mother sat patiently waiting for him to come in the front door, but to her surprise, he walked in the back door. She asked him how he got his car in the garage. He said, “I drove around the boxes.” She laughed and said, “that is unfair”, but he insisted that he got the car into the garage, so they would not go out that night. Mother didn’t say anything more, and a half hour later called everyone to dinner. She served my sister, and my brother and me, but before she could serve my father or herself, the pan mysteriously slipped out of her hand onto the floor, and the dinner spilled out all over. My father laughed so hard he could hardly contain himself and said, “Ok, you win – get dressed.” Mother was ready to go within 2 minutes. That night, when they got home after dark we heard the car drive into the driveway, but wondered why they hadn’t come in yet. My brother and I walked to the kitchen, looked out the back door and saw them standing on the porch, kissing. We just smiled, but then kidded them about it when they got back in the house. They were very affectionate with each other, and with all of us, all the days of their lives.

As a last example of how much fun they had together, let me tell you about a very warm August day. We had no air conditioning in our home, so dad used to sit in his shorts (no shirt) in his chair reading and getting some air from a fan on the floor. On this day, mother was watering the flowers and lawn in the front and back of the house, and decided to walk between those two locations through the house, rather than down the driveway.  As she passed by him, she would flick her fingers and small water droplets from her wet hands would land on my father’s bare chest. All he did was look up at her over the top of his reading glasses. His eyes told her that if she was going to keep that up, she would “pay a price”, but mother ignored his warning. He had a full glass of beer in his hand, but mother knew it was his last one and, therefore, certainly would not waste it by dowsing her with it. She was wrong. The third time she flitted through and sprinkled him with water, he jumped up and caught her with what was left of his beer before she could get down the back steps. Then he walked back and sat down in his chair, and we all laughed about that for many, many years.

Your aunt Theresa can tell you how much fun it was to go shopping for material with her – by then mother used a cane to help her walk and she would bring the clerk (herd her, I was told) over to a shelf and use her cane to point out the bolt of cloth that she wanted. And your mother has told you many of the funny things that they did together – such as getting ready to go “walk-walk” on the streets around our home, and how hard is was trying to keep up with her.  My mother worked for many years at the Dee Hospital, and walked to and from work every day, a distance of over a mile each way, so she was a fast walker.

She also figured out real fast how to deal with your uncle Mike, who made a game of getting something to eat when they stayed in Ogden with her. She would say to the kids, “I am going to make a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch – would you like one?” Your mother would always say yes, but Mike would say, “no thanks grandma.” So when she made the sandwiches and was ready to sit down, Mike would say, “grandma, I decided I would like a grilled cheese sandwich” and then say to her “can I have yours – cause you share, grandma?” She would smile as she made another sandwich, but after that, she would always make an extra sandwich and hide it, and then when Mike would “change his mind”, she would always have one ready for him – and for herself.

Mother kept us in stitches with her antics.  She was always on the lookout for new words (she was mainly looking to use them in her writing, but also because she loved learning). When she found a particularly funny sounding word (such as glockenspiel – a musical instrument), she would begin calling your uncle Larry and me by that name, especially when we did something naughty (which was often). 

As you know, my mother was a very accomplished short-story writer (publishing in Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post, for instance). As your uncle Larry and I got older, she found it more difficult to have enough quiet time to write in the study that my father built for her in the basement of our home. When I was your age, she would get your aunt Janet to baby sit us, then would put on her coat and hat and leave the house to “go downtown shopping”. She would then sneak around the back of the house and slip in the back door, and get downstairs without us seeing her. Once, she even had to go down the street and then cut back up through the alley and climb the fence behind our house to get past us. When we got older, and figured out her joke, she decided that the best thing to do was bribe us to be quiet and give her time. She said that if we did not bother her, every time she sold a story, she would give us $5. That worked very well and we got good money for being good. Once, after your uncle Larry and I were both married, mother sold a story and called to tell me. I said, “Congratulations mom – when can I expect the $5.” She laughed and laughed and told me that wouldn’t work anymore.

We also, as a family, used to go on long Sunday drives in our car and always end up stopping for ice cream, and a drink from a natural spring in North Ogden. We also went on a lot of picnics with my aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, we were going way up into Ogden canyon, and again mother made her famous pan-cake, but this time forgot to bring the frying pan to cook the hamburgers. Not to be deterred, she sliced the cake and used a spatula to take it out of the pan and put it on a couple of paper plates, then washed the cake pan and used it to cook the hamburgers, laughing all the time. They were some of the best hamburgers we had ever eaten, but she had to replace her cake pan because it was too black to use again.


We all could benefit by being more like your great-grandmother. We can always find humor, and even when things are not going well in our lives, we should strive to find it.  Here is her advice:

  • Look at life as a wonderful journey, not as a trial to get through.
  • When things get tough, talk to your parents for their good council, and then try to find some humor in your predicament.
  • Remember that no one can do everything perfectly, and you can never make everyone like you.
  • Be loving and happy with all your accomplishments, and when things don’t go right and you want to cry, try to find or think about something that makes you happy, even if you cannot find something to laugh about.

You see, I have tears in my eyes telling you all of these things about my mother (I remember some of them as clearly in my mind today as I did as a child), but I also have enjoyed their telling, because it makes me laugh and smile.  

I love you Rachel – you should want to be like your great-grandmother; everyone should

Love,

Grandpa

1/3/2005