Dad had strong arms, the arms of a working man, the arms of a man who crawled around on silos all day in that steel mill.  We didn’t know – I didn’t –  how he counted on those arms – those working arms – until years later, when I heard him say as he lay in his hospital bed in St. Joe’s cancer ward, with a tremor in his voice: “I used to be so strong.”

Those arms were his pen, his pad of paper, his living.

He was strong, a worker’s body and strength. He was no taller than me, when I was grown.  Strong as he was, Dad’s eyes sparkled and flickered as he sat in front of the television in that narrow living room, in all the upper flats every night, laughing at Lucille Ball, drinking a beer, two, three.  He loved to laugh; his eyes twinkled if he got us to laugh, too.

When I was small, Dad would lay down next to me to tell me a bedtime story.  His favorite was “Jack and the Beanstalk.”  When Jack climbed the beanstalk, he discovered that the giant at the top had lots of food, and cases and cases of beer, in his coffers.  Most of the time, Dad would soon be snoring as I lay awake, always slow to sleep.

As a child, my days began when the alarm went off in my parent’s bedroom – 6 AM.  Mom was up first, her nightgown covered with a chenille robe, in the kitchen, where she reached to the top of the refrigerator to turn on the radio, to hear the weather report.  Day after day, she got the frying pan heated on the gas stove, added the bacon, and two eggs for dad.  The coffee pot perked alongside.  In a few minutes, I’d hear Dad’s footsteps in the back hall, all the way to the basement, where he shoveled coal into the furnace, and shortly, the room I shared with my little sister was warm, that cozy warm of rooms in cold places.  I lay in bed, heavy quilts that kept me overnight covering me.

Winter into late spring, autumn into winter, dad changed the storm windows into screens, fall into winter, he changed the screens into storm windows, year after year after year.  He did it himself.  When he worked, Dad did not talk.  When he worked, Dad lifted those heavy, heavy storm windows by himself from the second story windows, and balancing each one in his strong hands, he fit them into the space they served, bolted them into place, and we were safe again, safe in his strong arms, for the coming winds and snow.


I have a soft spot for working guys.  Maybe I see Dad in them, his truth, his simplicity.  They get the benefit of the doubt from me, and why not? From my earliest days, I knew a man, a good man, full of words and simple love, love that flowed out of his eyes –  and sometimes, tears.




I slept in my own bed the night before Mom died. Jeff wanted me to rest in these last days of her life, and so he offered – even said clearly – that he would sleep that Friday night in the recliner that filled the corner of her tiny room at Matilda Brown Home in Oakland. Mom loved that room, the smallest in the assisted living home, and she loved Matilda Brown Home. Again and again, each time I visited, she would look at me, her eyes big, and ask: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” And I would answer, again and again, each time she asked: “God found it.”

Yes, God found that place, the place she loved after we moved her from her two-bedroom apartment on Appleton Avenue in Milwaukee. Milwaukee had always been her home. Mom was a “Milwaukee girl,” and on my visits back from California, she and I would spend at least one day finding places in Milwaukee we had not seen before. One time we found ourselves in the living room of Ukrainian speaking business people; Mom spoke her first tongue with these strangers in that shadowy place, a statue of the Virgin lit by a candle in the corner. We ended the day by stopping for dinner, and returned home before dark. I miss those days, those adventures in my own hometown. And I miss Mom.

Before we moved Mom to Oakland, I had the job of finding her a good, safe place to live. I walked through countless assisted living homes, places that smelled of urine and places where the old sat, their chins on their chests, in crowded, rug-less living rooms. I walked quickly through those places, marking them off my list without thinking. One day, frantic, I said to God as I prepared for the day: “You have to help us!” When I walked into the kitchen that morning, I took the yellow pages out of a drawer and I swear the pages fell open to “Assisted Living Homes,” and my eyes fell to the name of a place I hadn’t seen before: “Matilda Brown Home for Women.” I was on the phone with the director within moments, and Jeff and I left soon after to see the place. Mom’s dwindling resources would pay for three meals a day, a small room with shared bath, caring staff, in a lovely setting, beautiful gardens, in the neighborhood behind Oakland Technical High School. Matilda Brown was a hidden gem.

My little working class mother felt like a queen in that place, after she adjusted. For the first week or two, she would say to me when I sat with her in the garden: “I’m trying, Mary Elyn.” This was before she fell in love with her new home, and her new friends, many with memory loss, also, and before her question turned to: “How did you find this place?” But then she loved the caring staff, the good meals, her daily routine, and even a couple of friends. Once, she and a friend who also had memory problems left the gated gardens for a walk around the block and found their way back. I swear they did it to prove their independence! And she remembered to tell me at the end of the day.

I stood in front of the wood framed mirror in the dark corner of my bedroom, brushing my hair. I knew the end was coming, someday soon, and so I hurried to get ready for the short drive. I heard a voice: “Everything is going to happen naturally from now on.” Surprised, I turned quickly to look over my shoulder, facing the windows in the next room: “Jesus?” I asked. No answer; no more voices. I finished my preparations for the day and drove to Matilda Brown Home.

When I walked into Mom’s room, she was still in a coma, having fallen into that state after suffering a stroke three days earlier. I had brought her a chocolate heart on Valentine’s Day, three days before. She said, “thank you,” looking into my eyes. Hospice had told me that when someone is dying, the primary care giver and the dying person often look deeply into the other’s eyes. In her final days, I’d decided to bring her a favorite treat, after lecturing her for years about watching her diet to control her diabetes.

When I entered her room, I noticed her labored breathing. I stood by the side of her bed for a few moments, Jeff on the other side, talking to me. He didn’t notice her breathing, I could tell: a hospice nurse had told me this deep breathing would happen as death approached. I nodded at Jeff. I was only focused on Mom.

He walked out of the room. I said to Mom: “I’m here now.” I stood next to her bed as her breath deepened. I cried and said to her, “I’ll miss you so much.” And I watched as her face shown with a light, a light from somewhere in her. I’d never seen this light before. “You’re so beautiful,” I said. Her forehead wrinkled for a moment, the stopping of the heart. She was gone.

“Everything is going to happen naturally from now on.”

A few moments later, I walked out of Mom’s room and into the hall to look for Jeff. I saw a woman I knew walking down the hall, and I told her that my mother had died. Grace was a great talker, so she told me about the day she learned that her brother had died overseas in World War II. She and a friend were canning that day, and when she put down the phone and returned to the kitchen, they continued their work.

I took her words to mean that after someone we love dies, life, living goes on.