Friday, April 21, 2017

My Mother



Genevieve Alice Frank (nee Horswell), my mother, was born in Estherville, Iowa November 21, 1919 to a middle class protestant family. I don’t know what her upbringing was like, although I know the family attended a local Lutheran Church. I believe that she was confirmed, however, I don’t believe that she came to know Jesus Christ as her personal Savior and Lord as a child. They lived on a quiet street in a white clapboard house with a covered veranda where I visited once as a child. I remember my grandmother Elsie being rather stern looking with tight white curls and a gingham print dress halfway down her legs to the black tie shoes she always wore. Yet, I have a fond memory of her baking pecan crescents, divinity fudge and baking powder donuts, rolled in white sugar. Hot from the boiling oil, they were heavenly. I also remember when they visited our home on Bay Ridge in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Here Leo, my grandfaither, took out his folding knife, the first one I had seen and carved a fallen apple from the sole tree we had in the backyard.

My mother loved to garden. In fact those gardens seemed to grow in size and colors, with perennials shooting up throughout the short growing seasons.
There were roses, tulips, lilies, and wild flowers of all sorts. But I remember the trilliums and lady slipper the best. The yellow beauty, which we had transplanted from Uncle Bill’s in the country, eventually bore 76 blossoms.  The ground cover, particularly pachysandra was perfect surrounding our entrance at the Beach Drive house on Lake Michigan. The spring peonies- pink, white and red caused an early 4th of July of color splashed around the yard.  This garden brought nearly annual Garden Club tours of ladies to marvel at her green thumb while sipping iced tea.

My mother, Jen, was active in volunteering. She wore a pink smock with the lapel pin of the Lutheran Hospital Auxiliary on which she served as Secretary while serving visitors and patients in the gift shop and cafĂ©.  She also was an officer with the Junior League and the Milwaukee Blood Center.

Perhaps her most extraordinary talent was her acting. She had learned the skills as a drama student at Lindenwood College in Missouri. There she had acted in solo all of Shakespeare’s works, a monumental feat.  In Milwaukee she was a founder of the Children’s and the Repertory Theaters.  Fascinatingly, acting was perfect for her as she never was able to hold a deep or meaningful conversation, but preferred to stay on the surface moving from subject to subject like a chameleon.  Her roles ranged from comic to tragic, playing lead as the Wicked Witch of The West in the Wizard of Oz and The Queen Bee with a stinging voice. She was very talented, perhaps missing a calling.

My parents married in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1942 before my father shipped off to Africa and Italy to fight Rommel and Hitler’s Nazi Army. For three harrowing years my mother lived with her Mother-in-law, Margaret Frank (Ganny), who didn’t like her, particularly her plebeian upbringing in Iowa. My brother Rick was born while Dad was at war, adding to the stress of the situation. As he reports, she began to smoke and drink to excess under the disapproving eye of a matron who was also worried about her son’s safe return. 

He did return but on a Care ship, fully disabled after being hit by a German 88mm artillery shell in Monte Cassino, Italy.  Months of rehabilitation and 18 operations, always wearing a body cast to hold him together, added to the caregiving responsibilities.  He would never be able to participate in sports in which he once excelled at a college level. In fact, his father had been an All-American in football and basketball at the University of Wisconsin before taking his own life because of the financial stress of the early 20th century recession bankrupting his manufacturing company when my father was only nine. These magnified problems resulted in Mother’s increased drinking and smoking.

After I was born in 1947 it seemed that my mother had to basically raise the two boys and maintain social standing in a demanding role. I grew up experiencing my mother as a very social and almost manic, activity-drawn person. When I came home from school I was never sure what I would find, a plate of hot chocolate cookies or a harsh order. You see my mother was a “closet,” moving to raging alcoholic. If you grew up in such a home you would also recognize the “walking on eggshells” experience of uncertainty. This describes the tenuous, often frightening atmosphere in which I grew up with my brother. My father travelled often for business and wasn’t a great role model either. As a result, I did not develop strong direction or sense of personhood.

My mother seemed to become more erratic as she grew older. Her sad and then overzealous personality displayed what I came to believe was undiagnosed bipolar disorder with very quick cycling. She also began to show sign of dementia and early Alzheimer’s disease in her late 50s and early 60s. These symptoms were quickly exacerbated by her heavy drinking, starting at noon and into the evening. My father allowed her to have a drink with lunch because it made her easier to be with. If she had  Scotch, her favorite poison, or a martini she could easily fly into a rage. My father did not seem to understand nor could he handle her abuse by trying to control her drinking.

From my childhood I remember being asked to make her drinks, which probably contributed to my own easy journey into overdrinking at an early age. I am not proud of having been the beer chugging champion of my college.

It is tragic to think of how awful it must have been for her to cope with life having a triple diagnosis that escalated over time. As her symptoms worsened, life became almost unbearable. I know that my brother moved away from home as soon as he could after his return from Vietnam as an Air Force munitions officer because of her.  Soon it became impossible for my father as well. We had my parents over for dinner often, but found that the drinking caused acting out that made for a very stressful relationship. My father was unable to maintain a normal life and had suicidal ideations. I got him help and we agreed that he should move to Florida to be able to survive the dysfunction and start a new life.

We planned to institutionalize my mother in assisted living. The event itself was a comic-tragedy as we created a ruse by taking her to her favorite club for lunch, followed by taking her to her new home.  After my father took off for Florida and my brother Ohio, I would spend a substantial part of my life dealing with the consequences of this situation. Quickly the facility found that my mother could not be handled. I was called in the middle of the night to move her. This drama played out nine times as I moved her around the city until finally having to admit her to a locked gero-psychiatry unit at St. Camillus, ironically across from the zoo. There she declined until she was not eating or speaking. I was the only one visiting as family and friends had abandoned her.

I received daily calls and warnings about the demented outbursts of my mother. My wife Pam, an RN, and I prayed for some divine intervention. Finally it came.

I was walking across the campus of the large health insurance company where I served on a hot summer day. As I headed to a conference in the President’s suite, God spoke to me, saying “go see you mother.” I told Him that I had a meeting, which of course He knew, but He persisted and I resisted. I told the President that I needed to go see my mother.

As I entered my mother’s room, she looked at me with blank eyes. Remember she had not spoken a word for some two years of her incarceration. I happened to have her family Bible with me, so I was led to tell her about my faith. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and spoke, saying “you have Jesus in your heart as Savior and Lord and will go to heaven. And if I do the same, I too will be in heaven and we will see each other again?” Shocked and amazed, I told her yes and asked if she wished to pray with me. Together we prayed aloud a prayer of salvation holding each other and weeping. It was one of the most healing and dramatic moments of my life.  We embraced again and I took my leave.

Hours later the nurse called, asking me what I had done to my mother, because she was speaking and aglow. Several hours later she stopped speaking and died 72 hours later of complications of pneumonia.

I believe that my entry into the chaplaincy is because of a desire to care for those ill from alcohol and drug abuse as well as dementia. These folks need Jesus more than anyone or anything. Perhaps God was using my mother's illness for a purpose to be later revealed.
"I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten" (Joel 2:25).

I will see her again in heaven.

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