Sunday, May 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom

I wrote the following piece 3 years ago today. Don't think I can improve upon it. Since most of you probably haven't seen it, it seems like time to bring it back. Happy 76th birthday, Mom.


Today is my mother’s 73rd birthday. Mom died six years ago, following complications from a mastectomy. The last years of Mom’s life were difficult for her physically, as she suffered the after-effects of a 40+ year, pack-a-day smoking habit. Toward the end of her time, she spent a large amount of her time in a wheelchair and was residing in an assisted-living facility at the time of her death. But that was only part of it.

Mary Jane Heimermann was born May 31, 1933, in Center Township, Outagamie County, Wisconsin, about 6 miles north of my hometown of Appleton. Mom was blessed with enormous talent and cursed with unfathomable demons. She was an accomplished singer, lead vocalist in a Sweet Adelines barbershop quartet that performed throughout the Midwest and in Canada. She came of age at a time when women generally were not able to reach the executive suites unless they were secretaries. She became one, serving as a top admin for senior management at Kimberly Clark Corporation. She could type over 100 words a minute on a manual typewriter and would regularly help her bosses craft correspondence and maintain complicated business records. She met an army veteran turned college student, Edward Heuring, and married him in January, 1963. Her husband graduated from the University of Wisconsin that spring and took a job with a large, Chicago based insurance company. The young couple then moved to a small apartment in Cicero, a Chicago suburb best known as the redoubt of Al Capone, where your faithful correspondent arrived at the end of that year, 10 days after shots rang out in Dallas.

Even then, the demons started to appear. Mom grew increasing apprehensive about raising her young son in the big city, so the family moved back to Appleton the following summer. A total of six more children arrived between 1965 and 1976, including a daughter who died shortly after being born. Meanwhile, the sweet, talented and poised young wife and mother began to slide into bouts of mental illness. She grew increasingly estranged from reality, regularly raging against her husband, her neighbors and the world at large. As her rages would escalate, she would be periodically hospitalized at mental health facilities in the area. She was provided medications which would help, but the side effects would eventually cause her to “go off her meds” and the cycle would begin anew. Mom would be confined several times to such facilities.

Meanwhile, her husband and children struggled to understand the demons. Dad eventually left in 1977, no longer able to deal with the rages and abuse she heaped upon him when she was sick. The children remained with Mom in the family domicile for six years, during which time Mom would do the best she could to raise her six children. My siblings and I turned our attentions outward, becoming involved in school activities and friendships. After graduating from high school in 1981, I left for college and returned home only infrequently. My siblings continued to live in the house until Mom was hospitalized in 1983. At that time my father and his new wife took the remaining kids into his home, where they lived the rest of their respective childhoods. My father passed away in 1990, following complications from surgery.

After the family left, Mom lived in various apartments and facilities. She watched as another woman completed raising her children, a task that she ached to complete but was unable to do. She lived the last few years of her life as essentially a ward of the state, with her older sister serving as her conservator. During the last years of her life, she remained on her medications and was able to be a proud grandmother. She greatly loved her children and saw them as the fruits of her life’s work. Unfortunately, she left too soon.

So why am I writing all this? There are a lot of reasons. You cannot choose the circumstances of your birth, or who your parents are. You can try to run away from the circumstances, but they are integral to the person you become. Mom suffered a lot in her life and I believe she is in a better place now, but I sense that she would have accepted the physical pain to remain here and watch her grandchildren grow up. Most young women coming of age in mid-century America did not have a lot of choices available. I can never really understand what my mother’s life was really like. But it is a conundrum that will eternally draw my attention. And it should.


Gino said...

i was born there myself just four months later.
baptised @ St Attracta.

Mark Heuring said...

Too weird -- were you born at Macneal Hospital? I was baptized at Mary Queen of Heaven on 24th Street.

Anonymous said...

very touching. A nice tribute to a lady who did the best she could. I hope you feel better for writing it. I think most folks have had issues with their Moms, but we know that where the rubber meets the road, these women would have jumped in front of trains for us. I have certainly had my moments with my Mom. But in my darkest hour, she was the person in my family that was there for me, and I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I didn't expect her to be.
My Mom got some very bad news last month. Some of the same issues your Mom faced. 40 cigs a day for 40 years. We all know what's coming, but it doesn't make it any easier. So your tribute really hit home. I'll say a prayer for your Mom, you say one for mine.


Mark Heuring said...


You bet I'll say a prayer for your Mom.