TERRE HAUTE —
My mom remains a sweet, generous, energetic, faithful lady at 87 years old. Raising five children somehow didn’t break her bright spirit or my late father’s endless patience.
Many of us Baby Boomers who have our own families now look back at our parents and say, “How on earth did they manage?”
That might be the best way to honor our mothers today — to appreciate the obstacles they faced to keep their family a family. For those fortunate enough to have the chance, it’s appropriate on Mother’s Day to ask, “Mom, how did you do it?”
One reason my mom succeeded is that she followed a great example, her mom.
As Mother’s Day 2011 approached, I decided to go back a generation and learn something about the woman who raised my mother. Those stories fill in the blanks for me. I know my maternal grandparents mostly through tales passed down by my mom and her siblings and documented by my oldest sister, a thorough genealogist. My grandfather was born in 1877 — the year Ulysses S. Grant handed the presidency over to Rutherford B. Hayes. (Yes, it is statistically mind-boggling for a middle-aged guy in 2011 — I’m 50, and an optimist — to have a grandfather born 12 years after the Civil War, but it’s true.) My grandmother entered the world in 1883, and passed on in 1967 when I was 7.
I hold fuzzy, black-and-white memories of her … sitting in our garage, snapping a mountain of fresh-picked green beans piled on the lap of her house dress, and dropping them into a huge metal pot … hearing her shrill voice say, “Mark, you are the limit,” and wondering what that meant. (I’m guessing I was misbehaving and testing her nerves.) … admiring her serene smile, gregarious laugh, and hair whiter than Mark Twain ever dreamed.
Otherwise, that’s it. Those are my only personal recollections of Anna Martha Kueck Lange.
But her full story, retold by my mom last week, explains why I feel like a fortunate son (and grandson) on Mother’s Day. It also serves as a reminder to me, and others of my vintage, to stop complaining during times that we think are tough.
On Dec. 22, 1931, my grandfather, Herman Christian Phillip Lange, decorated the inside of St. John’s Lutheran Church for the upcoming Christmas celebration. He was a pro at such skills, a craftsman who traveled the country as a salesman and installer of Sanitas wallpaper. Afterward, he had a smoke (a common habit back then) and headed home. That night, he felt ill, suffered a heart attack and died unexpectedly at 54 years old. They buried him the day after Christmas.
My heartbroken grandmother, just 48, suddenly was a single mother with seven children at home, including my 6-year-old mother.
And the Great Depression was just starting.
“I don’t know how she ever did it,” Mom said last week, misty-eyed and shaking her head.
Well, for starters, Grandma Lange was resilient. She had to be. She’d lived through the deaths of three infant children — twin boys, and my mother’s twin sister. So, when her husband died, my grandmother found ways to keep going, to feed her kids and to pay the bills.
My grandparents owned (and lived in) an apartment house on Third Street in Aurora, Ind., a scenic little town on the banks of the Ohio River, just a half-hour from Cincinnati. Grandma consolidated her family’s living quarters to utilize as much space as possible in the three-story building. My uncle (her second-oldest son) turned my grandfather’s storage room into an extra apartment to be rented. Grandma opened a tea room there, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for a few years. She’d bake rolls and pastries, which my mom and her sisters would tote in baskets and sell downtown.
Later, as the Depression progressed, she closed the tea room, and found other jobs. Now, anybody who’s ever been to Dearborn County, Indiana, knows the air in its county seat — Lawrenceburg, a few miles up U.S. 50 from Aurora — is filled with the sweet-and-sour aroma of corn mash. It was home to several distilleries, including Seagram’s and another owned by Kentucky’s O’Shaughnessy brothers. My grandmother was not a whiskey drinker, nor a fan of that vice, but once Prohibition ended at the onset of the Depression, jobs in Dearborn County centered around the production of spirits, the liquid kind. So she landed a job on the O’Shaughnessy bottling line. She had no car, and walked in her all-white uniform back and forth to work, occasionally thumbing a ride, “which wasn’t chancy like it is nowadays,” my mom explained.
She also worked in a poultry house, cleaning and dressing chickens.
She found ways to keep her kids fed, clothed and sheltered, and put them all through the Lutheran grade school. “She never had relief,” Mom said, referring to government aid. “I guess she was too proud. If she could find a way, she’d do it.”
When the epic flood of 1937 devastated Aurora and salted the wounds of the Depression, Grandma Lange opened up the third floor of the apartment house to let neighbors store their belongings as they rebuilt their homes. She became a neighborhood midwife and once saved an ailing baby’s life.
She made her kids’ clothes and taught my mom to sew. She also taught her to cook and bake. (Each of mom’s sisters learned to make Grandma’s “knot rolls,” a pastry that, if mass-marketed, would change the face of retail baked goods as we know it today.) She leaned on faith. “We always sang our prayers at night,” Mom remembered, before repeating the verses from memory, “Lord Jesus, who does love me, oh, spread thy wings above me and keep me from harm …”
Eventually, as her children grew up and started their own lives, it was just Grandma (who never remarried) and my mom living in that big, old house on Third Street in Aurora. Then Mom met my dad, and they started a new life together, too. As they moved on, though, each Lange child took lessons on tenacity, hard work, resourcefulness and devotion with them, thanks to their mother, Anna Martha Kueck Lange.
Somehow, she did it.
My mom had a wonderful mother, and that’s a big reason that I do, too.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.