It wasn’t wintertime, because the water would have been iced over. I don’t know the exact date, but it was an evening about 51 years ago — I know that. It is one of my earliest memories, and it would be for anyone. That was the day when my mother put into action her plan to end her life.
That night, in our apartment in Green Bay, Wis., there was a television news report about local people in need. There was nothing special about it; it was a typical local news human interest story, but my mother was irate; she called up the TV station and complained about the news segment; after all, there were lots of people in need, right? She was one of them.
Then my mother, all of maybe 41 years of age, left our apartment and headed to the bay. She had been a swimmer when she was younger, and she knew how far into the bay she could swim before she wouldn’t be able to swim back.
Mom got as far as the beach and was about to go into the water when she made a phone call to her sister, Ethel, to ask her to look after us children. That saved her life.
Only about 4 years old at the time, I woke up during the night and went to the living room because I heard voices. There I found my mother sitting on the couch talking with Aunt Ethel. I was too young to know what was going on at the time, but now I can only imagine the fear Ethel must have felt when her younger sister called her and told her she was about to commit suicide.
What had caused my mother to rage at the TV news and then try to take her own life? She was middle aged, her marriage of 17 years had ended a year earlier, she was deeply in debt, and she had four young children to care for, one of them with special needs. And she had no idea how in the world she could make it all work.
Her story almost ended that night. Instead, it ended 51 years later, when she died peacefully in her sleep on March 11, 2023.
51 YEARS LATER
At her memorial service, people talked about her intelligence, humor, grace, and sense of rightness. She left behind many people with a lot of respect and love for all she had done in her life.
That doesn’t mean her life quickly rebounded after she attempted to take her life. The early 1970s were probably the worst years of her adult life. Always tight on money, living in rented apartments and homes, sometimes of less-than-stellar quality, used cars, and no social life. I remember seeing her lying on the floor of her bedroom, crying because she had no idea how on Earth she was going to pay all her bills, despite her full-time job.
But things got better, year after year. We moved into larger apartments and homes, and eventually she remarried and purchased her first house in 16 years.
She went back to school, finished her undergrad, nearly finished her Masters, and her career flourished; she founded and edited a respected regional magazine in northeastern Wisconsin.
Along the way, despite all the pressures she faced, she was the mom I would wish everyone could have. Our family always hugged and told each other we loved them. She might not have been able to afford to take us to movies every week, but she did buy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books and read them to us, a chapter or two at a time.
She would come home from work and tell us a joke she’d heard that day, most often from Lyle Lahey, the newspaper’s political cartoonist who would eventually become her second husband. But as smart as she was, she frequently got nearly to the end of the joke and forgot the punchline—was it Sam Clam’s Disco or Clam Francisco? We learned to love the mixed-up jokes as much as the successful ones, and she enjoyed it too.
By the time she was widowed and living in a senior center, she had four children grown up and self-supporting, two wonderful grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. She had a quarter-century marriage to her second husband, a good man who passed away in 2013.
Retired in the early 1990s, she kept herself as busy if not busier than before, helping to lead (and holding almost every board position for) an ecumenical organization providing housing for homeless families. A mainline Methodist, she took her faith seriously, and helped out a variety of organizations. Remembering her calling that TV station to complain about their story of people in need, it gives me pause when I encounter someone loudly complaining about something or someone; I think that yes, it’s possible this person is just a foul soul with no sympathies for others, but maybe they’re a good person who’s just experiencing the worst days of their life.
It’s almost a stereotype that a family’s refrigerator is covered by drawings and report cards of the household’s children. But our refrigerator door was uncluttered, and I always believed my mother just wasn’t interested in keeping that old stuff. As a child (and then into my adulthood), I took that in and understood that we were just one of those families that didn’t hold onto old memories and memorabilia.
In the week after mom’s death, I spent a few days at the home of my brother and sister-in-law, preparing for the memorial service. A basement room was filled with the belongings that had been removed from my mother’s apartment. Her favorite books filled half a dozen boxes. Other boxes contained examples of her work through the decades, and old photos of her from high school, her wedding to my father, her trip to San Francisco with my stepfather, and more.
And then there were the boxes filled with all the things I had thought she hadn’t saved. My report cards from grade school through university; letters I had sent her when I was away in college; Valentine’s Day cards I’d drawn and given to her in kindergarten; and many pieces of artwork I’d drawn or painted in grade school. She certainly hadn’t saved them because they were a beauty to behold; I think I was a terrible artist even measured by the low standards of grade school. She saved them because they were a meaningful part of the 51 years of her life that she was able to live after her sister and her own motherly concerns conspired to keep her alive for the best of her long life.