I Remember Mama
John Norberg, columnist s

"But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember mama."

Twenty words. My mother loved them.

I remember back in days long ago when we were a young family -- my sister, brother and I and our parents. We lived in a little house that seemed quite large. We lived on a block in a neighborhood in a Chicago suburb. We lived with abundance. The abundance was love.

It was the early 1950s and one evening each week in particular I remember watching a program on our black and white TV. It was simply titled "Mama."

Each episode began with a middle-aged woman narrator paging through a family photo album, remembering her childhood and the people who made it loving and special. "I remember this album on our parlor table at home," she said. "I remember the old pictures from Norway that Mama and Papa brought with them when they came to this country, the uncles and aunts and the cousins I had there. I remember my family," she said and she named them. "But most of all," she concluded, "I remember Mama."

The TV series was based on a play and a 1948 movie "I Remember Mama" which in turn came from a 1943 book titled "Mama's Bank Account." The story was that of a close and loving Norwegian immigrant family in the early 20th century. The spiritual force of the family that held everyone together and somehow made everything work out right in the end was – as it still is in families today – Mama.

The stories of this family always brought a flurry of memories to my mother. She said it was exactly as her childhood had been growing up on Kamerling Avenue in Chicago. She remembered her older brother Cliff who gave her nickels for ice cream during the Depression, her sister Marie who was always the prettiest, her youngest sister who was called Giggs because she giggled. She remembered her Papa who had emigrated from Norway as a teenager, all alone. But most all as she looked back on those days she remembered her Mama who had come to this country from Sweden as a teenager with her younger brother.

My mother died 10 days ago. She was 92. She was a wonderful mother. Even as a little girl she knew she wanted to be a teacher and she became one. She worked in elementary schools, eventually with the most challenged students. She was offered a Ph.D. and a position at Ohio State University. But women in those days didn't move families for their careers.

So she stayed home, raised her kids, and went back to teach after we were all in school. The money she earned was set aside for our college education. She put us first, right after my Dad. He must have been attracted to her energy; she never stood still, whether cleaning the house, planting her geraniums, painting on canvas, playing practical jokes on her kids and then grandkids, or calling WGN, Chicago, radio talk shows to share her point of view. Every day, she tried to make the world a little better.

She had a wonderful and long life. It was filled with incredible memories, memories that sadly over time washed away for her the way that a beautiful sandcastle is taken by the ocean tide. I never realized how delicate memories are until I watched my mother's disappear.

Twenty-five years ago after my dad was paralyzed with a stroke, our mother sat at a computer and put all her memories into a book she called "The Time of My Life." It became a family treasure. As her memories slowly drifted away we would take that book with us when we visited. As we sat together on long Sunday afternoons we would read her memories back to her.

She was born on October 20, 1920. She always noted that was the year women received the right to vote. She was born at home at dinnertime.

"Was there a doctor there?" I asked as I read the story.

"Oh, yes," she said. "The doctor was supposed to attend a banquet that evening and he missed it. So my mother offered him homemade apple pie she had baked that morning. After that she baked an apple pie for me every year on my birthday."

We read about when she was a girl riding the crowded, swaying, electric streetcars through busy Chicago traffic. Every month her parents sent her on her own all the way downtown to the Merchandise Mart to pay the mortgage. She could travel on the streetcars cheaper than they could.

"When I became 12 I fibbed about my age so the fare would still be four cents cheaper," she said.

"What's the difference between a fib and lie," I asked.

"I lie is when you try to take advantage of someone else," she said. "A fib is when you don't have the four pennies."

We read about growing up on Kamerling Avenue and a kitchen that always smelled of coffee brewing and freshly baked bread. We read about Mr. Danko and his tiny corner grocery store, his pickle barrel, his butter tub, and the showcase at the back of the store filled with penny candy.

"Mama would give me a list of things we needed and I would go to see Mr. Danko," she said. "He gave us credit throughout the Depression. Mama always paid him when she could. Papa gave her money each week to run the household. It was never enough, but she always made it work."

We read about her Papa and his 1928 Chevrolet that he mostly drove around the block going so slowly that she would get bored, jump out and run home.

We read so many stories, stories about her mother never turning hungry people away from her back door during Depression, stories about being young and falling in love during the war years.

"One night before we were married your father had leave from his ship in Calumet City," she said. "I wanted to go there and surprise him. Mama wouldn't let me go alone so she went with me. It was midnight when we arrived and they told us he had gone into city to have fun with the other boys. We went to a coffee shop and sat down. I saw a sailor's hat hanging on a booth. It was your father's. He was there all alone drinking a cup of coffee. We talked all night. By the time Mama and I got home it was time for her to be in the kitchen making breakfast."

When she married there was no money for an expensive wedding dress. Her mother made it herself. We still have that dress and that memory.

We read that she wanted to go to college but her Papa could not understand why anyone, much less a girl, should go to college. And how would they pay for it? No, he said and he was firm.

"Mama talked to him," she said. "She changed his mind."

As time passed our mother remembered less and less of the memories she had detailed so carefully in her book. One day last fall as I read to her I looked up. She was staring blankly in a different direction. She wasn't listening. She couldn't focus.

The loss of memory is hard. Our memories are not the past. Our memories are alive. Memories are what make us who we are. Memories are the joy and sorrow, the struggle and success that make our lives full and rich. We are our memories.

But don't worry Mom. Memories are passed along in families, from one generation to another as surely as brown eyes and the color of our hair. Your memories never disappeared. We have them in your book. They're in our thoughts and in our hearts.

I remember, Mom. I remember your stories of Kamerling Avenue, the smell of coffee and fresh bread in the kitchen. I remember Mr. Danko and electric streetcars. I remember your sailor in the coffee shop. I remember your brother Cliff and your sisters Marie and Giggs. I remember your Papa. And I remember your Mama whose love held everyone together.

But most of all, as I look back on those days so long ago, most of all and especially this week Mom -- I remember you.

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