Death of a Housewife

My mother, Mary, died in her sleep in the early hours of 17 September, just two months short of her 94th birthday. Her mind was slipping away (though she still knew me in August), and her life had shrunk down to a soporific existence in the narrow confines of the “memory” ward at her retirement home. She really had no desire to go on living once her husband of 70 years died three years ago, but in this society suicide is illegal (thank you, Christianity) and there was no way we could help. Unlike many poor souls she had the money for an incredibly expensive nursing home, but she seemed to just shut herself down.

What a honey!

What a honey!

Mary was born in 1921 in San Francisco, the youngest of some eight or nine children (I no longer know how many) born to Martin and Ana Kolačević, who had emigrated from Croatia before the First World War. (At least I think it is Kolačević; it is Klotovich on Mary’s birth certificate, but this does not seem to be an actual Croatian surname.) It always amazed me, once I had grown up, that this old lady living in San Francisco in the 1980s was once a subject of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Mary and her siblings attended Mission High School in the late 1930s, where she and her sisters were very popular, partly because their brothers were all star athletes.

Ana and Martin Kolačević

Ana and Martin Kolačević

 

There she met my father, Earl Berthold (see earlier post Death of a Salesman), who was certainly an unlikely candidate for this attractive young woman. He was a skinny, model-building nerd, but he could dance and he could make her laugh. They were both A students, but of course they had no opportunity for college in the later years of the Great Depression. You can imagine my father dining with the Kolačević family (My grandfather was already dead of Black Lung.), dealing with a mother who only spoke Serbo-Croatian and burly brothers who apparently wondered about this non-athletic wimp their sister was dating.

Mission High

Mission High

Grandma Kolačević seemingly recognized good material in Earl, but she did have one demand: her daughter was certainly not going to marry a non-Catholic. Fortunately, Earl, who was some sort of Protestant, hardly cared and was happy to take instruction. (My parents were minimalist Catholics and ceased any involvement with the Church once their boys opted out.) They married in 1942, while my father was in the Army Air Corps, and stayed that way until Earl died 70 years later, producing two sons, one of whom is writing this.

The happy couple

The happy couple

Mary was a quintessential housewife, and the only real full time job in her lifetime was working in a cigarette factory during the war, which, needless to say, enhanced her popularity. She cooked and cleaned and raised the kids while my father went off to bring home the bacon, though I do not recall her doing housework wearing dresses and heels like June Cleaver. When Earl returned home from selling truck bodies, they always had a couple of drinks before dinner, old fashions, I think, though in later years this turned to wine.

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

The four Kolačević sisters in middle age

Children of the Depression, they were both very responsible people, particularly financially, and began saving for college the day I was born. After the war (I think) they bought a small house in San Francisco, and in 1956 they got upwardly socially mobile and moved about eight miles south of San Francisco to Millbrae and bought a new ranch style house. Millbrae, like all the San Francisco Peninsula, would become a bedroom community for the City, and the house they paid $17,000 for is now worth over a million. There they stayed for the rest of their lives. And the habits of a lifetime never died: my mother was still clipping store coupons in her eighties.

New house

New house

Old house

Old house

Party on, mom!

Party on, mom!

They discovered golf in their forties and became addicts, playing through their seventies; Mary was by far the better golfer. Like her husband, Mary was a voracious reader, especially in her later years, and they certainly entertained, at least until all their friends were dead or dying.

Above all Mary was my mother. When I visited, I talked mostly with my father, who was interested in history and world events, but it was my mother to whom I responded on a visceral level. When I was with her, I automatically watched my language, and when I returned for a visit after a year and a half at Cornell and they met me at the airport, she said nothing and only cried because I had grown my hair long. I had it cut the next day. No matter what my age, when I was around Mary, I was fifteen years old.

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

Earl and Mary and a son in old age

My only real regret concerning this woman is that for a variety of reasons my brother and I never provided her with grandchildren – this branch of the Berthold family ends with us.

Next summer my brother and I, following my father’s wishes, will bury their ashes at the Russian River, north of San Francisco. There Mary and Earl had danced during their younger days, and until the sons were too old we went there every summer for two weeks and stayed in cabins built during the Lincoln administration. But it was affordable for the young family, and it was wonderful.

They are both gone now, and a large measure of joy has left my life.

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4 comments on “Death of a Housewife

  1. Mark Sprague says:

    Having witnessed, at some distance, a similar end to my Mother, it is with mixed emotions that I read this. One thing I have learned with the passage of time and old grievances is that you are freed to remember your parents at the times when they were filled with love and enthusiasm for their lives ahead. Thank you for sharing her story and all my best to you.

    Your friend, Mark

  2. Steve Beach says:

    Nice essay. My mother was also named Mary. Both of my rents have been gone since the mid-1980s, but I still remember well the realization that I was an orphan.

    Will visit the Bacons later this month and Gerry and Jim in January.

    Again, sorry to hear the news. Persevere.

  3. Mariah says:

    I just read your articles about both your father and mother. Very nice – a real picture of real people who will be remembered by you, your brother, and all readers.

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