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.

Advertisements

Death of a Salesman

(I have been absent from this blog because of unpleasantness that required my attention.  From October into December my wife required a great deal of my time because of debilitating weakness brought on by a hyperthyroid and very low blood pressure, and on 29 October my father died of cancer, requiring trips to California.  My spouse unit is now recovering and affairs out west are mostly settled, but before returning to my usual topics I would like to post a piece on my old man.  With virtually all his old friends dead and with no grandchildren my mother decided there would be no funeral or memorial service.  But I cannot let this fine man check out with absolutely no notice of his passing, and I consequently am posting this piece on his life.  I expect no one to read this, but it is something I must do.)

My father, Earl Woodrow (easy to see whom my grandmother admired) Berthold, first saw the light in San Francisco on 22 December 1918, unaware that the world had changed dramatically in the four years before his birth.  Of course he was also unaware how much it would change during his lifetime.  He was to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” which might be more accurately styled the “Unluckiest Generation,” inasmuch as they got to enjoy the Depression and World War II during their early years.   He and his future wife were excellent students at Mission High in San Francisco, but in the late thirties only the wealthy could go on to college.  Most of the Greatest Generation had to find work.

He was the last of five children – four brothers and a sister – and as the youngest, Earl got to dodge the attention of his older brothers, two of whom would die of drink and another who was an enforcer for a San Francisco mob.  He was in fact a skinny nerd, who built model airplanes and was one of the very rare men of his generation who never smoked.  But he could make people laugh and man, could he dance.  I imagine this is why he could possibly win the attention of an attractive classmate, Mary Klotovich, the daughter of Croatian immigrants.  She had three sisters and four brothers, all of whom were athletes, who wondered why their little sister was dating this distinctly non-athletic guy.  On the other hand, her mother was delighted to feed this thin but smart young man.

He graduated from high school in 1936, the year Hitler was reoccupying the Rhineland and sending troops to Franco and the Japanese were about to invade China.  Those events across the Pacific and Atlantic of course meant that Earl, like millions of other young Americans, would soon have to put his long term plans on hold.  He was able to find work, though the precise nature of his jobs eludes me, and despite the desperate Depression and lack of money, to judge from their stories he and his friends (including my aunts and uncles) seemed to have had a great time.  Unlike today there seemed to be an attitude of we’re-all-in-this-together and things will get better, a sense of community that would only be strengthened by the war.

With the approach of war Earl had the rare, possibly unique, experience of being drafted three times.  In the fall before Pearl Harbor he was called up, but rejected because of his poor eyesight, a condition that ruined his dream of becoming a pilot.  He was summoned again in early 1942, but rejected once again.  The third time was the charm: by the summer of 1942 the perception was that we were losing the war (in hindsight an utter impossibility, given our industrial capacity), and the military was ready to take pretty much any male who had all his limbs.  My father duly became a private in the Army Air Corps and spent his war flying a typewriter in South Dakota, where the wooden barracks dated from almost the time of the Great War.  While he was in basic training in Texas, he was tapped for officer candidate school, inasmuch as he had a high school diploma and was a clever guy.  In his interview the first question was something to the effect of What do you think of the Army? and my father answered honestly.  He spent the rest of the war as an enlisted man.

In 1942 Earl wedded Mary, having obliged his new Croatian mother-in-law by converting to Catholicism, which made little difference to his rather casual Christianity.  He was discharged in 1943, since the Allies were now clearly winning the war and the physically marginal men were no longer needed.  As a young man in civilian clothes in San Francisco he had to be careful to wear his “ruptured duck” pin, which indicated an honorable discharge from the Air Corps, or risk being beat up as a shirker.  He and his spouse, always careful, waited until the war was ending to begin their family, and I was born in January of 1946.  My brother, Dave, saw the light six years later, and that was it for progeny.

The GI Bill allowed my parents to come up with the $600 down payment and purchase a row house in the Visitacion Valley in the south-eastern quadrant of San Francisco.  Earl ultimately took a sales job with Garwood, which made truck bodies, and his honesty, responsibility and very outgoing personality moved him up the ladder until he was in charge of northern California.  He probably logged enough driving miles to go to the moon and back and developed the tanned left forearm characteristic of traveling salesmen before cheap air conditioning.  By 1956 (I think) the happy couple had become upwardly mobile and moved about eight miles down the San Francisco Peninsula to the new bedroom community of Millbrae Meadows, purchasing a new ranch style home for $17,000.  They never moved again, and a half century later that house – or at least the lot it sits on – is worth some $800,000, even in the current depressed market.

Earl Berthold was a man who spoke his mind, and after some twenty-odd years he suddenly quit Garwood because of an incompetent new boss he simply could not work with.  He was promptly hired by another truck body company (whose name escapes me), and he retired, I think, in the eighties, after which he could stay at home and drive my mother crazy.  The two celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary in June of 2012, and while in better physical shape than some of my contemporaries, Earl developed a facial cancer and died on 29 October 2012, two months short of his ninety-fourth birthday.  He went mercifully quick and died in his own bed with my mother and brother by his side; I was compelled to remain in Albuquerque to care for my wife.

I always considered my father to be an extraordinary man.  Yes, he was my old man, but I truly believe that he was possibly the finest man I have ever met.  This was a man without guile, who possessed an incredible sense of responsibility and a fine sense of humor and who was denying himself for his family down to his last days.  He could drive me crazy as an adult, because having spent a lifetime dealing with people who did not listen or were incompetent, out of habit he constantly repeated things to us.  For all my regard for him, however, I was nevertheless astounded – and knowing my limitations shamed – by the courage with which he confronted his death.  I was with him when the doctor essentially told him he was doomed, and while I began bawling, he took it completely calmly and continued to joke with the physician.  There is nothing I can do about it, he said to me.  I will certainly be unable to face death with such equanimity and nobility.

And this is why I have posted this.  I cannot bear the thought of such a wonderful human being leaving without any notice.  It is the least I can do.