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

Grief Again: Lucy

(This is perhaps self-indulgent, but it is born of love.)

 

Lucy the dog, our companion for eleven years, embarked on her last journey Sunday morning. She was a big rescued dog of indeterminate age and ancestry. She was found tied to a sidewalk pole, where she had been left unattended for three days. She had a hernia that was repaired, but she was frightened of humans, evidence of abuse by some useless human animal. With one blind eye and a wart on her face she was not an attractive dog – people always commented on how cute Alfred  was but said nothing about Lucy.  But she was beautiful to us.  She got used to us and became Alfred’s constant companion. In her later years she suffered from a torn ligament and arthritis, but with pain killers life was still good, if considerably slower. Last week she suffered from a bleeding nostril of unknown cause, but it seemed to be getting better, when she began having serious trouble getting to her feet and difficulty sleeping.  We needed to come to the terrible decision and perform our last act of love for her.

       Lucy 2000? - 2014

Lucy
2000? – 2014

It seemed harder to see Lucy off than had been the case with Alfred, probably because she was the surviving dog and for all her leg problems still seemed to be enjoying life. Her ashes will also be placed by a tree planted for her, next to Alfred’s, and they can in some sense be together again.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

I have already written about the meaning of pets and the nature of grief – see “Grief: Alfred” (2013/11/01) – and will not repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that like Alfred she was a member of our family, as important to us as any child, and the grief is very, very real.  Like Alfred, she will be remembered so long as Denise and I are alive.

 

 

 

 

Grief: Alfred

(This might appear self-indulgent, but it is something I need to do.)

Alfred the dog, our companion for twelve years, reached the end of the line yesterday. He was a mix of terrier, bouvier and god knows what else, rescued from a shelter as a pup. He was having increasing difficulty using his hind legs to get up and did not seem to be enjoying life anymore, so we allowed him to leave us gently, falling into a sleep from which he would never wake. Fortunately, he did not have to suffer, as we compel humans to do. His ashes will be placed by a tree planted for him. (This is not at all easy to write this.)

   Alfred 2001-2013

Alfred
2001-2013

People who have no pets cannot understand how dear a cat and dog will become. They are not “just animals,” but rather members of the family, especially for those whose children have grown up and moved away. They offer unquestioning love, yes, even the cats, who will respond to attention and affection no less than the more domesticated dog. And time and again dogs, albeit unknowingly, have risked or sacrificed their lives to rescue an endangered family member.

Death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth, but it is very difficult to entertain that thought when actually confronted with it. We keep telling ourselves that Alfred lived a very long life (a dozen years is ancient for a dog of some eighty pounds) in a wonderful home, playing with his life-long comrade, Lucy the dog, but it hardly helps. The grief is still just as real and no less crushing than had a human family member died. And we know that little things – his favorite spot empty, the extra leash, only one food bowl at dinner time – will sustain that grief for a considerable time. Distraction eases the pain, but you suddenly remember and feel guilty that you are doing something other than grieving. In the quiet moment you remember and try to fight replaying the whole event over in your mind. But we also know from experience that in time the grief will subside, replaced by a sweet memory, tinged with sadness.

We have buried a dozen cats in the last forty years, and every death was a blow, especially since virtually all lived into their middle and late teens. But Alfred was our first dog, and his death has hit particularly hard. Cats can be very affectionate, but they are independent creatures, whereas a dog is completely and absolutely devoted, and the loss is consequently greater.

We knew this was coming, but it was only yesterday that we had to face it and make the dreadful decision, when it was clear that Alfred had crossed a line in the night and was no longer comfortable. But the day before he was still in good enough shape to have one last walk and enjoy reading the doggy pee-mail and sniffing a neighbor dog with Lucy. We have a vet who makes house calls, so Alfred could quietly expire in his home, surrounded by his family, including the cats. Lucy could not of course understand what was happening, but she certainly sensed something was wrong.

Lucy is also an old big dog, perhaps even older than Alfred, and she is arthritic and walks with some difficulty. But with pain medication and shorter walks she is obviously enjoying life, even if it is more limited. Her time is also growing short, and we will have to face this unpleasantness again, but the grief is a small price to pay for years of joy and unquestioning, undying love.

Lucy

Lucy

Alfred lives on in our memory, and that memory will last as long as Denise and I live.