My mother’s last journey on earth was in the fall of 2014 as her casket was carried from the Presbyterian Church to the cemetery. As we drove behind the hearse through the village of Wendell, Idaho, I recognized the three-mile trip as a snapshot of her life.
We drove past McGinnis Park and community swimming pool. My parents donated eight acres of farm land forty years ago and helped raise funds for the first pool in town. Dad created the recreational area with the stipulation that it be called McGinnis Park to honor a high school teacher who had encouraged him, a poor farm boy, to achieve his goals.
Then we drove past the empty lot where Wendell High School and gymnasium once stood. Mom graduated from there in 1945 as the Valedictorian and I graduated from the same school in 1969.
I wasn’t the Valedictorian, but I had more fun that she did. The structures had been torn down, leaving only weeds and vague memories.
The Methodist Church on the left was where my parents were married in 1948. Their song was “Always” by Irving Berlin. My mom often asked me to play it for her on the piano using sheet music from the ceremony. I still have the music and her wedding dress.
We drove past the homes of her sister and friends; all deceased. We came to the only stoplight in town. Mom had paid for it twenty years earlier because the town didn’t have one. On the left was the bank where my parents deposited small fortunes every fall after the harvest was done. Some employees had known Mom for 40 years, but they still called her Mrs. Ambrose.
On the right was the nursing home that had been a hospital one hundred years ago. My father was born there in 1928. Mom stayed there for a year after she slipped into dementia. Every time I visited, she pointed to an empty box in the closet and said “Take me home.” She wanted me to pack her things. That memory will haunt me the rest of my life.
We continued driving west, past homes of former employees who had helped my parents build Ambrose Farms and Montana Express Trucking. They were all in their eighties. The companies were gone, and few people remembered that my father once employed 25% of the town’s adults.
We turned into the cemetery and stopped next to my father’s headstone. My sister’s grave was next to it, marked with a tiny plaque. The family gathered beneath a tent, sitting on wobbly folding chairs set on a fake grass carpet. I sat close enough to touch the casket.
My seven-year-old granddaughter, named after my mother, came to sit on my lap, and I welcomed the weight and warmth of her precious body. After the minister gave his closing remarks, my granddaughter stood and laid a rose on the casket. Even at her young age, she sensed something significant had happened. In a role I did not choose, I had become the matriarch of the family.
My grandchildren only remember Mom as weak, confined to a wheelchair, and disoriented. I’ll tell them her story – how hard she worked, hand-milked cows before and after school, rode a horse to a one-room school, and drove a team of horses to work in the fields every day of the summer.
After she married my father, she helped him start several businesses, and then she took care of him for ten years after he got sick. She taught Sunday School, served on the school board, volunteered at various charities, and managed the local political election process. I want them to know that some of their strength and intelligence come from her.
Leaves were falling when we quietly returned to our cars after the graveside service. As we drove away from the cemetery, I imagined the refrain from the old wedding song. “I’ll be loving you. Always.”
Have you strong memories of the history of your mother and father and how they shaped you? Are you also the matriarch of a family with both parents gone?