Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dec. 18, 1920

Today would have been my mother's 88th birthday.

Hers was not an easy life. Ruth Gertrude Ekstrom's parents, Marta Petterson and Karl Ekstrom immigrated from Gotland (the Swedish Baltic island) after losing two children in the 1918 influenza pandemic. They prospered in America, only to lose everything in the depression. Her father died of stomach cancer when she was 15, so she and her mother moved in with her aunt and uncle's family in Chicago. Her older brother Ragnar--who had become an excellent swimmer after his grueling battle with polio--drowned in Lake Michigan one fine summer day as the extended family was vacationing at Bethany Beach.

After graduating from high school, she moved with the family to St. Louis, where she went to work at Cluett, Peabody. Later she took a secretarial position with Hammer Dry Plate, where she met Raymond Tichacek. Then came the war. Her mother developed congestive heart failure, so she devoted herself to Martha's care. Shortly after her mother died, Ruth and Ray were married in 1953 by a justice of the peace, as neither my father's Catholic priest or my mother's Southern Baptist preacher would do it.

I came along a year later, followed closely by my two brothers. . Momma finally had found her vocation. She loved children. She would gather us up in her ample lap for hugs, or sneak up behind me as I was curled over homework and give me a kiss on the top of my head. Her hands were strong, stubby and warm: perfect for kneading limpa and caressing kids.

Momma loved to bake but she hated to cook. She would make wonderful cardamom coffee cakes and spritsar, but her Beef STRAG-a-noff was a family joke. Every Sunday we would return from church at 12:30, and she would begin frying eggs and bacon for my father; then four hours later she would again be frying chicken wings and french fries, his favorite dinner. Maybe that's why she hated cooking?

For years she worked at home, as our mom and as secretary -accountant for my father's bindery repair business. She cared for her aunt and her mother in law in their old age. She was faithful and active in her church, teaching a women's Sunday School class for years, as well as participating in WMU at Concord Baptist Church, and leading the WMU at Hanley Road Baptist Church. I remember her typing into the wee hours of the night on Saturdays, preparing her lesson, and my father complaining, "Come to bed! Are you trying to rewrite the Bible?"

Momma always loved to decorate for Christmas, but one year the artificial tree looked odd, as if she had lost the directions for how to put it together. Then immediately after Susan was born, she came to Nebraska to help us out. It became clear to Steve that something was wrong: she couldn't remember her phone number and had to ask him to dial it so she could talk to my dad. Then on a shopping trip, she wanted to return an item, and couldn't remember her address for the return form. Counting money was a challenge as well.

These behaviors alarmed Steve and me, but not my family in St. Louis. They said we were overreacting; but they were in denial. It took several painful years and my father's death for the truth to finally be faced. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease: as bad as it is for the patient, it is even worse for those who love her, and can cause them to react in ways that are not always in the patient's best interest.

Today is not the day to tell that part of Momma's story. Today I prefer to remember visiting her in the skilled care center, watching her nap and gradually rouse. By then she had forgotten my name, and called me "Nice Lady." But that afternoon God gave her a brief respite, and she looked directly at me with her brilliant blue eyes, speaking with great conviction: "Beth, it is so important to love the Lord!" Thank goodness He doesn't reserve holy days only for liturgical churches, because that hot St. Louis summer afternoon we were given Epiphany. Then the clouds gathered again and her confusion returned.

She died four years ago on Valentine's day. I miss her so much! But how can I begrudge her the gift she now enjoys of knowing Jesus, and being known by Him? Someday we will no longer need Advent, because the image of Revelation 21:3 will be a reality. We will not need to fast when the Bridegroom has come. But right now, right here, it is Advent, so I sing in fervid expectation:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan's tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

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