The woman who was my mother would have celebrated her 100th birthday Tuesday. I wish I’d known her.
I knew the mother, of course … but I wish I’d known the woman as well.
Lots of us suffer from the same emotion, I think, looking back on the women whom we were closest to. I was fortunate to have Mom in my life for a good, long time until her death some seven years ago. While she was here, I would have told you we knew everything about each other, as mothers and daughters often do — her favorite singer, her favorite dinner, her favorite flower. Elvis, pork chops, yellow mums … easy.
But as I grow older, I realize how very much we never spoke of. Childlike, I always defined her life and times in terms of my own. There’s so much I didn’t ask. Now, I wish I had.
Always looking forward, we wasted little effort on Mother’s past. Her stories about growing up focused on the bits that would interest children — not the Big Issues that bedevil me as an adult. Our relationship was oriented toward the future … my future, now that I think about it. So much of who she really was as a young, independent woman remained unaddressed and unspoken. I’ll never hear the stories that weren’t kid stuff now, and I regret that.
I wish I knew the woman my mother was … before she was my mother.
On the day she was born in 1915, Ada Josephine Thomson — the only girl in a family of four – arrived in a world so unlike our own, and yet so familiar. War loomed … we’d know it as World War I. The worst epidemic in modern history, Spanish flu, would soon kill millions on distant continents and right next door.
Progressives and conservatives clashed violently over social issues. The North Dakota Legislature had approved statewide suffrage for women, only to see it revoked the year before her birth when voters — all male, of course — referred it.
Immigration generated fiery debate. Catholics were the Muslims then. Not Syrian immigrants, but southern Europeans — particularly Italians — were deemed the “other” who threatened the nation. Germans were suspected of being spies, and homeland security deemed anarchists the greatest undercover threat attempting to infiltrate and undermine the greatest nation on Earth.
Yet all I heard at Mother’s knee were cozy, funny bits of family lore.
My grandfather, Arnt Thomson, she told me, had come from Norway at 14 in 1894. Family lore has him crossing the Atlantic on a cattle boat, landing in Canada, and, after a brief sojourn with a shirttail relation, walking from Ontario to Hillsboro, N.D.
He was a typical landless younger son, part of the wave of mostly younger Norwegian economic emigrants who flooded the U.S. from the 1880s through the new century. The teen-age apprentice blacksmith married the daughter of earlier emigrants to the Caledonia area, Alma Ydstie, in 1912.
Mom shared just one vivid story about Grandpa’s immigrant odyssey. Young Arnt spotted his very first banana in a general store in Hillsboro, where he would spend the rest of his life. He invested every one of the few cents in his trousers to taste the enticing tropical fruit. He loved it … so loved it that he’d gorge himself on the bright yellow wonders whenever change rattled in his pocket until he’d finally eaten his fill – and could never again bear their sight or smell for the rest of his 50 years in America.
The Thomsons were as thoroughly Norwegian as the rest of their immigrant neighbors along the Goose River, though the town itself was established by older American stock. On Sundays, the preacher admonished in stern Norse, but children attended public schools where English was the sole argot of the day. Yet somehow Grandma was as fluent a reader and writer of Norwegian as her husband, who’d been schooled in the Old Country. She corresponded with people across the Atlantic until her death 40 years ago. I remember fingering those letters with exotic stamps and spidery handwritten addresses as a little girl. Who sent them?
The Thomsons were a perfect fit among the Norwegian enclave in Traill County but still must have felt some scorn from the Americans of longer pedigree around them. Mom remembered, as a toddler, prattling in nothing but Norwegian at home … until she and the boys started school. From then on, she told me, they were all to speak exclusively in English. “Pa and Ma wanted us to be real Americans,” she told me. Their mother tongue was reserved for topics deemed too spicy or surprising for those “little pitchers who have big ears.”
They raised their quartet of kids to “be American,” by George — at least as American as their U.S.-born Red River Valley classmates. While I remember adoring Grandma’s Norwegian recipes, all of which seemed to begin with a pound of butter, my mother and her brothers apparently scorned “old-fashioned eats.” And so I grew up, not on rommegrot and potet klub and sotsoppe (which Mom despised), but on ’50s fare like meatloaf, mashed potatoes and magical Jell-O.
I have only vague notions of how the family felt about the issues of their day. Here’s a hint about alcohol, prohibited statewide when North Dakota entered the Union until the end of federal prohibition: One of Mom’s funny stories was about hearing muffled explosions from the root cellar, as Grandpa’s store of badly bottled home brew popped its tops.
Or women’s rights: After teaching for a pittance in a string of country schools, she became forever loyal to the North Dakota Education Association for advocating a single salary schedule for male and female teachers.
Or international disputes: The family ardently believed in the Norwegian dictum, “Mind your own business,” on both personal and international levels. Yet on the eve of World War II, two of Mom’s three brothers enlisted in the Hillsboro National Guard unit that was among the first to be sent to the Pacific Theater. Tilman was killed there; Orlin watched him die and never was the same again. As a youngster, I understood that it was something special when Grandma marched with the VFW Gold Star Mothers on Memorial Day, but never quite comprehended.
Or intolerance: As a 8- or 9-year-old, Mom watched Ku Klux Klan members garbed in white march down the main street of town, protesting the influx of Catholics that threatened them. She told of her father laughing afterward. “Those fools,” he told the family. “Now they’re walking downtown in their bed clothes.”
Kid stuff, in other words — just hints, not family heritage.
I wish I had known the woman who was born on that Tuesday a century ago. Close as I thought we were over our lives together, I’m left to say it today: “Mother, I hardly knew you.”