Remembering Mem

Katie J. Miller
December 14, 1920 — October 24, 2005

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living. ~ Cicero
As I say good-bye to October, my thoughts go back five years, when my mother (Mem) had just died (on October 24, 2005, the same day as Rosa Parks). In my third semester at Smith College, I traveled back to the horse and buggy world of my childhood for Mem’s funeral, and then found myself back on Smith College campus in a matter of days, much like in September a year before when my father had died.

The farmette where Mem lived all her married life.

My mother could be so nurturing. Some of my earliest memories of her happened on Saturday nights. There was a whole preparation process we went through to get ready for Sunday, the Amish Sabbath.

Datt carried pails of water from the pump out by the barn and poured it into the big copper boiler that fit on all four burners of the oilstove. Then he brought up the round galvanized tub from the cellar and set it on the hand-woven rug next to the wood stove in the living room.

When the water was hot, Mem poured saucepans of steaming hot water from the boiler and cold water from the pail on the water stand into the tub. I undressed in the living room while she undressed my two younger sisters, Sarah and Susie. Mem sat us in the tub and soaped us down. Her washcloth found its way into our ears and behind our earlobes, under our chins, in our armpits, and worked its way down to our toes. Then she dunked her washcloth into the water and rinsed off our bodies.

Mem lifted Susie out of the water and dried her in a towel on her lap and got her dressed. Then Mem lifted Sarah out of the water, dried her off, and clothed her. Then it was my turn to get dried off. I felt cold until Mem wrapped me in the clean towel she had warmed by the stove. I loved that warm, dry place in the towel on Mem’s lap, with her drying every part of me. Then she dressed me in the fresh-smelling clothes she had laid out.

Mem freshened the bath water with water from the boiler, and Lizzie took her bath. Then Mem added more water from the boiler and we all went into the kitchen and closed the door. Mem braided our hair while my brother Joey took his bath. Mem sectioned my hair into four parts for two front braids and two back. She wet her fingers, so they would slide over my hair. She braided a front section first, and then braided that strand into the back section. My hair had never been cut, so it was thin at the ends. Mem’s wet fingers vibrated down at the end of my braids. I could feel that vibration in my head. When Mem had both sides braided, she wound the long braids around and through the front braids, then tied them together in the back with strings she had braided into each side. Mem had a gentle touch, and my hair felt nice and firm when she was done.

Mem would then make supper, usually bean soup, with homemade pie for dessert. Then we’d go to bed early to get up to go to church the next morning, or else to have a day of rest at home, or go visiting people if it was an in-between-church-Sunday. Sundays had a special feel to them. The Amish believed in keeping Sundays holy, by dressing in our best clothing, doing only the necessary work of making meals and doing farm chores, and otherwise treating it as a day of rest, and most of all worshipping God, either in church services, or by reading the Bible, Martyr’s Mirror, or “Family Life Magazine” at home.

Perhaps it is natural for people to assess their relationship with a loved one as they say their final good-byes on this earth. Saying my final good-bye to my parents was certainly this way. Even though my relationship with my father was more difficult than my relationship with Mem when I was growing up, when Datt died I didn’t feel I had as many unresolved issues with him as I did with Mem when she died. It is actually hard to explain why that is, other than to say that my feelings for her were as complex as she was. Mem always had two contradicting sides to her — she could be soft, understanding, and nurturing or she could be harsh and cruel with her whip or leather belt; she could be brutally honest or she could be evasive of the truth; she would sometimes espouse to the Amish values and question them at other times; she could support me in my endeavors and support my freedom from the Amish set of restrictions, while eliciting sympathy from the Amish that I had left; and she could play the martyr that she was in such an unhappy marriage, yet be the lonely widow once Datt died.

Having said all this, when Mem died, I missed her more than I missed my father. I found myself walking around in a haze for weeks after her death. I recently found a journal I kept during that time.

I am alone in my room, here at Smith College. I cannot concentrate on my school work just yet, though I have tried. I am still trying to process the events of these past two weeks. Mem died early on Monday morning, just before daybreak. She had gone on morphine less than 24 hours before. She was aware up to about bedtime on Sunday night.

In Mem’s last journal entry, she wrote she wanted so much to go, because she was looking forward to going through that golden door, but then she realized that God wasn’t ready for her, or maybe she wasn’t ready yet.

Mem’s Funeral Procession

The funeral was a rainy, cold, wet autumn day. The scene around the grave, as they were burying her was like something out of a movie, with all the umbrellas and the rain, as if nature was grieving with us. I found that part very moving. As they lowered her into her final resting place and then as they began to fill the grave, the men sang in good-bye songs in Gregorian chant. It was as if they were simultaneously tucking her body into her final resting place and sending her soul off to its new home. For her last two weeks, from the time she had gone into the hospital to the time she died, this is what she had looked forward to. It was so very moving.

One more note. I had no idea I would have such profound feelings of sadness when Mem died. I thought I had pretty much dealt with the idea that she wouldn’t be around forever, but I realize now how much I took her strong presence for granted. I am so grateful for the fact that she was so sharp, right up to the end. I love her for who she was; complexities and all. As I promised her in my phone conversation when she was still in the hospital, I would think of her in her heavenly home and love her always. And her response was, “You do that.”

Five years later, I still am thinking of her in her heavenly home. If nothing else, Mem taught me how to be human. And humans are not perfect.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Mem”

  1. Thanks for sharing this personal and poignant post. My Mom passed away this past spring so I can relate somewhat. Mom had Alzheimer’s, so she was not herself many years prior to her passing. I thought that I had dealt with many things, due to the fact that she wasn’t really ‘with’ us for some time. But it proved to be much more difficult (when she died and these past months) than I thought. It’s nice to see your thoughts and memories; they parallel many of my thought processes and that’s a comfort. I rejoice, too, that Mom is with the Lord now. Thanks, Saloma, very much.

  2. I once read that any day you put someone in the ground, it’s a rainy day. It’s fitting to see the rain slicked road on the day of your Mem’s funeral. How lovely that you chose to remember her most warmly in this post for her nurturing ways on Saturday evening baths.

  3. This post from the beginning to the end takes me back to my childhood. The Saturday nights’ bath and braiding. And the funeral. The only difference is that Mom died ten years before Dad did. And Dad was the one who had many lonely years.

  4. Thank you Karen, Monica, and Katie, for your touching comments. Karen, I think there is another layer of grief when a loved one isn’t really “with” us even before they die. At least Mem was still very much aware days before her death.

    Monica, what was interesting, is that right after Mem died, it started raining a very cold rain in Ohio. It didn’t stop until right after she had been laid to rest.

    Katie, thank you for sharing about your own family. My father-in-law used to say that it is harder to be the one left behind, rather than be the one who goes first. I can imagine that.

    Thank you again for your comments, my friends. It’s always good to hear from readers.

    Warmest regards,

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