I’ve been trying to write this post about my mom for weeks. I’ve started and stopped several times. I was asking myself why this post is so important and why I’m struggling so with it? I want to tell Mom’s story and maybe I don’t think I can do her justice. Mom was an inspiration in many ways but I think right now, I’m seeing her willingness to forgive a terrible wrong as one of my greatest inspirations.
My mom had a great and an awful childhood. Yet, raising us, we weren’t aware of how she suffered as a child. She didn’t let her childhood affect us.
Mom was born in 1934 to an unwed mother. In 1934, there was great shame in having a baby outside of marriage, shame that the mother and child both carried. Grandma didn’t have a one-night stand. She cared for the man who fathered my mom. He cared for her and would have married her. But their parents wouldn’t allow the marriage because of religious differences. Mom’s biological dad left the area, never married and never had any other children.
Mom was born in a home for unwed mothers in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Her biological dad paid their expenses. Mom and Grandma lived with Grandma’s sister until she began having children of her own and then they moved back in with Grandma’s parents.
Even though Grandma’s parents didn’t support a marriage, they did support this tiny family and they loved their granddaughter. They too paid the price of shame though. Mom told my sister that when she was small, she was made to hide behind the dresses of her grandma or aunts when visitors showed up so the visitors didn’t see the little girl without a dad. In time, it didn’t matter to Mom’s grandparents at all. These were just the times that my mom was born into.
Grandma married my step-grandfather when my mom was about four years old. Obviously, he knew he was getting a stepdaughter when he married her mom but from his behavior, she must have been a constant reminder to a proud man that someone had been before him with Grandma.
My grandma and my mom were beat because Mom was not his even though he wasn’t part of Grandma’s life when Mom was conceived. Grandpa said terrible things to and about Grandma, things no husband should say about his wife. He even said those things to his grandchildren about their grandma. When I was an adult and visiting Grandma who was sick in bed, he told me she was used goods when he got her. I told him he was pretty lucky to get her.
Because Mom was so young when they married, she thought he was her biological dad until she was preparing for her First Communion in early elementary school. When she had to take her birth certificate to school, the nun looked at it and told this young girl that the last name she had been using wasn’t her name and that her dad wasn’t her dad.
Maybe Grandma suspected this would happen and was somewhat prepared to address this with my mom when she got home but it still had to be a bad day for Grandma. And then as a young child, imagine Mom trying to grasp that the man she thought was her dad but wasn’t, was the dad of her sisters and brother, setting her apart in some way.
Maybe it would have been okay if her stepdad didn’t beat her; or didn’t beat her mom because she existed. The abuse was so bad that after one incident where she watched her mom being beaten because of her existence, Mom wept and told Grandma she should have left her at an orphanage because her life would have been better without her. What kind of scars would this leave on a young girl? I can only imagine because Mom didn’t talk much about it to us. Most of what I know, I know because I asked the questions and she was gracious enough to answer them.
Mom saw pain but she also had such good in her life. In Psalm 31, which King David wrote while running from his enemies, David wrote in verses 7 and 8 that he would rejoice in the Lord’s love because He saw David’s affliction and put him in a safe and spacious place. The Lord saw Mom’s affliction and put her in a safe and very spacious place every summer; her grandparents farm.
Mom wrote the following about the farm:
“My second home was my Grandma and Grandpa Spaeth’s farm. This home was the most important part of my childhood. In this home, there was love, excitement and so many things to do. I was treated very special by my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Maybe being the oldest (grandchild) and staying there the first four years of my life had something to do with this special feeling.” (Her nickname was Toots.)
Mom was sent there every summer by her mom to keep her safe. And it was there that Mom blossomed from a scared little girl to a normal child living in safety and security. Mom’s youngest aunt and uncles were in elementary school when she was born and they were more her playmates than older relatives throughout her childhood. Her uncle Charlie and she were just six years apart and he became her best friend and confidant. They rode horses together, did chores together, even went to dances together.
Mom wrote about taking either the train or the bus to Edson every summer. She would often walk the two and a half miles from there to the farm carrying her suitcase and she didn’t mind that walk at all because she was so excited to be with her grandparents, aunt and uncles and all the animals. She loved horses and she often got to ride the work horses. She enjoyed the farm because there was always something to do, always little animals being born, chores to take care of, and loved ones to joke and play with. As my daughter calls our small farm for one of her daughters, it was her “sweet place.” This place was both safe and it was acres and acres of spaciousness.
When Mom was in her 80’s and afflicted with Alzheimer’s, when she could no longer remember raising us six kids, or even marrying my dad, she always remembered her grandparents and the days on that farm. She asked over and over where her grandparents were because she wanted to see them so much. More than anything, to me, this tells of the loving impact they had on my mom’s heart.
Mom’s life was different from her half-siblings because she wasn’t Grandpa’s. One example was when they spent Christmas with his parents. Mom was the only one who didn’t receive a present, ever. She was only four years old the first time she went, just a young girl. I will never understand hurting a child on purpose by excluding them year after year. For Mom, that just became her normal and she stopped being hurt by it. But the first and only time that Dad went to Christmas there with Mom and their first baby, my brother Jimmy, and Jimmy didn’t get a gift, when Mom explained why, they never went again. Dad was not one to pretend that was Okay.
Mom was so aware of her illegitimacy that on my parents first date, Dad told me she said to him, “I have something to tell you and you probably won’t want to date me again once you know, but I am illegitimate.” My dad, her hero, responded, “So what. It doesn’t matter to me.” Mom’s disclosure to Dad carries so much pain, it breaks my heart. She believed she was less than, that no one would see her worth beyond her label. And that that label would destroy her relationships and hope for the future.
However, she learned that her label didn’t matter to Dad because he saw her as a beautiful young woman worth getting to know. A year or so later, he saw her as his wife and then as the mother of his children and as the love of his life for 66 years.
Grandpa could never talk about Mom in a bad way after my dad entered the picture so we didn’t grow up hearing him be mean to our Mom but we did hear him being mean to Grandma. I didn’t know he wasn’t my biological grandfather until I was 22 years old. Grandpa and Grandma were celebrating their anniversary with a party at their home. It was their 40th wedding anniversary. My mom was 44. Mom felt she had to explain why she was 44 and they had only been married 40 years. I remember her expression so well as she said she needed to tell me something. She looked so uncomfortable; like what she had to tell me was dreadful.
When she explained that Grandpa wasn’t my biological grandpa, the only thought I had was relief. I had watched this man be mean to my grandma, I had pulled away from him time and time again as he tried to touch me in places he shouldn’t have. To learn he wasn’t really my grandpa, somehow, it gave me permission to feel the anger I had repressed my entire life towards him.
In truth, I loved and hated Grandpa, he was the only grandpa I ever knew. He loved music and was fun to watch playing his accordion, fiddle, and harmonica. He was very talented. There were many good things about him. He wasn’t always angry. He could be great fun. He loved all of us kids. He loved Mom. When he was somewhere in his sixties, he suffered a massive stroke and after that, he was in many ways more the grandpa I wanted, much gentler, he stopped beating grandma but he still said and did things he shouldn’t have.
When Grandma died, Mom took care of Grandpa quite a bit. She had a bed for him at her house. She ran him to appointments, she had him over to meals and he spent Christmas Day with us. He could be cranky but she just ignored the crankiness and helped him in whatever way he needed help.
At this point, I was still angry with him and couldn’t understand why Mom, who had suffered so much at his hands, could be so giving to him. He didn’t deserve her help. She of all the kids, shouldn’t be the one taking care of him. That’s what I thought anyway.
When he died, I watched my mom at his funeral, standing at the casket weeping. I watched her turn to my dad and weep on his chest as he held her. My mom seldom cried. To see her break down like this brought on my own tears, not so much for Grandpa, but for her.
I asked her some time later why she cried so hard. She said because she loved her dad. He was the only dad she ever knew and she loved him. I asked her how she could love him after all he did to her and Grandma. She said she had forgiven him a long time ago. That forgiveness opened her heart to see his needs and help him with joy and peace.
It took me decades to forgive Grandpa. It took me longer than it did my mom and she was the one who was hurt by him. Mom was kind to Grandpa’s parents. She was kind to everyone she met. I suspect that the abuse my mom suffered prepared her heart to love others, gave her empathy for the hurting she maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise. Growing up, our home was a safe place for many of the cousins and even aunts to come in times of turmoil. Mom treated my cousins like she treated us. Loved them, cared for them, made sure they had what they needed, whatever she could do to help them feel loved, she gladly did. Just like her grandparents did for her. She made a safe place because she experienced a safe place in a very difficult time of her life. She opened her doors as her grandparents had opened theirs.
The Lord knew what Mom would need and he provided it. A safe place where she could flourish and become the person who would marry a man who never stopped loving her, birth six children who adore her, and help sisters-in-law who loved and needed her, and provide a haven for nieces and nephews; perhaps none of which she could have done without the love she was given and the forgiveness she gave to her stepdad.
I don’t want it to sound like she had no good memories of being raised with her sisters and brother. She loved them so much. She loved her mom and stepdad. She was close to all of them. She treasured her time with them and she mourned their loss when they were gone. She always thought her sister was her mom’s favorite child but I think Mom was. Going through what they did together, I just believe there was a very special bond between Mom and Grandma, a bond now joined together again as they celebrate life together in Heaven with their Lord and Savior who they both loved so much.
Mom was a wonderful mom to us kids. I can wish she hadn’t been so hurt as a child but I’m thankful that hurt made her who she was because she was pretty amazing. She was everything a child could ask for even when she was 86 years old and had Alzheimers. She was and is an inspiration. She may have been hurt as a child, both by the stigma of her birth and the abuse she experienced, but she rose above it to live a life well lived and well loved.