The newest Golden Age resident, another Delores, was my mom and dad’s first neighbor in 1948. Mom moved to Chippewa Falls to join Dad after they married, and they settled into a one-bedroom apartment in an old house divided into a triplex. This Delores refused to go to a nursing home, but when her family could no longer care for her at home they convinced her she’s moving into a new apartment next door to Virgie See. Dad instructs all of us who visit Golden Age to use the word “apartment.”
On Saturday I see Delores and her husband, Bob, at Golden Age for the first time. They are both 87, a few years older than my mom and dad. Bob—his pressed trousers pulled up over his belly button—calls his wife “Mom” as he coaxes Delores into eating. When a CNA sets down a small plate of food for him, he says, “Well, isn’t that swell.” I’m charmed by him immediately.
“Do you remember Patti See?” Bob ask Delores.
“I know Jackie See,” she says. Jackie is one of my older sisters, one of the first four daughters my mom and dad had while living in what my mom always called “Grandma Gert’s apartment” some sixty years ago. Gert was Bob’s mother, who owned the apartment house and lived alone on the first floor, while Bob and Delores and their two little ones lived upstairs next door to my mom and dad.
I remember Delores from when I worked as a grocery store cashier in high school and as a supper club waitress in college. Each time I saw her, she wore bright red lipstick and had jet black hair streaked with gray. When I was a new wife with a baby in a stroller, I often walked past her house and stopped to talk with her.
Delores’s mother-in-law, Gert, was an important figure in my mom’s life. Mom didn’t know a soul in town when she moved here, and she often told me that she was afraid. Though Chippewa Falls had just about 11,000 residents back then, it was still a big city to a farm girl from unincorporated Blenker, Wisconsin. Chippewa Falls had an active Ku Klux Klan about twenty years before she moved here, and Mom still worried about masked men in sheets coming after her. I realize that it’s as irrational as me being offed by a serial killer. . . named Jeffrey Dahmer—twenty years too late—but Mom was only eighteen and still frightened by the Chippewa Falls stories she’d likely heard as a girl. Prompted by their hatred of anyone different from their white, Protestant roots (and, I have to assume, the lack of any African-Americans to terrorize in Chippewa Falls back then), the Klan burned crosses in the front yards of Catholics in the late 1920’s. The pecking order of Klan abuse in Wisconsin included Blacks, immigrants, and Catholics. My mother moved to town ready to be persecuted. It never happened.
While my dad worked nights on the railroad, my mom stayed alone in Grandma Gert’s apartment with visions of the Klan showing up in the middle of the night. Gert was like a grandmother to my four oldest sisters and a surrogate mother to my mom. I suspect she was a comfort to Mom those first weeks she was new to town and she sat up all night putting puzzles together, waiting for my dad to get off his shift at 7 am. In the least, I suspect Gert told Mom that the Klan left town in 1929, and they were never coming back.
Perhaps my mom always pined to have a mother-figure, but I know if her experiences as a pregnant young woman or a petrified new mother were anything like mine, then she really needed a mother those first five years of marriage. Grandma Gert was my mother’s expert when she most needed someone to calm her during those first labor pains on the hottest July day in 1949 or with those breast feeding nipples sucked raw. Or perhaps she needed someone to simply understand how overwhelming the bottles and the diapers could be for a new mom whose husband worked twelve hour days to support his quickly growing family.
Grandma Gert’s apartment had no hot water heater, so every bath or load of diapers had to come from a kettle heated on the stove. Of all the hardships of that era—and there were many—it’s this lack of one modern appliance which represents to me just how difficult those first years of marriage had to be for my parents. I know Mom got through it in part because of Delores, whose children were just a few years older than my mom’s, and because of Delores’s kind mother-in-law, Grandma Gert.
Today I say to Delores, “I love your new apartment. It’s great that you live so close to Virgie again.”
She smiles. She does not know that she and my mom are here to die. Today we simply enjoy the fact that they are neighbors again.