Remembering two mothers

By Dan Jorgensen

The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Each Mother's Day brings with it the opportunity to reminisce about two Moms — my mother Virginia and my grandmother Marie. They are the two women who raised me and helped shape my values, goals and dreams. Neither my mother nor my grandmother is living, but it is a joy to celebrate their lives, especially during the month of May.

May is a bittersweet month for me. It's not only the month of Mother's Day, but also the month of my birth, the month of Memorial Day, and the month of my Mom's death.

In the early morning hours of May 3, 1988, my mother died. It was almost to the minute — in fact many think it was to the minute — that she gave birth to me 41 years earlier. Remembering when your mother died is, unfortunately, an easy thing to do when it happens on your birthday.


Her departure from this life was quite a contrast to my arrival. When I was born, I was told that it was a many-hour struggle that left her exhausted. When she died, it was quick and gentle — a few words followed by a sigh.

She died in a car on the way to a hospital in the rural South Dakota farm-ranch country where she had grown to womanhood. It was in that same area that she raised a family of her own after returning from her early years of married life in Rochester.

'Raised by two strong women'

I turned out to be the first of seven boys. After my youngest brother was born, my mother remarked: "Either I have to quit trying to have a girl, or I'm going to have to go for two more boys and field a baseball team."

My grandmother told her to quit trying. "Let your boys have daughters," she advised. "It'll be a lot easier on the whole family that way." Taking that advice to heart, six of her sons had at least one daughter and all told, she ended up with nine granddaughters — a "softball" team instead.

When I was 4, I lost my dad. He didn't die; he just disappeared. Mom, who was pregnant with her third child at the time, took my brother and me and moved in with my grandparents on their South Dakota farm. Thus began the next few years of my life being raised by two strong women until my mother was to remarry — to another area farmer.

Mom died at age 60; Grandma at 92. Mom died first and I'll always remember the anguish in my grandmother's voice when she asked me, "Why didn't I go first?" At the time, I reassured her that I was glad she was still alive. I don't think I could've handled being motherless then, especially because it was my birthday and so close to Mother's Day.

Over the next five years leading to my grandmother's death, I had time to prepare as she went through a steady decline. Losing your mother is always hard; losing her when she's still too young to die is even more difficult. My grandmother remained a rock for me during that time.


While I have many photographs of my grandmother — holding me as a baby; bouncing me on her knee as a child; kissing my cheek at graduation — it is the photos I have of her in my heart that are the most meaningful. They are images of a woman with boundless energy who always had time for me and anyone who sought her counsel.

Prepared to live

Mom died unexpectedly, even for herself. She was not prepared to die, but instead, prepared to live. "I'm going to see an ocean for the first time," she wrote just before she died. I know that because it was written to me in a letter inserted into my birthday card, mailed to me the day before her death and waiting in my mailbox when I returned from her funeral. "We plan to take the Amtrak from Minneapolis to Boston this October," she wrote. "It seems like a long time off, but the times goes fast, so we have to make plans."

Both my mom and my grandma died within 20 miles of where they'd lived most of their lives in Turner County. My mom knew everyone in the county and everyone knew her. She wasn't rich; she wasn't famous; but, she was, well, like family. She treated everyone that way, like she was everyone's mother.

My mom loved her seven sons unconditionally. Most of us left home and moved too far away to see her regularly. We'd plan Christmas or Easter and one or two other trips a year around special occasions like her birthday or Mother's Day. My planned trip to see her was, in fact, on Mother's Day. So on a day I had planned to be taking her to dinner, I was instead arranging flowers on her grave.

A season of rebirth and renewal

My mom died during the height of the planting season — a season she always loved because of what it meant: a time of rebirth and renewal. It also was a season she dreaded because it took her family away into the fields for 18- to 20-hour days. "Don't be surprised if some of the farmers Mom knew don't come to her funeral," my Dad said. "It's planting season and they can't afford to stop work, you know." When we entered the packed church, half of the people there were farmers, their equipment parked in silence in Mom's memory.

Mom's life was filled with good times and bad, sad times and happy. But just like my grandma's, Mom's "good and happy" always outweighed the bad. "Be happy and be a friend, and your life will always be full," she said. "Money does not measure success. If your life is filled with friends, then you are rich."


Besides life itself, my mother's optimistic spirit, concern for others, and hope for the future were perhaps the greatest gifts she gave to me and to all whose lives she touched.

Each of us receives so many gifts from our mothers and our grandmothers each and every day. I cherish those gifts and pray that I will always use them wisely.

Dan Jorgensen teaches journalism and public relations in Augsburg College's Weekend College and Rochester programs. Also a freelance writer and novelist, he resides with his wife Susan in Northfield.

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