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spacer.gif (46 bytes)  Cele Roehrig Jorgensen, 1905-1989

Mother died April 5, shortly after 10:00 in the morning.  Her heart finally gave out during a most severe bout with pneumonia, her fourth in eighteen months.  While she was one tough person, this time, it was apparently her time to go.  So, I guess this is the last letter I’ll write for her.

           Mother was not getting better. Aside from this recent encounter with pneumonia, she was continually and steadily declining.  And for the last three months, since Christmas, this decline had been increasingly rapid, very depressing to witness, and painful to experience.

          Often during the last weeks, she did not recognize me, frequently forgot where she was, did not eat, continually complained about being up in a wheelchair—for a mere two to three hours a day, and slept almost all the time she was in bed.

          During her increasingly infrequent times of lucidity, her prayers were for “the Lord to take me.”  But even her conscious mind sometimes failed her, and I frequently had to help with the “Our Father” and the “Hail Marys” of the rosary.  Several members of the nursing staff told me that when in her room, they often heard her praying for God to help her.

          My last conversation with mother took place on March 13.  As is my habit, I regularly write things down in notebooks; so I have a record of that last conversation.  I had gotten to the nursing home shortly after lunch.  Mother was slouched over in her wheel chair, in her room, an uneaten tray of pureed food in front of her.  I wheeled her outside onto the patio for some sun.  Mostly she just wanted to go back to bed, but I tried to get her mind going.

          I told her about the Bishops gathering in Rome for a “dialogue” with the Pope about the nature of the American Catholic church.  She was always interested in politics, sacred or secular.  This issue was of particular interest because Archbishop John May of St. Louis headed the delegation, and he had been a young priest at St. Gregory’s when we all lived in that parish. Indeed, Father May had on several occasions prevented my expulsion from St. Greg’s High School, and he and I have always kept a little in touch over the years.

          When I said, “I sure hope he gets his red hat before too much longer,” mother answered, “We knew him when, didn’t we?”  And then when I responded with “Sure, ma, but he knew us when, too.””  She smiled, ever so slightly, but with that familiar expression of hers, the “Let’s not get too big or the britches” admonishment.

          After that little bit of lucidity, she drifted away into erratic prayers for God’s help.  We talked a little about death and dying, but she was too agitated, too weak, too sick to hang onto reality.  Anyhow, that was the last conversation.

          The physical deterioration, as bad as it was, did not upset me as much as the total loss of independence, of control, of dignity and pride, by this very, very independent and proud woman.  Well, maybe that was the last lesson she had to learn.  I don’t know much about that stuff, being my mother’s son.

          While mother at no time experienced physical pain, her increasing psychological distress, and her anxiety with her predicament, had to be close to unbearable.  Fortunately, she slept almost constantly, probably dreaming, as she often did, of better times and places past—and better time and spaces to come.

          That April 5 morning, Lynn and I had some business to take care of, after which we drove over to the Nursing Home.  Lynn got there a few minutes before me.  When I arrived, Lynn was standing outside of the door, crying.  I guessed.  It was very strange seeing mother lying there.  I was glad for her that it was over; I was glad for everyone.  But I sure felt strange, sad, depressed.  I still do.

          Those last several weeks had become really stressful, but prior to that, my visits usually elicited some new bit of information about herself, my dad, the family, old Chicago, and even about me.  All that is over now.  I can’t even call Chicago, as I did for years, and ask her a question.

          “Death and Taxes,” and all that.  Yeah, I know.  I don’t like either one of them when they mean taking something from me for no apparent good reason.  And sometimes, even when it is for good reason, as in mother’s case, I still don’t like it.

          Time out!  Today is Mother’s Day, and I’m going to brunch with Lynn, Emilie, and Sarah (Emilie’s daughter), the little one that brightened several of mother’s hours.

          O.K.  Fortified with knishes, bagels with sour cream, sliced onions and tomatoes, as well as 90 minutes with mother, daughter, and granddaughter—women are a trip.  Wonder how they got to be that way … that’s a mystery for another day.

          Our Mother had had the Last Rites of the Catholic Church at least twice in recent months that I know of.  This time was too quick.  However, the next day a most charming priest, visiting the local parish from Malta, joined Roy (who had driven much of the previous night from San Francisco), Lynn and me at the mortuary.  We said our goodbyes.  And as the priest spoke the appropriate prayers, Lynn placed three roses on the body, one for each of us.

          Actually, Lynn took care of a lot more than the three roses.  She took care of a lot more than I was able to.  But I’ll remember those three roses together with the sage and sweet cedar, two plants religiously significant to the southwest Indians.

          So, Mother’s soul and spirit got a good send off.

           Having concluded an 18 month involvement with nursing or convalescent homes and hospitals, I wish to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many very fine, dedicated nursing personnel who perform an extremely difficult service for an incredibly low rate of pay.  Oh yes, “we have been around the block:” We have seen some terrible facilities, and even in the best, we have witnessed some very uncaring human beings, of all sexes, colors, and ages, posing as health care deliverers.

          Nonetheless, I am amazed at the loving and professional care given by so many for so little in return.  Most of the nursing aides I have encountered got very little in the way of monetary compensation ($4-$6/hour, barely enough to pay rent around here, much less eat, and take care of children) and an almost equally small psychological reward from too many of the patients’ families.

          Sure, they are mostly women, immigrants and refugees from Mexico, the Philippines, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  Many of them cannot speak English very well, and many of them are in this country “Illegally.”  But, hey, don’t they be humans?  Didn’t our people have a hard time learning English?  And while I might have slept through it, I don’t really remember the American Indians ever inviting us in.  Which, I think, makes most of us illegal. 

          Everyone will have his or her own special memories of mother, of Cele Jorgensen.  Mine are mostly pretty good and because of that, I’m going to miss her.  By some standards, she had a tough life, but not by hers.  And she always did real well by me.  She taught me how to dance, including that sexy dip that worked real well over the years of my dancing.  I don’t know how I could have had a better mother. 

          I remember her dragging me out to Hines Veterans’ Hospital before the Second World War.  Part of her involvement with the American Legion Auxiliary took her to that old hospital to put on parties for veterans of the First World War.  Sometimes these were men without arms and legs—basket cases, but not quite as severe as in Dalton Trumball’s Johnny Got His Gun.

          She and the other women played bingo with/for these guys who had been in this or some other hospital since 1918.  I never asked, but I just assumed all mothers did things like that.  When she retired and tried living her in southern California, she did volunteer work at one of the local veterans’ hospitals.  She didn’t last too long, though.   The 1971 killer earthquake reminded her of how much she preferred Chicago to Los Angeles, and away she went. 

          During the 1960’s, the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement days, she had a hard time, in the beginning, being supportive.  But she learned; she never got too old to learn and change.  You have to give her that.  I know a lot of people’s people who didn’t then, and never did.  Of course mothers—those women, again—also do seem more flexible, more open, especially when their children are involved. 

          Well, one incident stands out.  In 1965, Willie Davis and I (we were both single at the time) were going to drive to Chicago for a Teacher’s convention.

We were going to drive via Natchez, Mississippi, Willie’s home.  Willie was Black (actually, he still is), and mother had met him on one of her trips out here to California.  When I telephoned to tell her of our plans, she got very excited, as she always did whenever I was coming “home.”

          Until she asked where were staying.  I said, “With you, ma, where else?”  She said, “What will the neighbors think?”  I told her that I didn’t care what the neighbors thought, and she shouldn’t either.  Besides, she knew Willie, another ex-alter boy like myself.  But, I told her, if it was too big a deal, we’d stay in the hotel where the convention was happening.  At that, she got all upset, “If you don’t stay here with me, what will the relatives think?”  I remember like yesterday: “Ma, what does it matter what anybody thinks, when you are right?”  She was very upset with me, as she often was, but two days later, she called back and told me that she could hardly sleep for worrying about all this.  But she had decided that I was right, and Willie and I were to stay with her.

          Of course it shouldn’t have taken two sleepless nights, but she got there.  That was a lot more than a lot of people ever did.  I loved her for that. 

          Lynn’s favorite anecdote, and it was something that mother was very proud of, concerns her letter to the Senator Percy of Illinois.  Mother often wrote to Senators and Representatives, giving them her opinion.  Among her papers, I have a small stack of responses to her from government officials.

          Well her famous 1969 letter to Percy went something like this:  “My father fought in the Spanish-American War and my husband in the First World War.  My oldest son served in the Second World War, and my youngest, during the Korean War.  But this war (Vietnam) is wrong.  And I don’t want to be counted as part of that “silent majority” that the president claims is supportive of his policies.”

          As she told Lynn, she wanted to register her protest to the war, but she also really did not want to be counted among that so-called “silent” majority, those who are always silent, while the politicians speak for them. 

          Not too shabby, es ist ncht wahr

          Roy, his son Sven, Lynn and I will be coming to Chicago for a memorial mass July 8, 9:30 AM at St. Michael’s Church, 1633 N. Cleveland.  This is the church at which our mother was baptized, as well as her parents married.  St. Michael’s is the parish church of the “old-old neighborhood,” the one mostly German immigrants rebuilt after the 1871 Fire.  Her grandfather’s house is still there, as are several other Roehrig relatives and relics.  One of mother’s “uncles,” Father Lenz, had even been pastor of St. Michael’s for numerous years, years ago.

          Our mother really loved Chicago (and its ever optimistic Cubs), as everyone can attest.  She delighted in tracing her Chicago Roehrig roots back to the 1850’s, to before the great Fire (Mother’s Neckel roots, on her mother’s side also go back to before the Civil War, but they had settled in old Gross Point and Wilmette.). One of the last times I was in Chicago and she was still able to get out for a drive, she had me drive her around St. Michael’s neighborhood.  She even had me driving through alleys, showing me the back yards of her childhood, where, for example, her father had raised pigeons to supplement the family fare in the years before World War One.  

          By the time you receive this letter, mother’s cremains will have been interred at the All Saints Cemetery, 700 River Road, Des Plaines, Ill., next to my dad’s grave.  Following the July 8th memorial mass at St. Michael’s, there will be a graveside ceremony for the immediate family.

          Following that brief ceremony, and also pursuant to my mother’s specific request, there will be a party.  Actually this will be more like a luncheon, with food, drink, immediate and extended family, friends, you and us, conversation, stories, and reminisces of times and people past.

          In older times, when I was growing up in Chicago, the family and friends always gathered together, after a funeral, at someone’s house.  People brought food and drink; they talked, ate, drank, played cards—the men, pinochle; the women, penny-ante poker.  And I ran around a lot, trying to keep up with cousins, mostly girls its seems like, all a few years older than I.

          Knowing those days were gone, for the most part, my mother picked an old, sort-of-German restaurant on River Road where we had often stopped on visits to my dad’s grave.  She even told that while I shouldn’t overdue it on the luncheon, I shouldn’t be too tight either.  Well, a lot of people and things are history, including that old, sort-of-German restaurant on River Road.  It has been replaced with something plastic and pastel looking. 

          But to our rescue, to mother’s, has come cousin Mitzie Mutert Lober, one of those slightly (very slightly) “older” girls I regularly encountered at the numerous family gatherings—as well as at a bar or two, years later) but that’s another “another story”).

          Anyhow, cousin Mitz has arranged room for us at the Elks Club, 495 Lee St., Des Plaines, (312) 824-1526, starting at 12:30, July 8th. Join us. 

          If you are not able to join us, we understand.  There is no way that I can personally thank all of those who contributed to mother’s life.  Many are already gone.  And many others I know nothing about.  But to all—wherever you may be, thank you.

          I also wish to thank Roy and Lynn, other members of the family, my friends, colleagues, and everyone else who helped me through these past 18 months with their words and cards and actions of support.  Thanks, guys. 

          Even though mother had a rough time toward the end, she always insisted that she had been “pretty lucky in life.”  And as recently as this past January 15, as I was reading and re-reading some Holiday cards to her, she just sort of proclaimed to the world, “I’m glad I’ve had so many nice friends.” 

          Amen, ma.  Me too.