The smartest eighth grader I ever knew
My mom would've turned 91 Thursday, November 1st which, appropriately enough is All Saints Day.
Irene Mueller wasn't perfect--she'd be the first to admit that--but she was damn close.
One of eight girls (her only brother would die when he was hit by a car near the Sheboygan Quarry), my mother didn't have a whole lot growing up--or in her adult life, for that fact. She and my dad weren't people of means. Mom ran the house and dad brought home modest paychecks as a roofer and junior high school janitor. They always rented, never bought. When dad got sick, we relied on Social Security and Veterans benefits when his work coverage ran out. Through it all, mom never let on just how tight things were--that's what good parents do--and always made us feel as though we were normal. Rich was something that happened to others, but she always made sure we never felt needy or different.
Just because we didn't have a lot didn't mean that mom didn't have pride or shame. When dad died and what little we had became a little less, we had to turn to food stamps. Mom did it on the Q-T, taking pains to make sure that it stayed our secret. Our corner grocer helped--Simon and Marie Shapiro kept our coupons behind the counter and ran a tab. When mom sent me down the street to pick up basics, the Shapiros rung up the bill and extracted the stamps needed to pay after I left, and away from the prying eyes of other customers.
Mom only made it through the eighth grade--that's the way things were in her time. Still, she had more common sense, more smarts, more intuition, more people-sense than anyone I've known before or after. When I brought a new friend home, her radar was true--she could tell in a few moments whether or not the guest was someone who I should keep investing time in. The guys she liked became like sons--she always asked about the others in my high school group, always played along like one of the boys. She swore. She drank. She shared her Kingsbury when we were of age. She'd give advice, romantic and otherwise, to anyone who needed it. And, it was almost always spot-on.
There's a saying about growing up, one that goes something like this: when I was 16, I couldn't believe how stupid my parents were. When I was 26, I couldn't believe how smart they'd gotten over the past ten years. Simply translated: kids are too bull-headed to absorb their parents wisdom and need time to let it sink in. I'd be lying if I said I didn't butt heads with mom, didn't always buy in to her smarts. There were times when I thought, "What does she know? I went to college. I have a career. Where has she been?" With time came the realization that wisdom isn't always dispatched in diplomas and degrees, in miles traveled or jobs worked.
By the time mom died at age 75, she'd lost some of the spark and fun. Her health had been failing in her final years, and she'd lost the spunk that was the classic Irene. She left us with memories, with pride, with what I consider one of the most valuable lessons of all: no matter how far you get, never forget where you came from.
For me, that's about an hour away.
It's only 60 minutes from my birthplace in Sheboygan and where we live today. There are times when it feels like another planet. And then, when we gather as a family, it feels like I'm right back where I came from. Simple things take you there, be it an old family recipe, a story from days gone by or when you catch a glimpse of your kids and see your mom's eyes looking back at you. You realize that it's about as close as you're ever going to get to her again. You're sad that you won't get more, but you're thankful for the time you had.
Happy birthday, mom.