How to tell about Momma?

My mother, Lulu Olivet Craig Barnett, died late Friday, May 17th, 2019… one very difficult week & 2 days after her 95th birthday, having been born May 8, 1924. A long, rich, life. A long, mostly joyful, yet often difficult, life. How to honestly honor that life?

I am her oldest child, so I’ve lived parallel to all but 21 of those years… 21 important years, about which I can only hold much curiosity yet mostly more wonder. They hold many of the answers I would love to know.

I have no few stories… wishing I knew more. I am continually making a patchwork of those stories. They are part of my own pre-history. I come from those… they help explain me.

Do I work to tell my story backwards? From my brief most recent experiences of my family’s care giving? Or from the deeper beginnings of a story which, in any case, is quite impossible… ?

We “kids” became six . We remember with humor how, when she wanted to get the attention of one of us, her mind ofttimes needed to go down the list of us in turn, in the order of age, stopping to pull out the name of whichever one she wanted to address: Gordon, Gary, Merrilee, David, Jon, Terry… frequently landing momentarily on the odd choice before bursting out in frustration & confusion… “Oh, you know who I mean”

We “kids” spanned some 14 years. The math suggests that Momma was pregnant roughly one quarter of my childhood & youth.

Talking about those years necessitates addressing her frequent absence inside her deep waves of chronic depression. Now that I’ve lived near the ocean… I would describe them more like tides.

Deep… as in periods of weeks, often becoming months… these became spells when she would hardly get out of bed. Those were simply part of my life from early childhood… mixed & leavened by some indomitable spirit which would surface inexplicably to inhabit the other happier parts of Momma.

It becomes clear that she simply never quite actually fit the life in which she found herself. Choice? Well yes &… but…

She loved us fearfully, fearlessly, in spite of what might be construed as some sort of curious neglect in her sometime inability.

I’ve heard a story which helps me understand possible reasons for that: I’m told that Grammie Nettie Mae Craig handed baby Momma to her husband Ralph saying that she’d already raised three children for him & that this one was his to care for. My Auntie K , being the oldest, was responsible for coming home from school at lunchtime to feed her baby sister. I’m not certain of the full veracity of this story, but it fits with other bits about my maternal grandmother, who had been weakened by tuberculosis atop always seeming a bit arch about her reduced position as a minister’s wife. Her dream was to have been, as she often told me, “a missionary in the foreign fields,” which her parents had not allowed her to fulfill.

Thus it seems easy to suppose that Momma’s depressions may well have roots in her never having been properly mothered herself.

In my memory Momma rarely mentioned her mother in comparison to stories about her father… about whom there were many more numerous references… .

Momma’s stories about the Grandpa Craig I never got to meet, but whom I always wished I could get to know, honed my curiosity about his obvious complexity. He was a Baptist minister, which was frequently a dream for myself… It seems, as well, that he was a probable Klan member… that being verified by the discovery of a white hood long after his death. Unpacking that box triggered memories from Auntie K’s childhood of being taken out by him one night when she observed mysterious flashing of car lights… Klan membership was common enough in those days, even as far north as central Missouri, even for Baptist ministers… the Klan remaining a social institution in addition to its more sinister aspects.

Momma did tell me that he’d told her there were many things about his profession he wished he could be more clear or honest about, but which his congregation would not understand or accept. I wonder what I might think about him were I to have actually met him…

She often told a story that had to do with the goat her father kept to supply milk for his frail wife. One Sunday morning, that goat, who obviously loved Grandpa, nosed his way into the church & up to the pulpit while he was preaching. Reverend Grandpa sternly ordered Momma to get that very recalcitrant goat back outdoors, much to her youthful consternation & embarrassment. In her latter years she made it into one of her habitual humorous stories.

But my favorite story could fit here to introduce Poppa: It was when Grandpa Craig was helping Grandpa Barnett during one harvest season before my parents were married. Both my grandfathers were watching when suddenly my father barreled into the farm-lot yelling “fire!” Exchanging the pick-up he had driven into the farm lot for a nearby tractor, he seemed not to notice which implement it had attached, but assumed it would help put out the threat to the grain field where he & his brothers were harvesting… saving the harvest was certainly a worthy intention. But in his haste as he tore out the driveway the wide plow took down an entire row of the fence posts protecting his mother’s garden!

That evening at dinner her father turned to Momma to ask “Are you sure you want to marry that little Bantam rooster?!?” Well, obviously she did, just after her graduation & while Poppa had already enlisted in the Air Force. Grandpa Craig died before he could perform the wedding.

I was born during another harvest, probably the next year, when Momma had moved with her mother, my then newly widowed Grammie Craig, to live with my Auntie K , who was then teaching school in Clay Center, Kansas… thus making that my birthplace.

Momma’s other sister Lucille… my Auntie ‘Ciel… also lived in the nearby tiny town of Idana. Their only brother, my Uncle Bill, lived in Topeka, so their family had settled close to each other, not unlike Poppa’s clan in western Kansas at Colby.

This was a time of such familial clusterings & temporary displacements during the wartime which had already claimed Poppa’s two oldest brothers while he & his twin plus at least one… perhaps two… of the other brothers were also serving. Grandma Barnett was awarded “Kansas Mother Of The Year” about then for simultaneously having so many sons in active duty in addition to the two who were killed in conflict.

Poppa had been allowed leave to return home to Colby to help with the harvest. He drove the 200+ miles to Clay Center to meet me, a day or two after my arrival.

Momma often told me how inexperienced she was, how little she knew about taking care of a baby. I’m not sure how much actual help her mother was, but I suspect my Auntie K, who had mothered Momma, helped a lot. No wonder Auntie K (who later became my intellectual mentor) was always my favorite aunt…

I can be certain that when we finally came home to the farm on which I grew up that my Grandmother Barnett would have taken much in hand. After raising 9 children, she was certainly experienced … indeed she was a force against which few could prevail.

This broaches Momma’s situation of being her daughter-in-law… in truth the situation of all of her sons’ wives. She had gathered her sons after the war back into her nest so tightly that this sensitive eldest grandson knew of the frequent discontent they shared about how their men remained her sons first, before they were their wives’ husbands. Thus, Momma was set up to feel further inadequacy.

How does depression come to be? I am certain there are many ways, but this situation seems an obvious probability.

Momma was a preacher’s daughter who, as I have sometimes joked, knew more about watercress sandwiches for church ladies’ luncheons than about a farmer’s breakfast with eggs & the thick… so thick as to joke it would hold a fork upright… sausage or bacon-drippings gravy.

The dynamic between our parents was always quite sensitive as they danced over the years with their individual complexities. He taught her how to cook hearty & she supported & continued to groom his capabilities to be the gentle soul his siblings rarely grokked, but which made him the favorite uncle to many more than they actually had kin.

They were actively involved in church work with older youth while I was quite young… until their own family outgrew those generous capabilities to serve.

The miscarriage between Merrilee & David must obviously have been another deep plunge for her. I’m best aware of the story I was never told by noting that we planted a Blue Spruce seedling brought home from a vacation in Colorado at the SE corner of the house… soon becoming too close for “Sprucie” to survive… I’ve came to surmise the tree marked an impromptu grave.

Somewhere in that era I became aware that she was becoming more & more absent at the breakfast table. Poppa was was cooking more & the gravy got thicker. Plus we had more cold cereal, which was common enough to the times of the Battle Creek 1950s.

I began coming to consciousness & capability… taking more responsibility for the new siblings. There was always a pile of diapers to be folded… the easiest entry job for each in our growing family.

Momma would irregularly blossom to help us dress for church & arrive with her rich dark hair smoothed back into the signature French Roll she wore during many of those years… erasing her bedraggled look of Saturday at the ironing board. Eventually she taught me the similar magic required for our white shirts.

Of course there were those increasingly frequent Sunday mornings during times when we understood she wasn’t going to be present, nor nearly so capable, because of the unborn baby she also regularly wore.

I began to actually “grow up” inside that increasing understanding. As others learned to take their turn at the laundry & diapers I began learning to help cook.

Certainly, Momma could cook, but she was never able to teach me the technique around the foibles which even she continued to have baking those big deep round Pyrex casserole dishes of the custard which we all loved… with that toasty rich crust of nutmeg & cinnamon. The successes she celebrated were perfectly baked into a thick silky texture, but others occasionally came out of the oven a bit watery as the ingredients broke, much to her obvious disappointment, in spite that they tasted just as good. As I write I am enticed & tempted toward making a new attempt… wishing I had learned the recipe I think she never wrote down.

When we had a good cow, the cream rose thick in the gallon jars used for milk storage, before being spooned-off & tucked away in the back of the fridge. As it accumulated unused it soured enough to suggest it was time to make her famous chocolate cake!… It was usually baked in two big flat pans: one was slathered with butter while it was still hot, to eat as it melted for an afternoon snack! The other was thus saved to cool, being frosted later for dessert.

Thus, there were some things she loved about the farm…

But as the family grew her depressions became deeper & I had taken more & more responsibility. I came to realise I was frequently part of a “triune” relationship with them. Because he was absent dealing with the farm plus the insurance agency which he’d bought to supplement the family income & she was so much of the time listless in bed, I functioned as a bridge in their communication. Both came to trust my usefulness to help them when they had difficulty understanding & talking through each other’s differences, expectations & needs. She would confide in me the feelings he could not easily understand & he came to rely on me to help him try. The preacher’s daughter & the little bantam rooster… with a maturing chick.

They drove me out to Denver for orientation week at the beginning my first semester at University of Denver. I had been dreaming for several years of my own escape from a too small farm town. That Sunday before the first day of classes I got a call explaining that Poppa had been in an auto accident. Not seriously injured… he’d walked away, but with a blood clot in his calf which quickly enough put him in the hospital.

I had to make the decision about coming back to help with the family… or staying for my first classes. I stayed.

Momma bloomed with that stress into her finest form, taking charge of Poppa’s situation & all his duties, the insurance agency… plus the family. She seemed to thrive on all that responsibility for the next nine months, seemingly unstoppable!

But, when I came back for the summer, she had collapsed. More than that she apparently had an event that I was not quite made aware of as I went back to work full time at the department store which had been my part-time job for three years during high school.

Poppa committed her to the mental hospital in Hays, then later to another in Denver where she was given electroshock therapy. I suspect he figured I might object if he consulted me, which would probably have been true, but I had made my choice for independence.

That left to the rest of my siblings the process I later heard of how their telling the family stories, helped her regain lost memories that therapy stole from her. She gradually recovered with much of normalcy… perhaps actually & truly better than that… she seemed to begin to find her own way.

Coming to trust the process, I continued my separation into my own adult life.

During one visit the folks explained that they’d decided to buy The Blakesley, a sweet small hotel we had always known in town, owned by church friends of theirs who wanted to retire. In fact, the folks had spent part of their honeymoon, if not their wedding night there. That unpredictable decision, a bit crazy as it first seemed, became quite a blessing to their marriage.

She got to move away from the complications of the Barnett farm compound (Barneyville was what Grammie Craig called it) & into a new independence with a stimulating social milieu. My parents began a new partnership as inn keepers. Both of them found the hard work fun & rewarding as they developed new skills & practiced familiar care-taking skills while bringing new life into a handsome, rather classical & even classy building. They welcomed a new burgeoning clientele who had to find their way off the new interstate highway which bypassed the now quieter original route through downtown. They groomed a specialized niche which suited many, from salesmen who became regulars to those more adventuresome types of folk who discovered their unique brand & friendly style.

I wish she had continued writing the stories they began to collect about those they hosted… their life was ever rich with many positive experiences & others not quite so. She was often quite clever in their telling…

After most of several decades they began to think toward retirement & found a site on Monument Hill in the foothills between Denver & Colorado Springs with a fine view of Pike’s Peak in the distance. The Air Force Academy nestled at its feet. The Rockies were a favorite family vacation destination; many of us kids had moved to establish homes there in the booming economy developing along the Front Range.

Poppa bought an old well-built military structure which he dismantled for its lumber. Trucking it from Kansas he began to build their solar dream house. In his typical rooster style it was, of course, quite over-built, over designed with bins of rock in the concrete foundation to function as heat collectors for air systems which were never needed because the house was so well insulated & had such an effective passive design that, with the wood stove lit mostly for ambience, the windows had to be opened even on some winter days to provide ventilation.

That also described the rich & warm family & social life which followed them to this new home where they continued their inn-keeping by running a B&B. They rediscovered a mutual love of gardening, with Momma collecting varieties of Colorado’s state flower, the Columbine, while Poppa built a greenhouse to supply some of the plants our brother David used in his burgeoning landscape business, which also employed most of my siblings on & off over those years.

This continued more years when Momma enjoyed the happiness so different than those early, now quite distant, periods of chronic depression which her grandchildren never experienced as had her children.

They began to travel with increasing frequency in a succession of trailers & mobile homes, finding warmer winter months & visiting family & friends. But one morning she described looking out the window at the ever enlarging gardens & greenhouse with the responsibilities which belied the “retirement” of their home & suggested she might be ready for another change…

Soon enough they had sold that dream & hit the road rather more permanently. For much of a decade they drove coast to coast & border to border, spending long periods with each of us, their own sibling & the friends they’d been collecting for years.

They had rigged their trailer with a happily efficient nomadic capability & Poppa had packed the bed of the pick-up which hauled the trailer with a rather complete shop of tools. They offered their skills like new fangled traveling tinkers, fixing things or building simple storage or helping do small & even the larger remodeling projects which each of us, being the scions of his DIY genes, seemed always to not have enough time, tools or skill to do ourselves. Momma was good at being easy company while encouraging honest reorganization, focusing on interior, then getting giddy with gardening projects or a hike. It was easy to welcomed their extended & even repeated help & company.

When Poppa’s health began to weaken, they sold the rig, which Momma never could drive & returned to Colby, moving into a house his younger sister & her husband owned as a rental. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure & Momma was obviously wearing out trying to care for him. While refusing to gracefully accept the facts of his condition he made it clear that he wanted to stay at home for whatever duration.

There had long been evidence of his strange & increasing jealousy evidenced by his listening-in on her phone conversations with women friends & even with us! He feared we were talking behind his back… which was indeed true at times, being necessary to ascertain their situation. He adamantly refused to allow any male nursing care in the house, in spite of which that might in any probable eventuality become necessary.

When we gathered as siblings to address the situation we rather too generously committed ourselves to share taking care of him. What began as taking turns of a week or so at a time evolved into understanding that they needed more than one so we evolved into pairing-up, learning that one needed to stay with them in the house & thus allowing another to do the shopping & errands.

While we were enjoying the parts which were bringing us closer together as the original family, we also came to know the costs to our own families. He seemed to revive & even thrive… obviously reveling in our attention. Because I had perhaps the most freedom & flexibility of schedule I took longer stints, in spite that Stephen understandably chafed at my absence.

He lived more than six months without fully understanding or acknowledging our costs. As it became obvious the time was drawing closer we all were coming closer together… certainly in space & time, even as we were sometimes re-learning the intensity of old difficulties inside more & more honesty.

Meanwhile, Momma was being so sweet & we were looking forward to the time she could finally blossom out of his uncomfortable paranoia & unreasonable control. He wasn’t very subtle about wanting to take her with him…

One afternoon she woke from a nap & I watched as she walked dazedly down the hallway mouthing “Why are you kids all here? When did we get old?”

Realizing something dire had happened I immediately sat her down & put his oxygen hose in her mouth.

Dammit! I feared he had gotten his wish.

There never came a good diagnosis, it wasn’t quite a stroke, but there seemed to be something called a TIA which left her quite debilitated in spite that she could function well enough that on the final morning we put her in bed next to him watching her tenderly care for him by cleaning his lips as he took his last breath.

She seemed most attentive & truly grieved at the funeral which we created on our own, he having appointed our youngest brother as officiant, among the numerous acts about which he had applied his attention during those last days. His ashes were in the wooden urn we had designed & built in his shop while he had directed & helped us, even applying his own hand at some of the sanding & finishing.

One of my favorite photos of her was made at the gathering after the funeral. She struck a very study, seeming even humorously defiant pose in front of us, arms akimbo as if she would forever protect us, as she always had done, even in her weakness. He hadn’t taken her with him & while she wasn’t yet quite her full self for many months…

This promised the return of her feisty nature.

Niece Lisa caught this as she sat watching us dig the hole at their grave stone to receive his box in the chair beside her, surrounded by a transcendent “rainbow” of refracted light, looking beatific.

Two wonderfully telling moods of Momma on the same difficult day.

She lived on for 20 more years, mostly quietly comfortable & ultimately happy once again. But she never quite revived the spirit she’d hinted it before that last downturn as he was leaving. We had so looked forward to her having that again.

We were fortunate that brother Terry & our sister-in-love Kathy had a house with a separate apartment where she could live with independence while having their close attentions… what a boon!

She had told us from early in her widowhood that she didn’t know why she was still here, but she made few complaints once her medications were adjusted.

We contented ourselves by enjoying her own seeming contentment while she embroidered linens & crocheted rag rugs for us all. She liked to read, rather constantly did crossword, before embracing simpler “find-the-word” puzzles. We watched as over the years her needlework became more arduous & less carefully tended.

She continued to keep her humor & began telling stories, ofttimes repetitive but often quite funny even so… even surprisingly a bit ribald! Sh had been quietly observing the liveliness of the hotel’s guests, her not exactly “average”… nor even actually always quite “civilized” children & other bits of family history which had been swept under the various rugs of many decades. She seemed to have decided to finally share it with some newfound confidence of age & wisdom. We could intuite that she was doing a different sort of embroidery… even with perhaps a bit of invention!

One final story seemed never to be told with any clarity. When she moved into a hospice situation this spring, we began gathering again. I was committed to staying with my studio for it’s participation in the annual spring tour & presumed she would leave before that commitment was finished, but each of her grandchildren & great grandchildren made visits to her bedside as she withdrew into a semi-conscious state.

They began sharing the experience of hearing from her what became a constantly looping exhortation: “Come on everybody, let’s go! … Come on! Lets GO!” With that she began to vigorously try to get out of her bed, requiring whoever was near to hold her back… actually hold her down!

After years of sedentary life & months of not leaving her wheelchair she gathered so much energy that it required all our strength to keep her off the floor! Jon & Merrilee described one time it took them both to a point of near exhaustion to keep her from leaping up into a guaranteed fall… Where did that strength come from?

So, where did she want us to go? Did she as well want to take all of us with her… shades of Poppa?!? Or, was she remembering some final story she couldn’t quite tell? Since we will never now know we get to make our own… it took on the shape of a humorous meme, repeated among us as a loving joke. There wasn’t much of the morose about whatever that story with no ending told.

She stayed through Mother’s Day, which began the week of her 95th birthday… we supposed she was waiting for that milestone. She stayed, endlessly repeating “Come on everybody, let’s go!” They stayed as well, taking turns until all were exhausted. I flew on the first day after finishing my studio event, giving everyone permission to rest. I was relatively fresh & could give her the knowledge that now all of us were with her.

For the next three days she continued that repetitively looping pattern. I wrestled with her because the staff was not allowed to restrain her. I learned that it was harder for me to get out of the recliner, which I’d placed against the bed to help contain her energies than she proved to be better at getting out of! I finally realized she should be cuddled within the arms of my chair & I should sleep on the bed, which solution worked well as she showed her ultimate loss of any such strength. Still, I could hear the shadow of “Come on. lets go!” even as she could hardly rustle the sheets in the effort to move. Her determination had finally come to the inevitability of an end.

Still she lingered as Sister-in-Love Michelle drove from Cheyenne one more time so as to relieve me. I went to Momma’s apartment for a first shower in the days since I’d arrived, falling asleep for less than a couple hours before Kathy woke me with the news.

What was that story she kept us waiting for? What had she waited for? Where did she want us to go? We must keep writing it for her.

Come On, Let’s Go!

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.