Monday, November 06, 2017

Mother: An Encomium

One year ago today, my dear mother, the former Dorothy Ann Rosselot, entered into eternity. She was 84 years of age.

+    +    +

Illustration from the story The Coming to Saint Martin, authored by Sister Monica, OSU, from "A Book of Fortitude" of the Faith and Freedom Series, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1947.

By the 1840s, soon after the Shawnees left for other pastures, the rolling hills and dales of the Ohio Valley were a settling ground, first for Irish Catholics, followed by their French and German neighbors. In 1845, a pair of Ursuline Sisters came by wagon from the motherhouse in Cincinnati, and settled at a junction soon known as "Saint Martin." They taught the faith to the children of those who farmed the land, and ran the shops in corner junctions and little hamlets, dotting the roads leading to and from "the big city."

Walter Rosselot was an enterprising young farmer with acreage in Brown County, a few miles south of a "wide spot in the road" known as Fayetteville. His wife, the former Gertrude Evans, gave birth to a baby girl in April of 1932, and who was christened Dorothy Ann.

The family of Walter and Gertrude (Evans) Rosselot, at the farmhouse south of Fayetteville, Brown County, Ohio, 1943. My mother, Dorothy Ann, is in the front row on the right, opposite her parents.

“Dottie” was one of eleven brothers and sisters, and in the 1930s and 1940s, everyone in the house carried their share of the load. The girls would do chores around the house, and when the boys were old enough (and they didn't wait long), they were out in the fields. For a time, most of the boys either weren't old enough, or were already married with farms and families of their own. This left Dorothy to help with "the man's work" -- presetting the controls on the harvester (the task of the "engineer"), driving the tractor, pitching hay, all before she was twelve.

The Rosselots were not poor. There was a roof over their heads, food on the table, and their father had good credit at the bank, enough to be equipped with combining and harvesting machinery, and offering his services to neighboring farms that didn't have such equipment of their own. But it didn't follow that there was much in the way of disposable income. Her sisters would all say the same thing in the wake of her passing: "She sewed a lot." Indeed. Except for dungarees worn in the field, Dorothy made many of her own clothes. Later in life, she made most of the dresses for my sisters, and the bridal dress for one of them.

Dorothy also made "knotted quilts" from little squares of leftover fabric, plain colors alternating with patterned. Each square were tied in the middle with a piece of yarn, to hold it to the inner layer (hence the term "knotted"). Unlike fancy patterned quilts that are today the stuff of boutiques, these were the more common variety on the farm and the prairie, where leftovers of anything would be put to use.

She was an excellent student, graduating as salutatorian in a class of seventeen in 1950, with special honors for mathematics. She was demure, reserved, unimpressed by the farm boys who asked her out on dates. Only one man was known to impress her, but the world would never know until after she graduated. Paul Alexander taught English and Latin at the school, and while a strict teacher, he had an easy rapport with one group of students in particular, including Dorothy. Several weeks after graduation, as she was preparing to get as far away from the farm as possible, Paul asked Dorothy out on a date.

Saint Patrick's Church, Fayetteville, Ohio, 14 June 1952.

Dorothy took a job sixty miles to the north, as a civilian clerk at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. Little is known of how the courtship of Dorothy and Paul was able to prevail given the distance, but two years after their first date, they were married in Fayetteville, at Saint Patrick's Church. There was little time for a honeymoon, as Paul's Air National Guard unit was called into active duty, and he was sent off to Germany to serve as payroll officer for his squadron. Dorothy moved into an apartment in Cincinnati with one of her sisters. Upon his return, Paul took a job with Procter and Gamble. Hoping for a position in Cincinnati, they were forced to relocate for an opening in Cleveland, in the hopes that they could one day return.

But before that return, Dorothy gave birth to her firstborn, early in the morning during Christmastide. At five weeks, he was christened David (for reasons unknown), with a middle name of Lawrence, for one of her brothers who died in a farming accident some years earlier.

Winnebago Drive, before the annexation by the Village of Milford, Ohio, June 1956. #29 is in the foreground.

With the company transferring Paul to Cincinnati, and with the birth of a second child, they knew that a two-bedroom apartment at the inner-ring suburbs of the city wouldn't be enough. They went east, outside the county line, to a village known as Milford, already expanding to meet the postwar demand for housing. A neighborhood of starter homes took its place where corn once grew, and where the Hopewells had once built ceremonial mounds for centuries before the "discovery" by Columbus. In a somewhat ironic memorial to that heritage, the streets of Clertoma Village were named for various tribes. And so a new life began with other young families, at a house on Winnebago Drive.

Three other children would join David, two of them in quick succession; a girl named Mary, a boy named Stephen, and after a break of several years, a little girl named Patricia. Together they all lived in a three-bedroom-one-bath house of less than 1200 square feet. When other families moved away for larger houses on the hill outside of town with split levels and one-acre lawns, the Alexanders bloomed where they stayed planted.

By all accounts, Dorothy might have been dismissed as "just a housewife," but there was more. She was an aficionado of the domestic arts, a herald of a bygone era at a time of modern conveniences and long stretches of leisure time. She not only cooked and cleaned and did laundry, but made dresses for the girls, patched jeans for the boys, canned beans and peaches, and grew a 400-square-foot vegetable garden in the back. She would wake up "with the chickens" by about five in the morning, have her coffee, her one cigarette for a day, and do her crossword puzzle from the newspaper. In the mid-1960s, Paul was elected to the Board of Public Affairs, a body of Ohio village governance separate from the Mayor and Village Council, responsible for the management of locally-operated public utilities, mainly water and sewer departments. Dorothy took a part-time job as a clerk in the village hall with the water department.

Rosselot cousins forming their signature “human pyramid,” Brown County, Ohio, Summer 1969.

The children enjoyed the occasional sojourn to the old farm, and the proverbial scenes so often associated with life in the American heartland. There were volleyball games in the yard, running in the fields, fishing at the pond, picnic dinners in the yard with fresh-picked corn and beans. The Rosselot clan grew to as many as fifty cousins, many of whom are still very close to this day.

April 1969. Clockwise from viewer's right; Stephen, Patricia, Mary, and the author.

Time went on, as time always does. The end of the 1960s saw changes to the popular culture, with a brood of children approaching adolescence in the face thereof. There was Scouting and Little League, school and swim club, the staples of diversion in small town life. It was at this time that the pressure of the office, and his own personal angst, was taking its toll on Paul. Physical maladies would present themselves, first one thing, then another, all inconclusive. When he was forty-five, in 1970, the doctors finally gave his difficulties a name -- multiple sclerosis. What was worse that that it was the variety that would never go into remission. All the Betaseron in the world would never ease the condition.

Dorothy could see the handwriting on the wall. With the growing up and moving away of the children, and with her husband's eventual retirement, she knew their "golden years" would never get easier, only harder; as the years went by, and age took its toll. After a period of silent resignation, she realized how thankful she was for what she still had, and stiffened her resolve.

It is one sign of a successful marriage when the husband and wife are able to renegotiate their "balance of power" (for want of a better term) when conditions warrant. Dorothy's father was not only a farmer, but an inventor. She used an inherited trait to her advantage. She became the home repair expert, the plumber, the electrician, the fixer-upper. When the washing machine broke down, getting a repairman would cost money. Why not get the part and fix it herself? As the years wore on, the children moved away, and life became just a little quieter in the house on Winnebago Drive, it became no less busy. Still awakening before dawn, only now without the cigarette, she'd drink her coffee and work her crossword puzzle in silence, before once again taking on the day. Even with the help of one or more of her children, there was no mistaking who was in charge of the care of her husband.

Paul and Dorothy, September 2003.

During the 1990s, Paul reached the official retirement age, having already been on disability for some years. They seemed reasonably content with their lives. Dorothy would occasionally play volleyball with other women of the neighborhood. It was her one diversion from what awaited her at home.

Then in December of 2001, Dorothy suffered a minor stroke. It was enough to herald the beginning of the end. Even as she continued care of Paul in the home, it became more difficult. A childhood injury to her ankle returned to haunt her, among other ailments common to advanced years. And yet she continued to rule the roost, accepting help, if reluctantly, but still calling the shots.

The little starter home had recently been significantly renovated, adding a larger master bedroom and wheelchair-accessible shower, and the dream kitchen and breakfast nook that Dorothy always wanted. Life seemed to improve for a while. But the newly-acquired luxury only eased the inevitable. Dorothy was having more trouble with the routine of care, even with assistance of her daughter and a home care aide. Keeping track of medications, overseeing activities of daily living, just the day-to-day routine of running a household, all became too much for her. But she would never give up the reins, such was her devotion to her husband.

29 Winnebago Drive, circa 2012.

Her siblings were becoming concerned. Maybe a facility would be the best thing for Paul, to say nothing of Dorothy. But she would have none of it. She knew what she signed up for, and refused to sugarcoat it. She would care for him in their own home.

Then in the fall of 2011, it happened.

Dorothy was taking the stairs to the basement, when somehow she lost her footing and stumbled all the way down. Landing on the concrete floor, she broke her neck. By all accounts, she should have met her end right then and there. But she refused even death, getting herself up while bleeding profusely from a gash on the head, and crawling up the stairs to dial 911.* Paul was the only other one there. As the other children rushed to the house to meet the ambulance and tend to Paul, they found a man sobbing, sitting helpless as he could do nothing to save her.

After coming out of intensive care, the children knew that whatever quality of life they might enjoy, depended entirely on having them together. Given the differences in their circumstances, this was no easy task. But such a place was found, a very pleasant retirement community, on the northheastern outskirts of the city, in a town called Sharonville. It was here that the family rallied to their father's side, and where, on a Monday evening the following February, Paul slipped peacefully away.

Dorothy (finally) gets over having pets in the house, thanks to “Buddy” the Dog, and “Carmen” the Cat. May 2012.

After the burial, Dorothy wondered what would happen to her. She received the news that an apartment in the opposite wing was already awaiting her. She entered her new home, with as many of the creature comforts that could fit from the house where she raised a family. It was met with tears of joy. She found a home away from home.

It was hoped that she would live a life of ease, resting from her labors, finding solace in her memories of home and marriage and family, while making new friends and discovering new recreations. For a time it seemed that it would be that way. But with a genetic precondition, compounded by her head injury the previous year, made for a respite that was short-lived. It was a year or so before her dementia advanced to the point where she could no longer live without constant supervision. After a brief period in the "memory care" ward, the situation demanded an alternative.

Cincinnati is home to the first and foremost care center devoted specifically to patients with Alzheimer's and dementia. Alois Alzheimer Center is located in the northwestern outskirts in the village of Greenhills. It was there that Dorothy spent her final months of life, with the best care that money (and a well-prepared trust fund) could buy. The firstborn was there to see her in October of last year. He found his own mother, a shadow of her former self, her mind nearly gone.

It was the saddest day of his life.

The end of that month was occasion for another rallying of the family. A call received in Washington told the firstborn that Dorothy had "hours, not days" to live. Within 36 hours he was there. Family members took turns keeping vigil. Sunday morning found Stephen keeping watch and praying the rosary, as Dorothy, laying peacefully, was summoned to her Final Journey. Her firstborn received the news by text message shortly before noon, while assisting at Mass. He left immediately to join the others. As their mother was carried away to be prepared for burial, the firstborn accompanied them, praying the 129th Psalm:

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
    From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;

Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
    Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive

in vocem deprecationis meæ.
    to the voice of my supplication.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
    If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?

Quia apud te propitiatio est ...
    For with you is forgiveness ...

The following Saturday, she was laid to rest alongside her husband.

+    +    +

I remember grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell's tomato soup. There was praying before bedtime, with Mom leading the Litany of Loretto every night in May, and the Rosary every night in October.

Then we would sleep in beds covered by knotted quilts.

The author in uniform at the age of 4 1/2, Summer 1959.

I remember the sailor suits Mom made for us, the costume she made for me to play the part of John the Beloved for the Passion Play in the fourth grade. She sent me to the farm one summer, when I was six and a half, to count tax stamps from cigar boxes to redeem for funds for the missions. It was the most boring summer of my entire life, but a few years later, I too learned to drive a tractor before I was twelve. I remember her getting up with me before dawn to deliver the morning paper when I was ten. I only lasted a year and a half with that job. Without her it would have barely been a year.

When I entered art school in 1973, I needed a portfolio case to hold my drawing board, art pad, and tee-square. Buying one in the store was an expensive proposition. Having inherited her father's penchant for invention, she made one. Fashioning a balsa wood frame and pasteboard from an older project, she covered it with naugahyde, also used to create both the top and bottom-for-under-the-shoulder handles. She added brass hinges and clasps, and naugahyde slots to hold the tee-square. The result was so professionally done that several of my classmates wanted to pay her to make them one. But she wasn't interested in mass production. That case lasted through five years of school, and I still have it today, still in workable condition.

I inherited her genius for math, with a little help for good measure. While the "New Math" became popular in the early 1960s, Mom taught me a shortcut to the elaborate "long division" with what amounted to "short division." I used the latter for most of my life.

Mother and Caregiver, May 2015.

When one or another marriage in the family was on the rocks, Mom was the rock of stability for the children who could only watch the drama beyond their understanding. And when she left us, it was all eight of "Grandma's boys" who carried her to her place of rest.

Mom was a woman of many gifts. Sentimentality was not one of them. Even then she could surprise me. I graduated from college in August of 1978, and arrived at my aunt's house for the festivities. Mom greeted me with a hug and a kiss. That hadn't happened since ... probably since I was an infant.

I was the only one of the four to leave Cincinnati. She dreaded the very thought of it. I'd surely be helpless, incapable of wiping my own nose. But I managed, if sometimes more than others. She would get a phone call some nights from a young man who had imbibed entirely too much, channeling his inner Willie Nelson, singing his drunken man's lament:

Well I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread it
'Cause I know just what I'm gonna do
I'll start to spend my money callin' everybody honey
And wind up singin' the blues
I'll spend my whole paycheck on some old wreck
And brother I can name you a few
Well I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread it
'Cause I know just what I'm gonna do.

She thought I was nuts. She was probably right. Fortunately, things were eventually looking up. She noticed that in her final years, and seemed to miss me even more.

Most important, our mother taught us the redemptive value of suffering. You never know how much you need God, until you uncover the veil of delusion, and realize that all is not well. No one needed God more than our mother, and one might daresay that no one ever counted on him more. Cheating death (if only for a while), cheating the odds, she prevailed. Even the son who took the longest to be delivered in the beginning (as firstborns often are), knew that she would wait for him again at the end.

And so it was.

+    +    +

Today, I sew my own patches and awards on my Scout uniform, almost as well as she would have, but better than the average soccer mom. I also hem my own pants, if only when I have to.

One night I arrived early at a party in Baltimore with the prospect of rain causing a delay. I was met by a hostess who conceded to not being ready, and whose new jeans needed hemming. I offered to do it for her while she went about other preparations. When the job was done, she was suitably impressed. That was the highlight of the evening. The rest of the party was a downer. (The only thing worse than a room full of drunks, is a room full of old drunks.)

In memory of Dorothy and Paul Alexander, an unnamed donor has furnished new hymnals for Saint Andrew Church, Milford, Ohio. The memorial bookplates are dated for what would have been their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary.

I didn't have the role of caregiver that the others did. Mary is a geriatric nurse, and accompanied Mom to most medical appointments. Stephen has been the administrator of our parents' affairs, including the disposition of our inheritance. Patricia recovered from a rare form of cancer, and passed on returning to a lucrative career, answering the call as Mom and Dad's primary caregiver.

As for me, I was Master of Ceremonies for both funerals. At least it was one thing I was good at.

We tend to see each other about once a year, usually when I'm in town. Our children join us. Sometimes even Paul flies into town, all the way from Seattle, and is reunited with his cousins, as though nothing ever changed.

But a lot has changed. They say that it's always harder when the mother leaves. They also say that when the last of the previous generation passes on, those who remain are one step closer to the grave. In the months that have followed, everyone's grief has passed, and we have moved on with our lives. Or at least it seems that way. I am not as sure of myself. Mom was what every good mother is meant to be, the glue that holds the family together. If tradition is any convention, a father may rule a house, but a mother makes it a home.

My only home now, is elsewhere.

But until that "great and terrible day," I'm going to the diner down the street for lunch. I believe I will have grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Hold the pickle.

+    +    +

* She later claimed that angels carried her up the stairs. We can only take this on faith, as there was no one there to prove otherwise.