This is the third Birthday Season without the guest of honor. Wife Lila sent me an email today that said, “Read your Mom’s obit post from 06-2015 this morning. Felt like I needed to. It was good then, and is even better now.”
I confessed that I had let Mother’s October 17 birthday sneak up on me, and I hadn’t done an update. Her reply rocked me: “Someday there will be a point when you won’t remember to update. Not sure if it is something to look forward to or not.”
I’m pretty sure I won’t let that happen. I still remember what happened when I moved away from home to go to school in Ohio and forgot Mother’s Day.
This photo was taken when Brothers Mark and David came down to help “declutter” the house preparing it for sale. Little did we know that I’d end up buying the house myself in June two years later. (More about that later.)
When I pulled into 1618 Kingsway Drive late April 18 after a marathon month on the road that took me from Missouri to Ohio to Florida to Ohio, then back to Missouri, the first thing I noticed was a single red rose on the bush around the yard on the front yard.
The next morning, the bush was covered in blooms. Even though we had several days of torrential rain over the past few weeks, there were quite a few blooms ready for me to make the Mother’s Day rounds.
I don’t like plastic flowers
I’d rather leave some ratty real blossoms cut from the front yard instead of plastic plants made out of dead dinosaurs. The latter might last longer, but they are impersonal. The first stop was Wife Lila’s mother’s grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery off Perry Avenue.
My brothers and I usually mark Mother and Dad’s graves with things we pick up on the road, or things from the house. I’ve left tiles from the ruins of a building in Cairo, a railroad spike from Wittenberg and a coin smashed flat by a train car. David and Mark have buried tiny shoes from Mother’s shoe collection and Christmas ornaments.
Mother was an unusual lady, so we think she’d appreciate our quirky leavings.
“Who will decorate the graves?”
I spent many hours with Mother driving all over Cape and Stoddard counties visiting tiny cemeteries that contained the final resting places of her friends and family. This is my grandparents’ grave in Advance. You can click on the photos to make them larger.
I don’t know how many times I heard her ask, “Who will put flowers on the graves after I’m gone?”
Bear with me while I get around to my real topic. When I started kindergarten, we stopped moving from job site to job site in a small trailer and settled down in a rental house at 2531 Bloomfield Road. I could look out my bedroom window to watch the traffic on Hwy 61 in the distance.
One morning around 2 o’clock, when I was six or seven years old, I woke my parents with a strange pronouncement: “I just realized that I will never see those cars and trucks again.” What I meant was that the world was fluid, and the folks who were flying down the highway would never appear in that configuration ever again. I can clearly remember saying that, but I’ve managed to suppress their reactions.
That’s the moment when I think I became a photographer, even though it was half a dozen or more years before I would actually pick up a camera.
You see, while other kids were dreaming of time machines that would let them go forwards or backwards in time, what I really wanted was something that would freeze time and never let it get away.
The “see you later” picture
I’m not exactly sure when I started taking a photo every time I left Cape. Maybe it was when I realized that Mother and I lived 1,110 miles apart, and she was getting to the age where every goodbye might be the last one. Maybe that’s why always said, “See you later,” rather than “Goodbye.”
Most of those photos were taken in the living room, or outside in front of the living room window, or at Kentucky Lake. Most recently, I started posing Mother with family, friends and road warriorettes under the flag at the side of the house. The light was good there, and the colors vibrant.
Even though we were usually smiling, the ritual had its bittersweet moments. I learned early on that once I had climbed in the car, I had to pull out of the driveway, give two toots on the horn and disappear. If I needed to fiddle with anything in the car, I did it out of sight of the house. Those smiles were fragile.
I was afraid this might be the last picture
Mother had 92 good years, but she started slowing down in the fall of 2014. She was using the clothes dryer instead of the clothesline; she would still hop in the car to ramble, but she usually wouldn’t get out. By the spring of 2015, she had gotten to the point she couldn’t walk by herself and she would fold up in a C-shape and roll out of the chair if you weren’t watching her.
I had to go to Ohio to set up a major photo exhibit, so Brothers David and Mark came to Cape to spell me.
There was no way she would make it outside for the traditional flag photo, so I brought the flag inside. I spent about 10 days in Ohio waiting for The Phone Call, but it didn’t come. Mark, David and Mother came to the conclusion that she needed more help than we could give her, so she agreed to go into the Lutheran Home to build up her strength so she could come home, even if she needed assistance.
Couldn’t make it to the wedding
After a few low spells, she seemed to rally. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to make it all the way out to Tulsa for Granddaughter Amy’s wedding on June 20 – “I have to save my strength to be able to go home” – but she WAS able to speak with the new bride and groom via Facetime right after the ceremony.
One good thing about having the wedding was that my two sons and their families stopped by Cape on the way to Tulsa and had good visits. She perked up and told them stories that even I hadn’t heard. In the four-generation picture above, she has the dress she had worn to two weddings, had planned to wear in Tulsa, and had asked to be buried in.
I didn’t take a last picture
I checked in with Mother, did some prep work for the coming Dutchtown flood, and blasted out of town on Saturday June 20 to make it to the Tulsa wedding. Mother was in good spirits and seemed satisfied that I’d be back in a day or two. For the first time in probably a decade, I didn’t take that waving goodbye photo.
I had car trouble, so I called Mother Sunday night to tell her I’d be a day late getting back to Cape. Her voice was strong, and she didn’t seem concerned.
Monday morning, at 7:10, I got The Call from the nursing home that Mother was found dead when they went in to get her for breakfast.
As close as I can figure out, this is one of the last, if not THE last picture I had of Mother. She’s holding her new great-grandson Finn, and they are both enjoying it. THAT’S the image I want to hold onto.
Mark sent me a letter “not to be opened until June 23.” He closed it this way:
As I find myself at the bottom of this page, I couldn’t decide which to end it with, so you get both. Put it into context if you will. (Enclosed was a photo Mother sitting in his kitchen.)
“My memory loves you. It asks about you all the time.”
“Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks.”
Stories about Mother
I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a Missourian obit that told all of the stories I had collected about this remarkable woman, so I complied them into one big blog post, followed by an account of her funeral.
Son Matt was only two years old when Dad, L.V. Steinhoff, died in 1977, so he really only knows him from photos. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)
Grandson Malcolm, son of Matt and Sarah, is 11. He’s a voracious reader, a soccer player and a serious geek with a wicked sense of humor. He’s coming to spend a few days with me in Cape next week while Wife Lila is attending her Class of 1966’s 50th reunion.
I hope I can give him some Swampeast Missouri memories to take back with him.
Graham, Elliot and Finn
Son Adam and Wife Carly produced three rambunctious, adventurous and terminally cute boys, Graham, Elliot and Finn.
One of Adam’s Facebook friends, Laurel Cherwin, created a collection of photos of the family, along with this copy:
I Honor Adam Steinhoff : a man who loves his boys! He passionately embraces Fatherhood as an exciting adventure and fills his boys lives with love, pure joy, exploration, thrill seeking activities, encourages creativity, expression and silliness! I Love you Adam & So proud of the father and man you have become.
I can’t say it any better than she did.
A quick thought on Father’s Day
Brothers David and Mark and I were blessed to be raised by two great parents who nurtured us, guided us and made us who we are today.
I’m proud of the way my boys have turned out. That’s the best Father’s Day gift anyone can have.
(That’s my grandmother, Elsie Welch, on the couch in this photo from 1963. I’m the guy in the mirror taking the picture.)