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In Memoriam: Nettie Frank, 1922-2011

by on July 15, 2011 5:55 AM

My mother had a saying for every occasion. "Something good comes out of everything bad" was a favorite.

Mom died last week at the age of 89, three months shy of her and my dad's 70th anniversary. Yeah, it would have been very cool to see the two of them celebrate seven decades of marriage.

The good? The family heard of her death last Friday afternoon. By Saturday night, all the kids and grandkids had flown into Dallas from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and State College to celebrate her life.

My dad said it was a shame that it took a sad occasion to bring us all together, but I disagreed. The important thing is that when an important occasion arises, be it a birth, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary or now, a death, everyone drops what they're doing and shows up. My mother's death was a reminder that this was the kind of family she and my father created.

I got the news while visiting Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Calif. The house that London built on the site bears this legend: "My house will be standing, Act of God permitting, for a thousand years."

God acted before London ever moved in. The house burned to the ground. I was visiting the ruins and had just read London's boast when my cell phone rang.

It was the second call from my sister that day. The first was a heads-up: Mom had stopped eating and drinking. It might be a matter of days. If I came I would be shocked by how she looked, and she might not be conscious of my presence. My sister thought I should come only if I would regret not coming.

I leaned toward remembering the mom who gave me my after-school snack and asked me about my day. That simple invitation to tell stories turns a child into Odysseus, regaling his hosts with tales of his adventures in exchange for food and drink.

When the second call came, the decision was moot. There was only remembering.

That afternoon, after making my travel arrangements, I took a bath and drifted back to the baths my mother gave me when I was a child. Eyes closed, I saw the blue, green, red and yellow birds that she conjured for me as she washed my hair. Outside, I heard mourning doves.

Later, I recalled the last time I went shopping with her. It was just before I moved from California to Philadelphia to go to grad school, so I must have been 28. I have no idea why I was buying shoes with my mother at that age or why she was just as capable of embarrassing me then as she had been when I was 14.

To the shoe salesman, I'm sure I was little more than a size 11 and a possible commission, but my mom thought he needed to know that I was getting a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

That was Mom: gregarious, proud of her family and stubborn in her belief that we Franks were not like other people. We were special. I believed it until I hit my teens, when I felt compelled to point out to my mother that we were exactly like all the other middle-class families in our neighborhood.

It wasn't true, though, at least in my mother's case. She fit the image of the farm wife better than she fit the image of the suburban housewife. She was forever making clothes, refinishing furniture and repairing broken pottery. She was never without a project. She had to accomplish something every day. So do my two sisters and I, thanks to her.

When I left for college, she and my dad became foster parents at a group home for kids whose own parents were a danger to them. When I graduated from college, she and my dad sold off most of their possessions, loaded the rest into a Chevy wagon and drove out to California, planning to get jobs and find a place to live when they got there.

That's pretty spunky.

If my mother's doctors had known how spunky she was, they might not have predicted she'd be gone in three to six months when they found her tumors. She beat the prognosis by a year. I wondered if she was determined to make it to that 70th wedding anniversary, maybe even her 90th birthday.

She fell short, which is probably just as well. There had been a lot of discomfort and confusion over the past 18 months. And my dad, watching over her, suffered as much as my mom did. Now he trades the burden of her care for the burden of loneliness, a feeling he hasn't known since he was in the Army in World War II.

Back then, he told us, she was his beautiful bride. And that's how he saw her when she breathed her last breath.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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