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My Mother Before I Knew Her

I knew her as Martha, my mother. Martha was skillful and competent. She could build a ship in a bottle, make a model airplane with her grandson, draw a map of Pelican Lake to scale and mount it on the wall, fix the pipes underneath the sink, pull in a dozen walleye, change a flat tire, feed a throng and teach North Dakota history.

Martha created a visual family tree with photos going back to the late 1800s with amazing accuracy, well before was there to confirm the dates and places. She welcomed everyone to her table at the lake, fed them coffee and bars and Sunday dinner, encouraged endless games of cards, bested nearly everyone in Gin Rummy, drove relatives to hospitals, church and nursing homes, and went all out for the grand children at Christmas. Family was the center of her life.

She was the matriarch. She presided over her precious inheritance, Laf-a-Lot — the cabin her father built on Pelican Lake, for decades. She slept on a bed on the porch her entire adult life and was almost killed by a huge oak tree that fell onto the roof over her bed during a violent thunder storm. Until her mid-80’s she opened the cabin in the spring, cleaning out the mouse droppings that were everywhere, and closed it up in the fall. She was stability, strength, and a solid presence in the lives of many on the beach and in her extended family.

Like so many people of her generation, Martha didn’t talk about her feelings. Hugging also did not come easy for her. Having lost Jim — the love of her life and the father of her four children — in the last days of World War II, her way forward was through grit and determination. Martha was at the lake with her four children when a car bearing Uncle Fred and a representative of the military pulled into the driveway in July 1944. They informed her that Jim had been killed the prior month in France. As the story goes, she asked others to look after the children and walked away to take in the news and reckon with her new reality. Later she returned to the cabin and the family, and she rarely spoke about her grief again. That was a heavy burden to carry.

She married John, my father and Jim’s brother in 1947, and John adopted her four children. They loved each other, but it must have been a complicated relationship because at best, he was always second in her heart. John cared for her and the children deeply, while also struggling with this loss of his two brothers, Jim and Phil, in the war and both his parents soon after the war. In the early years, John and Martha had a lot of financial challenges. They both struggled with alcohol, not uncommon for the World War II generation, so our home life was unpredictable and confusing, despite the many gifts, comfort, and support we children received.

The author's mother as a young woman. Image by Courtesy of Pam Costain, © All Rights Reserved.

Before she was Martha — mother, grandmother, wife to John, sister-in-law, aunt, teacher and matriarch — she was Moxie, Jim’s young wife, lover and dearest friend. Jim gave her the nickname Moxie when they were first dating. He was smitten with her gaiety and fun, her good looks, her self confidence, and her sense of adventure. They went swimming in quarries, shot pheasants and ducks, drove around in a car, and later rode and jumped horses. It was a romantic courtship between a small-town school teacher and a West Point cadet back in their home town of Moorhead.

In the spring of 1934 when Moxie was teaching in Mayville, N.D., and Jim was a final-year cadet at the Military Academy, he sent a telegram to her at school. It was delivered to her classroom while her students were taking a test. It read:

“Moxie (stop) I love you. (stop) I can’t wait any longer. (stop) Will you marry me? (stop)”

They were married the following June.

The love affair between Jim and Moxie burned bright, fueled by their youthfulness, the intensity of the war, long absences during Jim’s deployments in the Pacific and Europe and their delight in one another and their children. It seems that every leave produced another child — Pat, Peggy, Phil, and Paula. They loved being together, adored their children, and looked forward to life after the war. That life was not meant to be.

My mother was Moxie for only a decade, but I wish I had known her then. Her happiness and sense of possibility must have been magnetic. Despite the war and all the absences and hardships she endured, those were her golden years.

I wish I had known Moxie. I am grateful to have known Martha, my mom.

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