What if I told you that I knew a woman who was widowed in her early 30’s, only to remarry and take care of a man with failing health for several years before he eventually died? Then afterwards, this same woman suffered the indignity of a progressive memory loss that resulted in living in a health care facility during her final years. You might assume it was a life of tragedy and hardship. But not so. The life that was lived before and in between the events described, tells the real story. The Greek philosopher Socrates once stated that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. But this story is about the life of my late stepmother Blanche Meyer, who lived a life well examined. Since I’m offering this remembrance, the reflections will be from my own perspectives, which are merely a small segment of all that could be said.
The saga begins as we peer down the corridors of time more than a half-century. It is late summer 1972. My parents had recently separated, and I went with my father for several days on vacation to our family cottage. An aunt and uncle were also there during that time. One day we were visited by a family with a woman who had five children. She was introduced as a relative of my uncle and had recently been widowed. She was staying at a campsite in a trailer about a mile away. The camping concept piqued my father’s interest, and she invited us to visit them for a tour the next day. It was a fascinating visit, but what stuck in my mind most is that she had a daughter my age that looked like a teen model, with blond hair as long as Rapunzel.
Fast forward to March of 1973. My father comes to pick me up most weekends for activities. One Saturday, he dropped me off at home and said, “Next week we are going to Milwaukee with some friends.” He picked me up Saturday morning and we drove several miles to a home in a semi-rural setting. My father mentioned that we were traveling with a woman and her eldest son. It turned out to be the nice lady from the campground tour.
That began a series of events where we did things with Blanche and her children, who were in a few months to become my stepfamily. What I liked was that there were other kids around and plenty of activities. One of the things that struck me from the beginning was how many different people we met that were relatives of Blanche. But it only makes sense that when you are widowed at a young age with children, you will rely heavily on your extended family for support and fellowship. My initial impression was that Blanche was a strong, adventurous, and fun-loving person.
About two weeks before Memorial Day in 1973, we got together for my first campground setting. About a week later, Blanche picked me up after school to purchase a sleeping bag. She said to me, “It looks like you will be doing a lot of camping with us this summer, so you will need this.” That gave me a warm fuzzy feeling few people will understand. In my neighborhood, my cousins lived down the street. My best friend lived in between. Both families had cottages where they went on vacation during the summer. The neighborhood got very lonely then. Now I would have something to look forward to as well. I often did the paper route for my friend when he was away. It was great to earn extra money, but in those days, all but the Sunday paper was delivered in the afternoon. You couldn’t just deliver your papers and leave for the day. That was a fun summer, looking forward to traveling to various locations on the weekend. I remember coming home early Sunday evening with tears in my eyes thinking, “It’s back to another week in the salt mine.”
I have to interrupt the timeline to make an important observation about Blanche’s faith. Undoubtedly, Blanche’s experience with the illness of her first husband Eugene brought her closer to God. Frequently, she quoted a ministry worker who told her during that time, “Many people have heard about Christ, but few have met him.” Blanche often emphasized the importance of faith. She was concerned not only that children attended services, but that they were enthusiastic about and lived their faith in everyday life experiences. She attempted to influence neighborhood children in a positive way. Once she distributed modern translations of the New Testament to several youths, me included.
My Father and Blanche married on August 1, 1973. As time went on, I continued to do things with the family on weekends, and was introduced to many new experiences, such as snowmobiling for the first time.
In the fall of 1974, things began to deteriorate badly in the household I lived with my mother. Her worsening mental health made taking care of me and offering proper supervision an impossibility. I was now in high school. On Dec.9, 1974, an announcement was made for me to come to the school office. Several classmates smirked, assuming I was in some trouble. But I knew this was a far more concerning affair. As I suspected, my father and Blanche were there waiting for me. They told me they had visited their attorney that morning seeking a change of parental custody so I could live with them. Their attorney told them it was doable, but that unless I consented to the change, it would be a nightmare. I was anxious about a change but knew in my heart it was the right move. Both of them seemed so sincere and concerned.
That evening three friends showed up at my back door while I was eating corn flakes in the kitchen. I had met these guys at the local YMCA the winter before but hadn’t seen them much since summer. I told them I would be moving soon, so we better do some things together. About a week later, an incident occurred that accelerated the move, proving the proper decision had been made. I was with one of the guys mentioned above and after playing basketball we decided to stop at a local fast-food place. I stopped home to get some money. When I returned, every light in the house was on, but my mother was nowhere to be found. I started watching television, and about a half-hour later, a cop knocked on the door looking for my older brother. It turned out that my mother had gotten in some altercation, and when brought before a judge, she was committed for mental health treatment. I told my father about this, and Christmas Eve Day was quickly changed from a visitation day to an impromptu move. So, on the very day Bart Starr accepted the coaching position for the Green Bay Packers, asking for prayers and patience. I also needed prayers and patience.
So here I was, new school and a member of the household where I visited for the first time less than two years before. We probably experienced all the challenges of a blended family, but the structure I gained began to shape the habits and attitudes that would assist me a few years later in adulthood. Before the end of the year, we had moved again. The family was getting older, and we needed more space. I didn’t like the idea of moving again, but I flourished in that environment. The stability it presented laid the foundation for the future. Entering my final year of school, the idea of joining the military became a pursuit and a solution. I had the opportunity to quickly gain independence and Blanche and the rest of the family could return to the family situation they had before I arrived.
In 1980, I was discharged from the military. While I was gone there were marriages and the extended family began to grow. We celebrated our first Christmas together in four years, but tragedy struck only days later. My youngest stepbrother Paul, only 13 at the time, perished in a freak ice-fishing mishap. Again, Blanche faced this misfortune with grace and dignity. My father retired only two years later, and with an empty nest, they embarked on many fishing trips, traveling the country. They also had a trailer at a campground in northern Wisconsin they enjoyed.
In 2009, my wife and I lost our recently remodeled home to a fire. I called Blanche on the afternoon it happened, and without hesitation she invited us to stay with her and my father until we could find other living arrangements. This was not an easy choice for her, given that my father was becoming quite ill at the time.
As he aged, my father struggled with COPD. If Blanche were not there, or if it had been anyone else taking care of him, he would likely have spent his final years in a nursing home. I did an interview on the topic of “grieving” with a local Christian radio station in 2013, just after my father passed. I pointed out that Blanche was the epitome of the traditional marriage vows, particularly the phrase “in sickness and in health.” I pointed out that people of our generation and younger could profit from her example of self-sacrifice and dedication. So many of us view marriage as an institution that is only worthwhile if it embodies self-fulfillment.
Blanche is the model of a life well examined and well lived. No doubt when she passed, the first thing she heard was, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” May she now rest in peace.© Robert Meyer
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