Every year thousands of guests and visitors cross the bridge to Marco Island and fall in love with the island’s small town charm, intricate canal system, and beautiful beaches. Many return to vacation each year, while others decide to stay or return and make it their home. For some it is a predetermined path to paradise, while for others it is an unexpected random route. For some it is a new beginning of their youthful lives, but for others it is a retirement sanctuary to enjoy their well deserved leisure years. The story I am about to tell is one that typifies the pioneer spirit that enabled a 73-year-old widow to cross the Jolley Bridge and never look back.
Like many fellow Americans, my wife Debbie and I recently celebrated two of our favorite holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I think of the former holiday, a time set aside to remember our heritage and celebrate all that we have to be thankful for, I think of how fortunate I am to have been born in America and to have had loving parents who provided invaluable guidance and an abundance of pleasant childhood memories. When I think of my childhood, I am reminded of their greatest gift of all, their example of giving without reservation or expectation of reward. I realize how fortunate I was to have had selfless parents who taught me that true joy is in giving rather than in receiving.
Like many of my aging peers, I am now a parentless son who, during the holiday season, reflects on these memories of days past with mixed emotions. I experience sorrow for the loss of my mentors and loved ones, but I also have joy in my heart for the time we spent together. I have written often of my father, but not of my mother, Stefanie, an extraordinarily normal stay-at-home mom who, like many of her peers from the ‘Toughest Generation,’ courageously endured countless hardships on her life’s journey, a voyage that led her to Marco Island, her final destination.
In the 1950’s, television was in its infancy and selection was limited. One of the most popular series of the era was ‘I Remember Mama,’ a show depicting a loving family and the reverence shown toward their family matriarch. Mama was the glue that held them together, the one all looked to for guidance and help. I wasn’t a real fan of the show, because it left me with mixed emotions, especially when viewing an episode with Mom. As a child, it was inconceivable for me to think of my mother, whom I perceived as invincible and immortal, in the past tense. Unlike today, when over fifty percent of the working force consists of women, most mothers of the 50’s era were home moms and they ruled our world when our dads were at work. They were our teachers and counselors, our worthy adversaries and friends. They were our inspiring proponents and our greatest critics and disciplinarians. They inspired perfection and discouraged complacency. And, they didn’t hesitate to tell us the truths we often didn’t want to hear.
As a child, I actually believed mothers were inherently clairvoyant, for Mom seemed to possess skills that my father lacked. She seemed to know me better than I knew myself. She sensed what I was thinking as I processed my thoughts. She knew what I was about to say before I spoke. And, she fully anticipated my actions before I acted.
Mom was cordial and personable to guests and friends although she would occasionally balk if she deemed a girlfriend unsuitable. For the most part, she was a great judge of character and was usually correct in her assessments. There were times she rattled my nerves, because she appeared obsessive when it came to home maintenance and personal hygiene but, what I failed to realize at the time, was that I admired these qualities and would eventually seek, find, and revere these very traits in a wife. Therewere days Mom left me totally dumbfounded because, although normally consistent and steadfast, she was somewhat of a free spirit and at times, could be impulsive and far too complex to understand. I guess that too, prepared me for marriage.
Born in Mystic, Connecticut in 1917, Stefanie was the third youngest of six siblings whose parents had emigrated from mainland Greece. Christened Strumbula Gianitsas, the family quickly shortened Mom’s name to Stephanie just as they had abbreviated their surname to Johnson, a politically correct practice of the time. Mom later changed the spelling to Stefanie, a quirky modification she preferred. She and her sisters worked long hours in their father’s restaurant only to see the majority of their inheritance passed on to the only son, a common practice in a traditional Greek family at the time. Stefanie was able to benefit from the experience as she did with most adversity. She became independent and outspoken and, although she never considered herself a feminist, she continually championed an equal voice for women in the home, the workplace, in college, and in politics. She would become an extraordinary cook and baker because of the culinary skills she acquired from her days at her father’s restaurant that specialized in Mediterranean and American cuisine.
Stefanie left home at the age of 16 to seek independence. She loved and respected her Greek heritage, but yearned to become an Americanized, modern woman. Independent life would not come without consequence because she would mature much faster than she expected. At the age of seventeen, she survived the first of two harrowing experiences that nearly cost her life. While swimming alone at Riverside Park in New London, Connecticut, Stefanie developed severe leg cramps and struggled for over twenty minutes to make it to shore. She again faced death at the age of 21, when the “Hurricane of 1938” unexpectedly slammed into the Connecticut coastline downing electric lines and igniting a massive fire which consumed most of the area where she lived. She was forced to vacate her small apartment and head to her parents’ home five miles inland. Stefanie was just a few steps behind a young mother of similar age who attempted to shelter her baby from the blistering winds and fiery cinders when the unthinkable happened. A strong gust whisked the infant from her mother’s arms and swept her away. Stefanie and another woman helped the shaken mother to shelter, but the ordeal abruptly stripped Mom of the innocence of youth.
Once again, Stefanie would benefit from the tragic experience she witnessed. She became far more grounded, much more appreciative of family, and far more aware of the brevity and preciousness of life which would guide her toward marriage and raising a family. When the time to marry did come her selection would surprise her sisters and shock her father.
Slender with olive skin, waste-length, straight brunette hair, Stefanie could not have differed more in appearance from the muscular framed, fair skinned, wavy blond haired and blue eyed man she eventually chose to marry. It was not an easy union for her and LeRoy, one of seven children from a traditional Down East Yankee family. She had broken tradition and married outside her faith, and neither partner was readily accepted by the surviving ‘family monarch.’
It was not the best of times to start a family, because the world was in the grips of the “Great Depression” and America was about to engage in the worst war of modern times, “WWII.” When their children were born, the couple faced an entire set of new challenges. Their daughter, Christina, was left mentally challenged in early childhood from a severe case of whooping cough, and their son, a sickly two pound “preemie,” spent the better part of his first year of life in a hospital incubator. The couple never lost faith or drifted apart even though they would endure years of hardship and a decade of exorbitant medical expenditures.
As with most middle-class families of the era, discretionary moneywas non-existent. The Great Depression and World War II had affected every American family. Everyone, including my family, gladly sacrificed whatever was asked in order to support the war effort. My parents found happiness in the simple things that make life enjoyable. The family spent evenings in the kitchen discussing events of the day and Saturdays hosting neighborhood picnics, taking day trips to the mountains, or visiting the local beach or campground. Sunday was always set aside for family dinners with my mother’s sisters and nieces.
Mom was a caring, giving person who thoroughly enjoyed pleasing others. She never hesitated to help a stranger in need or a friend who asked for assistance. She filled in for Dad if he was too ill to park cars at the parking lot he managed, regardless of the time or weather. She would occasionally supplement Dad’s income, baking pies for several of our town’s upscale restaurants and worked at the local “Bess Eaton’s” franchise. Most of all, Mom loved to cook and bake for her family, friends and our church’s annual bazaar.
She was not one to fret about uncertainty when opening her home to others. When a half dozen of my classmates from New York showed up on our doorstep unexpectedly, without hesitation, she put them up for the weekend. When my girlfriend was snowed-in for three days during the blizzard of ‘78’ she was given free rein of our home.
Although Mom’s dream was to own her own home, this would not happen until her mid fifties because her first priority was providing the best possible education for her children. My parents spent over 60% of the family income educating their kids and spent the next 25 years residing in a 750 square foot rental apartment in New London. When Mom did build her dream home, it would stand as a testament to the non-conforming, free spirited pioneer and modern woman she continually sought to be.
In the summer of 1969, the family made a collective decision to design and build a home, a choice that most would have considered impractical and contrary to my parents’ best interest since Dad had lost his job, had no savings, been diagnosed with emphysema, and had recently taken a low paying position as a night watchman at a local college. But all of us agreed that life was short and should be enjoyed, and the best way to do so was by fulfilling the family’s dream of home ownership.
Mom and Dad cashed in their life insurance for a down payment, and, after being turned down several times for a mortgage, the family secured financing and started construction, doing much of the cosmetic work and most of the landscaping ourselves. When the house was completed, it was a testament to the determination and resilience of one family and the importance of family cohesiveness which we learned from our parents. With limited resources we had managed to design and construct a 3,000 sq. foot contemporary glass-front home with a great room that allowed Mom’s kitchen to be the focal point of family gatherings and conversation. The house boasted a solar heated indoor pool for exercise, and a mini disco-bar for entertaining. Although Dad would live to enjoy the home for only a decade, he did get to realize his American dream.
Dad’s illness and death took its toll on Mom who had helped him around the house and had carried his oxygen equipment when they occasionally ventured out. But it never changed her generous ways. Dad suffered a stroke at Easter time and was hospitalized for six weeks before passing, but Mom still managed to bake for the church and prepare pastries and Easter baskets for her family and friends. When Dad passed May 16, 1979, Stefanie suffered a mild heart attack the following day for she couldn’t imagine a life without her Roy. Life did continue and Mom survived dad by 15 years. Her life, however, was not the same because she never forgot herpassion for her life partner and never sought the companionship of another man.
In 1989, upon the urging of our family, who felt the upkeep on her home was taking its toll on our aging mother, Stefanie and the family decided to launch another joint venture and build a home on Marco Island which was intended to be the family’s winter residence. Plans for a smaller, summer home on a lakefront parcel in Michigan were also on the drawing board. When the house was completed in July of 1990, the family traveled to Florida to inspect the home and purchase the furnishings, but intended to return to Connecticut to reside another year. Stefanie packed her favorite pillow and jokingly said she was going to stay. We knew better for she had no car, no friends, and little money. However, when it came time to fly home, she did indeed remain, a decision no one expected. Sadly, as with her first house, this one too, would not be a home without illness and tragedy. Six months after moving to Marco Island, Mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Mom was an idealist and a selfless, extremely spiritual woman who never wavered in her faith or her belief in her family and fellow ‘man,’ as attested by her calmness in major crises. When diagnosed with lymphoma, she turned to her teary eyed family and told us not to feel sorry for her, that she had lived a good life and that she intended to be around a little longer. When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1993, we watched from an Orlando hotel room as the weatherman stood on the end of our street and told the world “these homes may not be here when the owners return.” Stefanie quietly reassured us that our home would be OK. When a snake got into our home with a window blind delivery, it was she who remained calm as the snake coiled beneath her feet. She reached to strike it with a bar used to secure our sliding door!
Mom was also a pragmatist with a practical way of viewing and dealing with problems. “So life’s tough, get over it,” she would say during the times we needed to be strong. If we were overly concerned, she would tell us, “life’s short, don’t take it too seriously.” If she thought we weren’t making the most of an opportunity she would say, “you’re born, you live, and you die. We’re all here for only a short period of time, so make the most of it.” She followed her own philosophy. When she shattered her shoulder slipping on her bathroom floor, we were startled the next day to find a mop under her shoulder as she attempted to mop the kitchen floor.
The only trait that surpassed her sense of duty was her sense of humor. Mom knew when to add sorely needed levity to alleviate tension. When our 1949 black Ford was sideswiped by a reckless motorist as Dad was driving us to my aunts’ home for dinner, few would have found humor in the moment. But, not Mom, who was firmly holding a Boston cream pie in her lap at the time of impact. She inadvertently used it as a shield to avoid striking the windshield. After being assured no one was hurt, she wiped a finger full of cream from her pie covered face and asked Dad if he wanted a taste! When rooming with her family in Newport, Vermont, her wit did not fail her when we were forced to vacate the room in a snow storm when a gas line ruptured during a mild earthquake. Deb and I had just placed a quarter into our vibrating bed as the quake struck. While standing in the snow Mom turned and said to me, “that must have been quite a ride for a quarter.”
The comment that we most remember was one Stefanie made during the lowest point in our lives. Standing at her bedside trembling, asDeb and I waited to see if she would emerge from her coma during one of the last days of her life, Stefanie opened her eyes and immediately sensed the tension. Her humorous remark was the last ever made. “So how’s your sex life?” she asked jokingly. I guess that was the woman she wanted us to remember.
Ironically, Mom had somehow foreseen her final day. While dining at the Marriott Resort for what would be her final Thanksgiving in 1993, she suddenly went silent during a fluid conversation with Debbie. She asked if 1994 was a leap year. The family was taken by surprise and laughed for her behavior was uncharacteristic. We said we didn’t know, and the conversation continued. That Christmas we again dined at the Marriot, her favorite restaurant. Once again, in the middle of a humorous conversation, Stefanie went silent. For a second time she asked in a rather distant manner if 1994 was going to be a leap year. She again quickly changed her demeanor and joined us in laughter when we asked what difference it made. Stefanie passed away the last day of February, 1994.
Mom’s last day was surprisingly enlightening even though it was a most difficult day to endure. It was edifying because we were surprised to see the number of friends she had acquired in such a brief period of time who came to bid her a final farewell. It was the most difficult for the obvious reasons, but also because no one on the medical staff had told Mom of her prognosis before we brought her home with Hospice.
You see, only weeks before, I suffered a severe heart attack, and it was Stefanie at my bedside whom I asked for reassurance. “Of course you’re going to make it, my son,” was her reply. When the roles were reversed, it was Mom who sought reassurance when she asked the same question. It was the worst moment in my life for she squarely looked me in the eye and asked for the truth. “Three days they told me,” I replied. Her last response, “thanks, son, I love you.”
That afternoon the most remarkable woman I have ever known slipped from my life. Mom would always jokingly say “you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.” I don’t know if even she knew the void her passing would create, for the five foot, 103 pound, slight framed woman did indeed set a standard that those who knew and loved her would forever admire.
Gregarious, but reserved, idealistic, but practical, rational, but headstrong, conforming, but unconventional, Mom was the most humorous, selfless, generous, intuitive, creative and courageous woman I have ever met. I write of Stefanie, not because she was exceptionally different from other mothers, except to her family and friends, but because she depicts the very noble attributes that nearly all mothers possess, all that is necessary to be the glue that holds most families together.
She was an exemplary, but not unique representative of the millions of mothers who live a life we often consider mundane and frequently take for granted. The mothers who possess the qualities we both intentionally and inadvertently seek in a companion to share our life, a partner to enjoy the good times and weather the hardships, a woman to bear and help raise our children, a mate to help manage our home and govern our finances, and a person who often far exceeds what we seek within ourselves.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The glow of one warm thought is worth more than money.” We must never forget that we are indeed blessed, because the heartfelt memories we have of the woman who gave us life are precious and irreplaceable. Like those who preceded me and others who will follow, I now understand what my mother felt as I sat by her side in the 1950’s while we watched “I Remember Mama.” Like Stefanie, I reflect on our past together with a heavy heart, but an abundance of warm thoughts for I, too, “Remember Mama.”