I wrote the following early in the morning of September 30th.. 2000. It was a way of dealing with my grief, of paying tribute to my mother’s life. I sent copies to family members, not anticipating, but thrilled by outpouring of thoughts and memories shared by other family members, all wonderful testimonies to my mother’s life. My sisters and I put these together with some photographs, to share with the family. I called my essay
“LOVED MUSIC, LOVED TO DANCE”
On September 29, 2000, Viola Beckman Schmidt quietly died in a nursing home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was 83, and thus ended a long battle with Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease. My mother spent the last four years of her life at Luther Home, old and frail, a mere shadow of the person she used to be. I visited her twice at Luther Home; I don’t think she ever knew who I was. I prefer to remember my mother as she once was.
Viola Schmidt is survived by seven children, twenty-five grandchildren, twenty-four great-grandchildren and two great great grandchildren. Her husband and sisters and brothers have all gone before her.
Viola was eighth in a family of nine children in the Beckman family. As a young girl she was called Ola, a name she never liked. She began calling herself Vi.
My mother loved school, loved to learn. She chafed at being held back a grade by her mother, so that Viola and her younger sister Lorraine could share the same books. After 8th grade graduation, my mother had to leave school to go to work in a Jergens factory. She had to give her pay packet to her mother. I think mom resented her own mother’s preferential treatment to her sons, my mother’s brothers—but in the end, it was my mother who took care of her mother. She also helped nurse two of her sisters as they died of cancer.
My mother was seventeen years old when she married my father. Not until recently did I learn, through my cousin, Irene, how my father had met her father when they were young boys, and became best friends. They went on to take dancing lessons so they could “impress those pretty Beckman girls”. The two best friends married the two sisters.
As a little girl, I thought my parents were the strongest, most forceful people on earth. My mother was always a whirlwind of activity, washing clothes, cooking, baking (two huge loaves of bread, weekly, baked in a large roasting pan). Mom was constantly sewing or darning socks She made twin dresses for my sister Barbara and I – she made most of our clothing. My mother made the dress I wore to make my first Holy Communion, the dress I wore to my 8th grade graduation and the dress I wore on my high school graduation day. She made graduation dresses for Barbara and later on, for our younger sister, Susanne. (I think we took those homemade dresses for granted).
My mother was a beautiful woman, with dark curly hair and high cheekbones, who—despite WW2, rationing and hardships, always dressed stylishly. She wore starched housedresses that she made herself.
I have a picture in my mind, of my parents descending the stairs to the dining room on Sutter Street, dressed in their Sunday best as they went out to a party. Both my parents loved parties and they loved to bowl.
For years they bowled as many as three leagues a week. (When I was little, I thought my father bowled for someone named Mica, because he was always going to bowl “Formica”).
My mother loved music and played piano “by ear”. She couldn’t read a note of music but could sit down – and play. My favorite memory is my mother playing “Silver Bells” and “Glow Worm” on the piano, an upright that stood in our dining room on Sutter Street. She had a great collection of 78-rpm records, which I played whenever I was dusting furniture. Somehow Mom saw to it that we had music lessons. Barbara and Susie and I took piano; Jim played clarinet. (Did it ever occur to any of us that we were being given what she had been denied?)
When I was about eight years old, we children took it into our heads to put on a “show”. We charged a penny admission; my mother made popcorn and Kool Aid for us to sell. I remember her sitting on a hassock in the living room, teaching us the words to “Red River Valley”. Whenever I hear that song, I remember my mother, patiently teaching us the words.
My parents gave us a wonderful amount of freedom. They encouraged us to think for ourselves, to take care of ourselves and each other. Times were hard, during World War 2 and for some years after. You want something? Go out and earn the money for it! And so we did. I think I started selling greeting cards to the neighbors on Sutter Street when I was about seven years old. I wasn’t much older than that when my mother sent me by bus to the Cardinal Craftsman Greeting Card Company to pick up her card order. This required changing buses under the Western Hills Viaduct!
Around the same time, my mother began sending me downtown to pay a dollar a week on a coat she had in layaway at Lerner’s. I’d have a dollar to pay at Lerner’s, two nickels for bus fare, and—sometimes if I were very lucky—a few pennies to spend at one of the Dime Stores in downtown Cincinnati. I fell in love with “downtown” and began taking my younger brothers with me on annual pilgrimages, to do our Christmas shopping and visit the Nativity at Garfield Park. What enormous freedom we had!
I was a mere four year old, my brother Jim seven, Barbara eight, and Biff a 1-year old baby when my parents bought their first home on Sutter Street. They had spent the first 9 years of married life living with my father’s parents. Jim had the assignment of walking me (and our baby brother!) to the new home from my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue! Jim pulled a red wagon with the baby sitting inside. (at this time, Biff was the baby of the family)
My eight-year-old sister was responsible for her younger siblings. Later, I would become responsible for my two younger brothers. I don’t remember ever resenting this responsibility. It was just something we all did. My brother Jim was responsible for me when we began dating. (Little did I know! or I might have complained. But as far as I was concerned, we were just double-dating).
When I got married, my mother baked my wedding cake and threw together a reception on very short notice. A couple of years later, when I told her we were thinking of moving to California, she said, “If there’s something you want to do, do it now, while you can. Later on, you may not be able to do what you want”. It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that, perhaps, she was talking about herself when she said those words to me.
My mother loved music and loved to dance. After my father died in 1984, my brother Jim asked mom what she wanted to do. She replied, “I always wanted to dance”. And so, when she was in her 60s, my mother “took up dancing”. I think, despite my father’s death, this was a happy and satisfying period in my mother’s life. She loved to perform, to get up on a stage and “strut her stuff”. In another place and time, she might have been an actress or a dancer.
My parents made several trips to California, the first in 1965 when Scott and Susie were very young. What I remember most about this visit was our trip to Disneyland. My parents were tireless; they were determined to go on every single ride at Disneyland. While my husband and I rested on benches, they darted from attraction to attraction. It was also during this visit that my parents went to a television game show called “Truth or Consequences”, where my mother became a contestant and won $100.00. She was never shy about jumping up and down and making herself noticed! She wanted to be a star!
Another thing I particularly remember about my mother was our family Christmases. I think it is from my mother that I inherited a great love for Christmas. My mother always endeavored to make it perfect for all of us, surely not an easy task during hard times. I remember how, one year, all of my dolls disappeared before Christmas, and re-appeared Christmas Eve with brand new dresses. I remember my longing for a desk of my own, and receiving it on Christmas. I remember how, one year my mother was so sick and had been in the hospital – but she somehow came home to spend Christmas with us. The Christmas tree never went up until Christmas Eve, and none of us ever participated in decorating it. Not until many years later would I learn that the reason our tree didn’t go up until Christmas eve, was because my mother waited until the last minute to get one as cheap as possible. My mother was a child of the depression and was, if nothing else, very frugal! (Once, when they were here in California for Christmas and we were taking down our tree, my mother said “Sandy, aren’t you going to save your tinsel?” and I replied, “Oh, gosh no, Mom! It’s so cheap – we’ll just get new tinsel next year”. To which my mother replied, loftily, “Well, that’s why I get to go to Hawaii and you don’t!” AHA!
My mother gave us wonderful birthday parties. She took us—and sometimes our friends—to Cincinnati’s Coney Island, an amusement park, once a year on Findlay Market Day, where all of us, my mother included, participated in games and contests to win prizes. Surely it was from my mother that we all inherited such a fierce sense of competitiveness! It was never enough to simply participate -–we had to win – and we did.
And thanks to her love of photography, we all have wonderful huge collections of photographs, images of the birthday parties and Christmases and special events in our lives. It was surely from my mother that we all inherited such a love of photography. At any Schmidt gathering, dozens of cameras will be flashing pictures.
My parents moved to Florida in the late 70s, after dad retired from Formica. There, at the Four Seasons Estates, my mother was the Sunshine Lady, who rode her bike around the park delivering get well cards to those who were sick or not feeling up to par. In 1979, when we moved to North Miami, I was able to spend a lot more time with my parents—either they drove across the State to see us, or the boys and I would take Greyhound Buses to Tampa to see them. One of my favorite pictures of my mother is one I took at the beach at Biscayne Bay during this period of time. I keep a copy of this photograph on my desk at work.
So much of who we are and what we are comes from our parents –not only their genes and their flesh and blood, but their ambitions and values, their hopes and dreams and desires, their love of challenges and the fearlessness to meet those challenges head-on are passed along to us as well. Maybe some of their favorite past times, too, like reading, bowling, and crossword puzzles.
I like to think that maybe, my mother and father are dancing somewhere in heaven. He may be saying to her, “It sure took you long enough to get here!” and maybe my mother is responding, sassily, “Well, I took dancing lessons along the way”. My mother always wanted to be a star. Now she is, in heaven. — Sandra Lee Schmidt Smith