My mother, Eleanor Jensen Musser, struggled her whole life, cheated by the Depression out of the opportunity to become a nurse, and found herself at 42 divorced with five children still at home, no child support, and no marketable skills. She worked two jobs until she had proved her skill at managing a clothing store and was promoted to manager. She became a respected business woman who was also active in several organizations. She could make a meal for six out of practically nothing, a prom dress out of rummage sale remnants, and a Christmas out of tinsel. Later in life she became a huge Iowa Hawkeye fan as well as of Iowa State wrestling. I think her greatest hope was to sometime have a quiet, well-behaved meal with her children and grandchildren. It never happened. She was especially tickled in the early 80s to call me and tell me that two college boys took her out for lunch--our son, who was at UNI and a friend. Even though they "took her out," I'm pretty sure she picked up the tab.
Selma Hermanson Jensen, my maternal grandmother, was a second-generation Norwegian -American who grew up in southern Minnesota. I don't know that she ever traveled out of the Midwest. Family legend says that when she married my grandfather, a Danish immigrant, his family in Denmark were quite wary and disapproving of the marriage, because she was, after all, Norwegian. But when she wrote them letters and Grandpa didn't, they reconsidered and decided she mush be a hard worker and therefore acceptable. She was a marvelous cook; she made angel food cakes that made today's box versions seem like styrofoam, and she whipped the egg whites by hand in a copper bowl. Her cinnamon rolls ruined me for every one I've tasted since. She gardened, canned, kept an immaculate house, was very involved in church work, and doted on her grandchildren. In the rare moments she sat down, she crocheted items that could have stretched to the moon and hand-sewed lace on slips and dresses for baby granddaughters. Her life, too, was cut short at 62 by a freak infection contracted during what was supposed to be a routine surgery.
Elizabeth Thompson Musser, my paternal grandmother, grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, the youngest of five, and lost her mother shortly after she was born. During her childhood, she sometimes traveled with her father, a circuit court judge, and did her schoolwork at the judge's bench during court. She spent summers with cousins in the Sand Hills who lived in a sod house. Most amazing to me, after high school she enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Colorado. She got married and didn't finish, but she must have been one of the first to even try it. Grandma Betty lived in Seattle; Jersey City, NJ; Manhattan; and Iowa before she and my grandfather settled in southern Minnesota. Later, after Pa Ben, our grandfather, died, she traveled extensively, hitting all lower 48 states and Europe several times. Shortly before she died, she tried and failed to get a visa to go to Russia. She worked to get a public library in her small town, was in the League of Women Voters, a state Republican committeewoman (back when Republicans were still moderates), and instrumental in getting a black gospel choir in from Minneapolis to perform. She painted, gardened, and had a very unique decorating style. She collected antiques when few people did, had one of three sets of yellow Wedgewood china in the United States, and made bedroom curtains out of surplus parachutes.
We were also fortunate to have several wonderful aunts as examples. They all had high expectations of my generation and didn't hesitate to let us know. In my entire childhood, I do not remember a racial or ethnic joke or slur used at any family gatherings, with the exception of a few about the Norwegians and the Danes exchanged at the Jensen house. I know these women had their faults and weaknesses; but this Mother's Day I wish to pay tribute to three tough cookies who went beyond the expectations of their time.