Today, June 4th, would have been my mother’s 94th birthday. Her name was Helen Lorraine Windt Mack. I did not have many birthday celebrations with her, mine or hers, as she died at the age of 35. I have written extensively about her in a published essay that garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination so won’t detail in this post. She was born in Mellen, Wisconsin but moved to Ashland when her parents relocated at some point in her elementary school years. She attended and graduated from DePadua Catholic High School in Ashland. I have her school report cards, high school yearbooks with friend’s signatures and wishes and her address book with entries in her cursive handwriting that documents her interests, friends and families. My father gave me her black and white photo album that she created of photographs that she took. Years ago, I traced her path back to Madeline Island where she worked as a bookkeeper with the Russell Ferry Business and where many of the pictures were taken. She was one of many who roomed at Gram’s Johnson’s boarding house although I did not find that out until two years ago after I saw her name included in the on line census of La Pointe,WI.
Many of the artifacts and most of her story came to me by others during a ten year active process of finding out who my mother had been, how she came to be on Madeline Island, what her favorite colors were and what had caused such an early death. When I began the search, I had no idea of the people who would step up to fill in part of her story or who would send a letter, photographs, and original records to my house. But the jewel I obtained from the process I could have never predicted: I got back a mother. And I got back a major part of myself.
I find it so sad when someone tells me that their life story is too painful to investigate and who refuse to revisit the places of their childhood or family so they do not have to confront the pain that discovering part of their story may require. We have all seen the stories on television of people finding their roots back through the generations and how significantly their lives are impacted by such discovery. But what I have found to be the richest reward is the connection to others who were also on the same stage at a particular point in time, in history and who connect back to the loved one whose story is being searched.
Maybe that is why our mother’s birthdays tug at us so strongly even when we try our hardest to ignore them. The beginning of each of our stories begins with a mother.