“I Remember Mama”—It was the name of a movie about a Norwegian family in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century, but I suppose it could be anyone’s reminiscence about their Norwegian mother.
I was born to Charlene Marie Rothermel Snodgrass at Cook County Hospital in Chicago on January 9, 1951. Her husband, Lawrence, either joined the Army right around then, or abandoned us or did both. Charlene was only nineteen and I don’t know where her parents were, but I guess they were not around to help. When I was five months old, Charlene faced the fact that Lawrence wasn’t coming back and she wasn’t doing a very good job as a mom. So she gave me to the lady next door, who complained she already had seven kids and didn’t need another one. From what I understand, Charlene said, “Then find a good home for her.”
The neighbor called her babysitter and asked her to take me for a walk. Nancy stopped by after school, picked me up and went straight to her friend, Carol Johnson’s house. Carol lived across the street from Lane Tech High School which was all boys at the time, and the girls sat on the front stoop watching the boys across the street until Carol’s mother came home from job hunting, peeked into the buggy and said, “What a cute baby! I want a baby like that.”
“Well, she’s up for adoption,” Nancy said.
“Really? We’ll take her.”
And that’s how I “met” Mama, who changed my name from Linda Frances Snodgrass to Rochelle Irene Johnson. Mama had a good heart, but alcoholism and abuse run in her family. Grandpa Peterson was a stern old Norwegian who drank up his paycheck and abused his children. Grandma Annie died when Mama was nine, so she did not have her mother as a buffer for Grandpa’s excesses. And I came along when Mama was thirty-six. If she were alive today, she would be turning ninety-six. Happy Birthday, Mama.
Frances Irene Peterson, Lutheran Confirmation, Iron Mountain, MI ©1927.
Mama dropped out of school her sophomore year because she was ashamed of her hand-me-down clothes. When she was eighteen, she moved to Chicago and got a job as a domestic in the posh Logan Square area. Of course, she sent most of her paycheck to her father to “support the family up home.” She met Bill Johnson and they got married and had one daughter. Carol was a difficult birth and I don’t think Mama was able to have more children until she saw me in that baby carriage fifteen years later.
My book, Rock Crazy, chronicles some of the fights I had with Mama. They’re portrayed as hallucinations, but my teen years and onward were pretty rough. I had a mouth on me and we really went at it. But, there were good times and that’s what this blog is about.
Frances Peterson Johnson, ©1935.
At Christmas we would bake all kinds of fancy cookies and Mama would reminisce about good things from her childhood. There were six children in her family—Arnold, Christine (who we all called Tootsie), Jean, Franny (Mama), Carol, and Bobby. Grandma Annie had a bad heart and the doctor told her to stop having children after she had Mama, but she had Aunt Carol and then Uncle Bobby and she died of heart failure when he was seven days old. He was raised by others. Mama was nine and Aunt Carol was five at the time. They didn’t see Uncle Bobby for another sixteen years.
Back to the cookies: Mama would reminisce about pranks she and her sibs would play on each other and even some they would play on Grandpa. We would play Christmas carols on the hi-fi while we ground nuts and rolled cookie dough into little balls, crescents, etc. Even when I hit my teens and Mama hit menopause and the hormones hit the fan, cookie baking time was truce time and Mama was happy then. I wish I had photos of us together, but our hands were always full of dough, egg whites and nuts, and who thinks to grab a camera then? Mama loved to bake and when she wasn’t working, she even baked bread every week.
Mama at my sister, Carol’s Wedding May 4, 1958
Other times Mama was happy were when we went “up home” to Iron Mountain, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula to visit her sisters. I wasn’t always comfortable on those visits. I only had one cousin close to me in age and Cookie (named Christine after Aunt Tootsie) played a prank on me when I was about six that affected the rest of my visits to Aunt Jean’s. We were coming up a steep hill from the lake and Cookie hid behind a tree and roared like a bear. I levitated up the hill, scared out of my wits, and I had bear scares every time I went up there after that. Cookie thought it was funny because I wasn’t used to having to use outhouses or having a pump in the kitchen. Mama was born in 1915, so she was used to those kinds of hardships and living as far out in the country as they did, so were my cousins. City slicker that I was, visiting the relatives was “roughing it.” They washed their dishes in dish pans on the kitchen table. But they laughed a lot while they were doing so. My aunts all married Italians and one year they made home-made ravioli. I don’t know where I thought pasta came from, but I’d never seen it made before and it was fascinating and delicious.
Visiting Uncle Pete and Aunt Gertie near Fennimore, Wisconsin was somewhat more fun. They, too, had an outhouse, but my cousins didn’t tease me as mercilessly as Cookie. They lived in town and had indoor plumbing. Besides, there were more cousins closer to my age there. After Grandma Annie died, Mama and her siblings spent summers on the family farm in Castle Rock, Wisconsin. It’s in the southwestern part of Wisconsin that sort of bulges into what would be Iowa if the Mississippi ran straight north and south— about thirty miles due north of Dubuque. Uncle Pete was a rascal in his younger days, and he wasn’t above telling dirty Ole and Lena jokes in his senior years. Uncle Pete and Aunt Gertie’s kids were like siblings to Mama, so their kids were more like first cousins to me and they were more my age than my older first cousins in Iron Mountain. I also got to see real dairy cows, fish in a “crick,” and as I got older, wander around the cemetery where all of my ancestors were buried, and where Mama is buried now.
Yes—I remember Mama—both the good times and the bad. I tried to find photos of her smiling, but they are had to come by. She had a good heart, but she was not a naturally happy person. She had her demons and she drowned them in the bottle that ultimately killed her. The final photos of her were taken at my wedding on May 27, 1972. She died just two years later.
At my wedding. Daddy was diagnosed with terminal cancer three weeks later. He was in a lot of pain that day. I was trying to look demure. Mama was…Mama.