My mother, Ottilie Tag, known to her friends as Tillie, died of natural causes not related to COVID this past Monday, the 28th of December 2020. She had turned 97 the previous day.
I’d like to tell you first about the family Mom came from. By knowing her upbringing, you’ll know more about Tillie, the person.
My mother came from a generation that grew up during the 1930’s and 1940’s. She was one of six children. In 1913, Grandma and Grandpa Kern (her parents) had immigrated to Pennsylvania from what was then Russia—although they considered themselves German. They had three boys and three girls: my Uncles August, Gus, and Julius, and Aunts Susie and Hilda. Mom was the last to go—Aunt Hilda died just a few weeks earlier, on December 7th. Uncle Gus had been killed fighting in North Africa during World War II.
Mom and her family grew up on a farm during the Depression, leading up to World War II. Tom Brokaw referred to that generation in the title of his book, The Greatest Generation. By today’s standards, and perhaps even then, Mom’s family was poor. The advantage of living on a farm was that they always had something to eat. Working on the farm was demanding, daily work. And, as Mom told it, once the boys left for World War II, she and her mother inherited all of their farm responsibilities. At Mom’s seventieth birthday, my brother Keven said that what he admired most was her strong work ethic. I have no doubt that came from her years on the farm.
So, what, specifically, did I learn from Mom? Many things, of course, but I’d like to tell you about three that have indeed shaped my life to this day.
The first thing I learned—I was probably four or five years old—was that I must always make my bed in the morning. I was a little kid and didn’t know much, but I got the impression from my mother that if I learned nothing else in this lifetime, I would always know to make my bed. And so I do. Becky can attest to the fact that I occasionally do this even in hotels.
A few years later, the second thing I learned was that you had to eat everything on your plate, that it was a sin to leave anything behind. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about, making my bed every morning, I now had to worry about leaving a clean plate. I was a serious kid anyway, but now I was becoming a nervous wreck.
What bothered me most was the sin part. And I knew about sin. Why? Because I attended our Lutheran church every Sunday and knew to avoid sinning at all costs. Previously, I had had no idea what sin was, but then I knew: leaving as much as a kernel of corn on your plate at supper time.
I was a few years older—maybe seven or eight—when Mom taught me my third lesson. I remember the situation to this day. Mom and Grandma were downstairs making pancakes for breakfast, and the pancakes smelled good. Somehow I had come across a bad word, a swear word, and I came up with the brilliant idea of incorporating this word into my exclamation about how good the pancakes smelled. I’ve since forgotten what that bad word was. So, I did. I made my statement.
Have you ever seen a movie where the video transitions to slow motion? In the seconds that followed, that’s what I experienced. Grandma and Mom turned slowly in my direction, alarm evident in their eyes. I’m thinking that maybe the house had caught fire. In that slow motion experience, I half expected them to say, “Paul, run for your life. Save yourself.” Instead, the two of them came down on me like a ton of bricks. In no uncertain terms, they said that I was never to say a bad word like that again.
Over the years that followed, I learned more lessons from Mom. Lest you think that all of her advice was sound, I can tell you that it was not always. It was about 1952 or 1953 when Mom bought a brand new Chevy, and it was black. I asked Mom why she had picked black. She told me that she had picked black because it would not show dirt. Mom was a quick study, though; when she bought her next car, a ’55 Chevy, this one was yellow and white, two-toned.
Until I left home to go to college, I have to say that the most important lesson I learned from Mom and her siblings was that of thrift—not to waste anything. I’m sure that precept originated from their experiences during the Depression. But, to this day, I appreciate the three simple lessons I learned from Mom early in my life: 1) to make my bed in the morning, 2) to eat everything on my plate, and 3) not to use bad words.
In summary, I will miss Mom. But although I could choose to be sad now, instead I’m taking a different point of view.
Imagine this: A woman born on a farm that had no telephone, no indoor toilet or other modern conveniences, and used horses to plow—and who died in the age of the iPhone, the Internet, space travel, and cars that drive themselves. Mom witnessed it all! And all the while, experiencing life’s joys and happenings that make us what we are as human beings.
Categorised in: Author
This post was written by paulmarktag