Meet Edna Margaret.
In this faded wedding photo, she is 18 years old and full of joy, standing in a churchyard dedicated to St. Joseph, her arms full of chrysanthemums. Mums are considered a symbol of grief in many cultures, and perhaps this is fitting. The next 62 years of her life would be defined by her heroic response to grief and hardship, a response of perseverance, serenity and love.
Edna was born into a very large, poor Catholic family of first and second-generation German immigrants. In her tiny Midwestern village, German was still spoken in 1930, the year of her birth. She was one of many children, three of whom died in childhood. She quit school after the eighth grade in order to help support her family, and soon she was living an hour away from home during the week as she and other friends worked as linen aides in a hospital.
Even in of all her hard work, she found time to meet Harold. Six years older than she, he was dark-haired, barrel-chested, and handsome. Harold was the baby boy of his own large family, spoiled and fussed over by his older sisters. He was a star athlete, a doting uncle, a high school graduate and an World War II veteran. He and Edna’s shared devotion to family life, their Catholic faith, and their love of baseball made them an instant match. They married in November of 1948, and soon, their first son was born. Nine more children would follow.
But behind his charming and handsome exterior, Harold hid serious problems that would affect his family forever. The first was an explosive temper. His peers described Harold as “meaner than a snake” in a fight. He and all his brothers were infamous for their family arguments and barroom brawls. The second problem was the bars themselves. Harold liked a drink as much as the next guy and more, especially after he came home from the war in Germany. The third problem was Germany. Like many men of his time, what Harold witnessed overseas left a hole in his heart and soul. In the years after Harold returned from war, as undiagnosed PTSD festered, he began to drink more and more and let his temper burn higher and higher.
Out of respect for the living and the dead I will not describe the evils that Germany, alcohol, temper and Harold visited upon his family.
This is a story about Edna.
And it was Edna, sweet, patient, Edna, who put her shoulder under the crosses of abuse, addiction, mental illness, and poverty and lifted with all her might. Leaning on her closest in-laws for support, she raised up eight boys and two girls into successful and self-sufficient adults who were themselves scholar-athletes. She thwarted financial troubles with hard work and creativity at every turn. With a huge garden, a tiny farm, and a nearly non-existent grocery budget, she fed ten hungry mouths. She worked ceaselessly within her home and outside it and never slowed down long enough to dwell on how her life could have been different. She expected the same practical behavior from her family.
“Wish in one hand, and shit in the other,” she would sassily tell a complaining child, “See which one gets filled up first.”
Edna also undertook the monumental task of supporting Harold. His problems only got worse as years passed, and no amount of family help or contemporary medical knowledge could heal him. For reasons known fully only to she and the Lord, Edna stood bound to him even where the laws of her beloved Church would have loosed her. She continued to be civilly married to, and even to live in the same household with, her husband for many years. Even after their separation, she cared for him. With a grace that seems almost foolish to the modern mind, she forgave him seventy times seven times for the pain he caused her. The night Harold passed away from cancer, heart disease and diabetes brought on by a life of poor choices, she told her family, she had experienced a vision of him at the foot of her bed, asking one last time for her forgiveness. Imitating the Jesus she loved so much, Edna accepted the apology of her husband’s departing spirit.
Through these years of spiritual, physical and mental trial by fire, Edna’s faith did not waver. Instead, it became stronger. She was a frequent Mass-goer and an avid reader of Catholic magazines. She prayed her Rosary every day and was devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. Her measure of love and faith was so full, it spilled over, blessing the lives of everyone around her. She showered her children and grandchildren with what little material wealth she possessed. But more importantly, she was an ever-present listening ear and fount of wise, simple advice. Merely dropping in to her welcoming home for a nap on the couch or a bowl of ice cream could make her family feel completely renewed. She loved to entertain visitors and host family gatherings, the bigger the better. Her tiny farmhouse seemed to expand through the force of love alone, stretching to accommodate more than 50 people for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
In 2011, Edna completed her life’s mission of Christian suffering with a final, literal trial by fire. In the night of January 11th, just after a joyous Christmas season spent with family, a fire broke out in Edna’s old house. Though she managed to alert both emergency services and her son by phone and let them know what was happening, she was unable to escape from the home. She was pronounced dead in the early hours of January 12th. The coroner listed the cause of death as “smoke inhalation and injuries by fire.”
It is impossible to understand why some folks live lives of ease and pleasure while others struggle for their daily bread.
It is incomprehensible that someone so beaten down by a broken world could spring back like a stubborn flower, again and again, with nothing but grace for the feet that trod on her.
It is unbearable that a beautiful life be snuffed out, painfully, with no fanfare, no one to blame, no time to say goodbye.
But it is extraordinary that one simple woman, uneducated, poor and without power, allowed God to transform her into a living prayer of forgiveness and perseverance. If Christ is the River of Life, Edna was a branch of that holy stream, sacrificing herself to bring plain, sweet, healing water to all those who gathered around her in a world of fire.
My grandmother’s story is not unique, but it should not be unsung. Remember her, and all those anonymous souls who have suffered in love, when you look to the saints for solace amidst the grief and hardship common to us all.