I’ve never written a tribute to my mother before. It’s a little late to let her know my gratitude for the lifelong sacrifices she made for her family – not just my dad and brother and I, but for her parents and siblings and their kids. But it’s still worth doing even now.
Her name was Clementine MeGanck. She didn’t have a middle name. She’d answer to Clemy, but to no other shorthand version of her God-given name. Clementine had twelve brothers and sisters; but only seven of them survived long enough to board the boat from Belgium to America, shortly after WW I. Her dad was a farmer; but with no money to buy land in this country, the family began their new life as migrant farm workers, sugar-beet pickers to be specific. The boys were allowed to go to school through the 8th grade; but the girls were pulled out after the 3rd to work the fields, wherever the fields happened to be that day. It always embarrassed mom that she had such a limited education – and she determined that her kids would never suffer the same fate.
By the time she turned eighteen, Clementine had a job as a seamstress in what one would today call a “sweat shop.” For a woman, it was pretty good money at the time. And after her older sister Mary and the eldest son Henry had married, Clementine became both the primary source of income for the family, as well as her ailing mother’s caretaker. This created a predicament for a beautiful young lady who loved life and wanted to experience the outside world and meet new people, especially boys. Her father feared losing her to a husband and put unreasonable restraints on her. She had to be home by 8:00 pm, or risk a thrashing.
Clementine’s best friend was another seamstress named Helen Ertel. Helen was a couple years older, but still lived with her parents as well. They were both excellent dancers and often entered contests – which one or the other frequently won; but to compete, mom had to break her curfew; and though her mother tried to shield her from her dad’s furious temper, her frail health offered Clementine little protection. The rest of her life she would suffer from the migraine headaches, the bruises and the damage to her back and limbs that were the result of the man’s beatings.
The last straw occurred shortly after her nineteenth birthday, when she and Helen stayed out until well after ten. It was during the Prohibition Era and she and Helen were returning from a local speakeasy when one of her younger brothers met them outside her home, warning that “Pa was gonna kill her this time.” She and Helen fled and Helen hid Clementine at her boyfriends’ homes. Her dad, club in hand, with his son-in-law and one of the older boys searched the neighborhood for her. It was a month later before Clementine saw her mother again, at a time when her dad was out. She never moved back – though she eventually reconciled with the family, and would continue to send some of her wages back home, until the day she married.
Mom was a real Tiger’s fan – she and her mother frequented the ball park, and she knew every one of the players. You might even say she was a “groupee.” She and Helen hung out at the blind pigs where the players socialized. When Clementine was 22, Helen started dating a young ball player named Hank Greenberg; and they set up Clementine with his brother, Ben, who was a few years older. Ben eventually proposed; and ma and pa MeGanck saw big bucks in the match. But Clementine in the meantime had become infatuated with a young engineer from Pittsburgh, who had just graduated and moved to Detroit to work for a steel company.
To her family’s consternation, mom and dad married a year later. It was the early part of the Great Depression; but dad had a job. And thus began a lifetime of sacrifice: as Clemy and Duane became the focal point for most of mom’s family to turn to for assistance over the years. Even as the economy improved, whenever one or another of her brothers’ and sisters’ families were going through hard times, they knew they could count on Clemy and Duane to help out. Mom and dad never even had to send out invitations to anyone to join us for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter dinner. They all knew the table would be set for at least thirty – and most holidays there weren’t any empty seats.
And as the years waned, ma and pa MeGanck eventually moved in to our home; and neither of my parents ever brought up mom’s horrendous history. I only heard about it long after her ma and pa and some of her siblings left this earth. And even then it was explained sort of matter-of-factly as she wanted me to understand why her body was so racked with pain. She had long-forgiven her father and her older brothers and brother-in-law for all they had put her through.
Mom and dad never were wealthy as the world measures wealth; yet my brother and I never lacked for our basic needs, or for love. When my dad’s salary seemed to stall, mom went back to work (in a hot and miserable cleaners no less) to make sure they could pay for our parochial school education. They even covered the difference between what our part-time jobs provided toward our annual college tuition.
I’m sure my closeness to God was nurtured during the many hours I spent coloring in the priest’s office while mom made many of his vestments as well as the altar coverings. She encouraged me to try to be an altar boy (a task Father O’Hagan deemed me unworthy of) and the St. Gertrude’s choir (another talent which Sister Margaret Mary decided I lacked.) Mom was my cub scout den-mother and encouraged me to get involved in boy scouts. It seemed like the only thing she didn’t do was attend my football games. That was dad’s duty; because she was in constant fear of me being injured. Yet I knew she was home praying for me every Friday evening or Saturday afternoon.
One of the greatest joys of my Christian life was being able to lay hands on her back or neck and praying over her for healing – and having her acknowledge that the pain had subsided – if only for a little while. I knew it bothered her that I was attending a full-Gospel church; and yet it seemed to open her up to share her own faith and some of the miracles she had witnessed (and once even been a recipient of) as a little girl.
I’m so glad she knew Jesus as her Lord and Savior, and that one day I’ll be able to verbalize this tribute to her face-to-face in heaven.