A Mother’s Day Tribute
by Deborah Steele Hazen
This is being written on the evening of Mother’s Day. I have been visited by each of my three children, and all eight of my grandchildren. I am much blessed.
Of course, I have thought of my own mother today. My husband Phil and I talked about her buoyant, even zany, personality, despite the health problems that plagued her life.
I have also been thinking gratefully about my two daughters and my daughter-in-law, who have given me these precious grandchildren and who are all wonderful mothers, much and deservedly loved by their children.
This Mother’s Day evening my thoughts are turning – as they often do – to my grandmother. When I speak of my grandparents, I mean my father’s parents Malvina Lewis Steele and William Arthur “Art” Steele. Sadly, both of my mother’s parents died before I was born.
Our paternal grandparents were a major presence in the lives of my sister Dayle and I. My father, Gail Steele, had no siblings, so we were their only, much-doted-upon grandchildren. As a toddler, Dayle mispronounced “Grammy” and “Grampy” so it sounded like “Mammy” and “Frankie.” When I came along, I followed suit. Our childhood friends also called them “Mammy” and “Frankie,” and we refer to them that way to this day.
Mammy was born and raised in Clatskanie. Her father was Jasper Harding Lewis, who had immigrated here in the 1880s from Nova Scotia. Her mother was Anna Birkenfeld Lewis, one of the five children of Benhard and Amelia Birkenfeld, who had immigrated from Germany with his brother Anton and his wife Julia, arriving in the Nehalem Valley in about 1883. Mammy had one half-brother, Jesse Lewis, the son of Jasper and his first wife, who had died shortly after Jesse’s birth.
My great grandfather Lewis came here first for the fishing, then opened a meat market, which grew into a grocery store, which his son later owned and operated. Mammy, eight years younger than her older half-brother, had ringlets and ribbons in her hair and fancy dresses in her childhood pictures. In a class picture when she was perhaps 13 or 14, she is sitting up straight in the midst of a bunch of kids. Her hair is up in a more mature bun, her hands are folded in her lap and a ribbon with a rosette – as if it might be an award – is pinned to her prim, high-necked white blouse. Yet, she herself does not give the appearance of being prim – merely calm and poised.
I have little doubt she was a good student, and she was very musical. To the end of her too-short life, she played the piano and organ beautifully – volunteering her talents to local churches and organizations. Mammy was the only woman allowed to attend Kiwanis meetings for decades. She stayed just long enough to play the U.S. and Canadian national anthems at the beginning of the meetings, then was excused.
She was 17 and a senior at Clatskanie High School in February of 1922 when a 25-year-old, red-headed firebrand of a young reporter came to town and bought The Clatskanie Chief for $10 and the assumption of a $3,000 debt on the Linotype machine.
The young Art Steele had degrees from McMinnville College (now Linfield) and Yale University. He served in World War I, worked the crime beat for a Chicago daily, taught school in Alaska, and was back working for a newspaper in Lewiston, Idaho – near where he had grown up – when he heard that The Chief was for sale.
If I have assembled the puzzle of family lore correctly, I think Mammy’s father was the mayor, as well as the owner of Lewis Market, when Frankie arrived in town. The new Chief publisher/editor would have met one of his major advertisers – and the mayor – pretty soon after his arrival. He must also have met “Pa” Lewis’ bright, pretty, talented teenage daughter.
By the next November, nine days after Mammy turned 18, they were married – on Nov. 11, Armistice Day (now Veterans Day), because The Chief office was closed for the holiday.
Immediately, they began working together. In fact, she may have been working at The Chief office before their marriage – I never thought to get that piece of information straight while they were still living.
For the next 50 years, until, literally, the day she died of an unexpected heart attack at the age of 67, they worked together at The Chief office – from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and from 8 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturdays. They took coffee breaks and ate lunch in one of Clatskanie’s eating establishments every weekday, and Mammy gathered the “locals,” the personal news items – “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe drove to Astoria to visit their children and grandchildren Saturday afternoon” – which for years filled columns in The Chief. She didn’t need to ask the names of the children and grandchildren, she knew them all. If there was anyone who knew more about Clatskanie history than Melvina Barr and Marie Sweeney, it was my grandmother.
In their spare time, Mammy and Frankie grew a huge garden – half vegetables and half flowers – on their double lot on the slope above Clatskanie’s valley floor. They ran a second business, “The Flower Garden,” with Frankie growing the flowers and Mammy creating prom corsages and boutonnieres, wedding bouquets and funeral sprays for decades. Often, she would not only create the flower arrangements, but play the organ at the weddings and funerals, and, of course, write the wedding stories and the obituaries.
Exactly one year and two days after they were married, Mammy – suffering from pre-eclampsia – gave birth prematurely to a three-pound baby boy, my father. Neither of them were expected to live. My father spent his first weeks in a wooden fruit box, surrounded by canning jars of warm water. The box was placed on the open door of the wood stove – or so the story goes.
Mammy had hoped to name her son after his two grandfathers – Robert Harvey Steele and Jasper Harding Lewis – but by the time she regained consciousness, Frankie had already insisted that Dr. Wooden place the name “Gail Eldon” – after two college buddies – on his son’s birth certificate.
Needless to say, my father grew up in The Chief office, taking his naps on stacks of paper. I have some snapshots of my father and his mother when he was a young boy, the look of love and complete motherly devotion on my grandmother’s face is poignant.
There is another photo, taken a decade or so later. My father and grandparents are standing on the front steps of their house – the same house that Phil and I have lived in for the past 26 years. My father is in his Army Air Corps uniform. I’m speculating, but I’m pretty sure this must have been taken after his basic training, but before he was sent first to the East Coast for advanced training, and then to serve in Europe during World War II. My father is looking anxious to get the goodbyes behind him. My grandfather, who usually had a cocky self-assurance in front of the camera, is looking serious. My grandmother is unmistakably heart-broken and terribly worried.
I expect that worry was never far from her until her only child returned safely from the war. During those years, my grandfather worked days as a civilian employee at the Beaver Army ammunition depot (now Port Westward), and nights at The Chief office, while my grandmother took over the main tasks of running the newspaper. They had just survived the Depression, and the war years were not good for the newspaper business – there wasn’t much advertising because of rationing.
My grandmother devoted the front page column that was before and since “The Trident,” to “The Yankee Mailbox” – news of and messages from local boys – and some girls – serving Uncle Sam. She was unabashedly patriotic and she and my grandfather were very active in the American Legion and Auxiliary, as well as other local service organizations. Mammy signed me up as a junior auxiliary member at birth.
Although she has been dead for 42 years, I have kept Mammy’s piano sheet music. I have what may be one of the only extant copies of “Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition.”
A few months before Mammy’s death, the Clatskanie Chamber of Commerce declared “Art Steele Day” to honor my grandfather’s 50th anniversary as the publisher and editor of The Chief. No one seemed to pay much attention to the fact that it was my grandmother’s 50th anniversary too, and that she had done at least half the work all those years. She didn’t seem to resent being relegated to the shadow of Art Steele’s glory. Thankfully, Frankie, and Oregon Governor Tom McCall, who was the guest speaker at the event, both had the good grace to acknowledge her contributions.
Until I was 11 1/2 and my parents, sister and I moved to Madras for six years – to my grandmother’s great dismay, (my grandfather wasn’t very happy about it either) – we lived just a little over a block from Mammy and Frankie. We would see them either at The Chief office or at home almost every day, and frequently stayed overnight.
Mammy would express her love by preparing big dinners – steak and pork chops, cream gravy and mashed potatoes, vegetables and fruits she’d canned herself, and German chocolate cake.
From her youthful pictures, I know she was slender as a girl, but she was significantly overweight – although never grotesquely fat – by the time I can remember. Nevertheless, Frankie’s pet name for her – apparently adopted when they first met – was “Skinny.” He rarely called her anything else.
Although the irony of that nickname was not lost on me, as I was cuddled by her big soft arms against her even bigger and softer bosom, it didn’t seem to bother her.
When we stayed overnight with Mammy and Frankie, Dayle and I would take turns sleeping with Frankie in their bedroom, or with Mammy in the guest room. We both preferred sleeping with Frankie, because Mammy – as much as we loved her – snored loudly and constantly.
While I know she was a worrier – and I’m convinced now that the stress and never-ending labor of her life, as well as the richness of her diet, contributed to her death – Mammy’s most characteristic mood was jolly. She laughed a lot, told jokes – sometimes just a little bit naughty – had a friendly and out-going nature. She was confident in her considerable talents and abilities, but was never conceited nor arrogant. She was beloved by many.
Her hands were always busy. If she wasn’t writing long-hand in her beautiful cursive or typing on one of the old manual typewriters at The Chief office, she was cooking, playing the piano or the organ, or playing cards with Frankie and the neighbors. When she did sit down with nothing else to do, she knitted – even in the car.
My mother took Dayle and I to church every Sunday, but when we spent Saturday nights at Mammy and Frankie’s house, we usually skipped. Instead, Mammy would sit down at her antique pump organ and play hymns, while we sang along.
She was delighted that I had inherited some of her musical talent. I can remember walking with her in the garden when I was perhaps five or six. I had just learned the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I sang it for her. She showered me with affection and praise.
Our move to Madras was hard on Mammy, but they came to visit us as often as they could, and Dayle and I spent part of our holiday, spring and summer vacations with them.
Mammy was both worried and proud as we worked our way through college. Whenever I came home to my parents’ house – they moved back to the Clatskanie area the same year I graduated from high school – I would spend time with Mammy and Frankie.
On Memorial Day weekend of my senior year at Portland State University – 42 years ago next week – I came home on Friday evening to spend the weekend here. My parents told me that Mammy wasn’t feeling well; that she’d worked that morning at The Chief office, but uncharacteristically went to the doctor in Longview because of the sharp pain she was feeling between her shoulder blades. He sent her home, telling her she’d probably pulled a muscle, or maybe was coming down with the flu. She was 67 years old, overweight, with a history of high blood pressure, and he sent her home.
We called her that night, but, very uncharacteristically, Frankie said she didn’t feel well enough to come to the phone “Give her my love,” I told him.
She died that night sitting in a chair in her living room – my living room now – because she was in too much pain to lie down.
The next day, working at The Chief office, trying to keep himself busy, Frankie asked me if I would come and take her place. I didn’t have any solid plans for after college, so I said yes. I thought it would be temporary. But, I’m proud to have taken her role, and later expanded that to include the role of her son.
Mammy had two diamond rings – her wedding band and one she had designed using her mother’s diamond. The weekend she died, Frankie gave Dayle the wedding band, and me the other one. I have worn it virtually every day for the past 42 years.
When my father was dying of heart failure in 1999, Phil and I were sitting with him at the hospital. He’d suffered an almost fatal heart attack at his desk at The Chief office at the age of 69 in 1993. The blood thinners they gave him to save his life caused his one good eye to hemorrhage, and he was completely blind for the last six years of his life.
Like his mother, he had suffered retina detachments in his 60s which had left him with vision only in one eye at the time of the heart attack. Mammy was severely vision-impaired, but still working daily at The Chief office with thick lenses and magnifying glasses, when she suffered her fatal heart attack.
As Phil and I sat with my dying, blind and unconscious father, he suddenly sat up on his deathbed, opened his eyes, stared at the foot of his bed, grinned, and said, with great happiness, “Mom!”
I’m sure she was there, and a couple of days later she led her beloved boy through that shadow and into the light.
My favorite chair in our living room sits in the same place as the chair in which Mammy was sitting when she passed through that shadow. It’s not that I’m macabre, it’s a good place for a chair. But, I also like the fact that I feel so close to her there. I run my hand along the woodwork next to the chair and think of her. I watch my grandchildren playing on the floor in front of me, and know she is smiling.
Her warmth and laughter are not only memories. My grandmother’s love continues to be a constant presence in my life.