In the Company of Mothers

“You are such a good mom.” Ah, I leaned in, these words meaning more to me than my friend could know.

I had been talking about the latest challenges with my young teen, where everything felt new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. I took a minute to let the words sink in. It was the kind of thing my mom used to tell me.

My mom and I talked frequently when my baby was a baby, me needing to hear the calm of her voice, steadied by years of mothering. She seemed to meet with ease all the challenges of raising four kids close in age. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.

By the time I became a mother, my mom had been a grandparent to nine already, the oldest in college and the youngest just into the double digits. I was late to the game and met motherhood with a fair amount of hand-wringing. Those early days were especially fraught-filled. Was my baby sleeping enough? Eating enough? Hitting all the right growth markers? There was so much to worry about.

My mom didn’t always know how anxious I was, but I would call her just to hear her voice. In my postpartum funk, I couldn’t tell her I was scared and lonely—I don’t know why—but I might instead give her a mundane update of how the day was going with my infant, hoping she could intuit my struggles. I was afraid of my own fear and questioned everything I did.

As my child grew, my mom was a steady source of reassurance and always wanted to know what my little one was up to. I would tell her some tale of my busy toddler, then preschooler, then elementary student. The stories were mostly amusing, but sometimes I was exasperated or uncertain. “You’re doing a good job, Brenda,” she would say. I’d always think, “Really?” It never felt that way. But she knew what I needed to hear.


I miss that. My mom is no longer here to comfort or commiserate, to offer hope for parenting through the teen years. She passed away right before the pandemic and right as my child was entering the tween years. Now I find myself among the many motherless daughters out there, feeling my way along. While I know that I am lucky to have had my mom for as long as I did, I still miss her and her unconditional support. And I really want to know how she made it through parenting four kids from infancy to adulthood—especially through the teen years.

The author and her mom Lois.

She used to say that she had a lot of help, especially from my dad when we were all younger. And that having a lot kids close together was just what people were doing at the time. Now she would probably tell me she did the best she could and that she was far from perfect. And that she was also buoyed by a loose network of family, friends, neighbors, and others.


I wonder now what she would say about the precocious child who has turned into a strong and independent teenager. I imagine telling her of the latest tale and hearing her say, “Oh, Brenda,” lowering her voice on the “Oh” to add to the sense that she knew it was hard. Or maybe she’d shake her head and murmur words of commiseration. My child is much like one of my siblings, whose teenage years were punctuated by frequent conflict with my parents. Would my mom tell me she could understand the challenges of parenting an iron-willed but sensitive child? Or would she think of herself as a teenager, wishing that she had been nicer to her own mother? I never imagined my mom as a teenager but only as my mom and was surprised when she told me she regretted clashing with her own mom when she was young.

So perhaps this tells me that we never quite get it right and despite the anxiety, the self-doubt, the struggles, and even the loneliness, we are making it through.

My mother leaned on her own sisters, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and I am, too. I am banking on the collective wisdom of this vast community of mothers I am part of. They look like the friend who laughs with me and the one who offers a listening ear or a word of advice and then the one who just tells me I’m doing a good job.


Daffodils and forsythia are in bloom here. Egrets and ducks have returned to the pond. We all made it through another winter, a difficult season with plenty of cold, snow, and ice. 

When I was in my forties, I wrote a short story about a woman whose first serious high school boyfriend was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He would die in battle and be remembered as perpetually nineteen. She went on to college, married, had children. As her son prepares for junior prom, she is reminded of Bernie. On the anniversary of his death, she writes him a letter about what it has been like to age decades beyond her teens.

Late in 2022, I prepared for serious surgery. The surgeon called me a ‘low risk’ patient and young for my physical age. Tests showed no other options. All was successful, except emotionally I landed in part of the world described in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.  He writes that we tend to consider aging a failure, or weakness, rather than a normal process. As we live longer and longer, medical processes becomes part of our experience. Doctors know how to preserve life, but not how to help patients cope with how life continually changes.

Like most surgery nothing looks different to others, but I know where the scars are and what each means. I know the medications that support carrying me through a normal life expectancy. I am also learning their downsides. I haven’t returned to tap dancing because the studio floor is slippery, and I am still fighting to return to my prior rock-solid balance. Down dog is back on my aspirational list, but for different reasons than undeveloped muscles.

In the weeks between the first time a doctor said, “maybe six months, certainly not more than a couple of years,” and the night before surgery, I thought about not seeing my granddaughters grow up, about the writing projects that might not be published, about my unwillingness to let life go. When I stopped pushing to be the person folks expect, my fatigue was immense. With surgery on the schedule, I slept a lot, read a lot, thought even more. Because I am used to being productive, I labeled that week practicing recuperation. 

I have had friends die of cancer without the medical miracle surgery offered me. I am humbled and so respectful of how they faced the eventuality of their passing. 

This spring I wonder how to make these next many years meaningful. A wise friend told me the body needs at least six months to recover from major surgery then encouraged me to give my emotions the same time. A good plan. I’ll enjoy the daffodils and forsythia, then the tulips and lilacs. The demands of regular life are close enough.

With love to my brother, Darrell J. Frisque, who passed too young on April 14, 2007.

When Death Becomes a Mystery

We know that we are going to die. We read about death in the newspapers. People we know and do not know. Obituaries are posted on social media.

The further away a death is from me the less I question it. It’s just a fact. People die.

But then Sam Spratt died. He was 25 years old. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, he was in a car accident and died at the scene. He was our neighbor and Juan and Crystel’s caregiver for over four years. Death suddenly became a mystery to me. Why did Sam die? Was he done living his life? Did he accomplish all that he wanted? My world instantly felt less safe. I was nervous getting in my car. Now I knew I could die. If Sam could die, I could die.

There is no more do-over for Sam. What he did in this life is done. Or is it?

Sam’s funeral was overflowing with young, middle-aged, and old people. Friends, neighbors, relatives, high school classmates. Attendees spoke about how kind Sam was. How understanding. The deep conversations they had.

Juan and Crystel experienced the same with Sam. Sam was 12 years old and the kids were 5 when he started nannying for us. Monday to Friday he came to our house while Jody and I were at work. He even spent an occasional overnight when Jody and I were out of town.

Sam and our children became a familiar sight throughout the Richfield community and parts of Edina. For years they pedaled their bikes to dentist and orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, swim lessons, movies, library, restaurants, bowling, swimming pool and the neighborhood parks. Sam took on the additional responsibility of Juan and Crystel’s friends for play dates in our backyard swimming pool.

I was compelled to write a blog post about our experience with Sam when I read a parenting book that warned against having a teenage boy babysit – the children would be at risk.

With intention, Jody and I welcomed Sam into our home and into our lives. We were blessed to have this teenage boy responsible for our children’s safety.

On Easter five weeks before he died, Sam walked down the street to our house to visit with Juan and Crystel. He was planning to come to their graduation party in June. “He wouldn’t miss it!” he said. The three of them chatted as they would do, cajoling and teasing each other. Juan and Crystel were ‘his kids.’ He had taught them how to read, made sure they brushed their teeth, and that they weeded the garden.

Now he’s teaching Juan and Crystel about death, grief, and loss. How to navigate when a loved one is no longer with us.

His death continues to be a mystery to me. I’m still asking questions. Still pausing my mind when I pass the area where he died.

Sam was right, though. He did show up for Juan and Crystel’s graduation. I finally looked at Juan and Crystel’s picture boards at the end of their graduation party. Juan had many photos of himself, Crystel, Jody and me on his board. Prominently displayed in the center was a photo of Juan, Sam and Crystel.

I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I nurtured two souls, Sam can say. I gave them my heart and they gave me theirs. To that end, I taught them love for another.

Sam Spratt October 17, 1995 – May 19, 2021.  Never forgotten.

Rest in Peace, Patty C.

I first met Patty in 1978. We were both English majors at Drake University in Des Moines. I was in my early 20s, she in her mid-30s.

We didn’t have a lot in common.

I lived with a roommate I didn’t like in a campus dorm. She lived with her husband and young son in a four-bedroom house about 15 minutes away. I was a poor college junior who spent my weekends drinking beer that cost $1 a pitcher. She spent her weekends with her parents, swimming in their indoor swimming pool and sipping cocktails graced with fruit from their lemon and lime trees.

Both English majors, Patty and I were paired up on a class paper we worked diligently on to earn an A. I no longer recall what grade we received, but we became good friends in the process. She enjoyed hearing my stories about dorm life, and I liked hearing stories about her parents’ home and lavish lifestyle.  

Looking back, what I think we enjoyed most was sharing our hopes and dreams with someone who not only truly listened, often for hours on end, but also believed in our ability to achieve those dreams.

A year later, in December of 1979, I graduated and moved back to Minneapolis where I went to work for the Minnesota Senate, first as a page and then as an intern researching DWI legislation.

In mid-August of 1980, out of the blue, I received a letter from Drake University’s English department offering me a graduate-school fellowship. In exchange for teaching two sections of freshman English and working 10 hours each week in the school’s writing lab, I would earn a master’s degree in English.

I wanted to accept the school’s offer, but I’d already spent all my savings getting my undergrad degree. And having been raised by a dad whose mantra was, “If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it,” I was reluctant to take on more student debt.

But then Patty invited me to come live with her. And suddenly my dream of earning a master’s became a reality.

The rules for living at Patty’s were simple: two dos and two don’ts. Do empty the dishwasher each morning and do grocery shopping with her once a week. Don’t smoke pot in the house and don’t have sex with her husband (she’d once found him in bed with one of her best friends).

We quickly settled into a routine. Her husband dropped me off on campus on his way to work each morning, and Patty drove me home each afternoon after we had both finished our classes.

We read books and wrote papers, and spent our free time penning bad poetry, drinking beer (her husband worked at Coors) and frying ourselves in the sun.

We also talked a lot about our hopes and dreams. Mine started out modest, but she encouraged me to dream bigger and set goals. It was her encouragement that led me to set a goal of someday writing a book. (Decades later, thanks in large part to her, I did: a book on goalsetting that’s been translated into five languages and is helping young people around the globe set their own goals.)

I liked being part of Patty’s family. Quiet early mornings at the kitchen table sipping coffee and writing in our journals. Afternoons playing catch with her son or helping him with his homework. Weekends hanging out with her parents or her husband’s colleagues.

After 18 months, with classes complete, I moved back to Minneapolis.

For years, Patty and I talked often, regularly exchanged long stream-of-consciousness letters, some of which held our deepest desires and our darkest fears and visited one another now and again.

Eventually she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Arkansas. She also got sick: first with a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed, then with tuberculosis followed by heart disease. Along the way, she made me promise that I’d be at her funeral—no matter when or where—and that I’d make sure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was played.

But as the years passed, our letters got less frequent. And although we did come close to getting together in person a few years ago when I vacationed about 50 miles from her home, we never did as she’d woken up that day not feeling well and had to cancel.

I still wrote a couple of times a year. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. Then, I sent several letters that went unanswered. I wasn’t worried at first, but then sent a letter asking if I’d said or done something to upset her. When I still didn’t hear back, I wrote to her sister who called me immediately to tell me Patty had died several months earlier, most likely from a massive heart attack. Patty’s sister and son had wanted to tell me but didn’t know how to reach me.

There was no funeral. I’m glad, as I would have felt terrible missing it.

But I did download Free Bird to my phone. In honor of our friendship, I play it now and again, always with a heart full of gratitude to a forever friend who made a huge difference in my own life, not only by encouraging my early hopes and dreams but also by being the first friend who truly believed I could achieve them.

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan