This is my first Mother’s Day without a mother. It’s indescribable. During her illness I sent my eldest son to Minnesota for a visit and slipped this letter into his pocket to read on the plane.
Today you sit with your 90-year-old Grandmother, in a wheelchair with thinning hair and slipping faculties. But, close your eyes for a moment and imagine her your age, with the world spread before her. I think she would want to tell you a story, maybe the story of her life.
Evangeline Catherine Bonner, was born 1919 to Helena and David Bonner for whom you are named, Henry David, on a farm in Wisconsin, the youngest of 7 children. Two of her brothers died in infancy and she was thought dead after a spectacular bout of Whooping Cough that left her blue and lifeless. Mom always believed she was brought back to life because the good Lord knew her mother could not bear the death of yet another child. She was named Evangeline, after Longfellow’s poem. Her father, was a poet at heart, born of a long line of brooding Irishmen. David was a woeful farmer; his agricultural deficits and the inconsolable sadness of his grieving wife lead them to Minnesota. It was the midst of the Great Depression and the family of 7 lived in a boarding house. It was a scrappy existence, still to this day Grandma Kay will suck marrow from a Turkey bone, a skill she learned as a child to stretch one meager meals. Basic needs were barely met; winter shoes and a heavy coat were considered novelty. Where they lacked a hearty meal the Bonner’s were sustained by books and education. My mother’s oldest sister, Agnes went on to become a Professor and head of the English Department at the University of Montana. Her other two sisters Marguerite and Dorothy left home as teenagers to enter the convent. Marguerite became Sister Bernarda, a renowned school principle, English teacher and archivist in northern Minnesota. Dorothy left the convent to become a teacher
After the older girls moved on, Grandpa David got a lease on a room above a grocery. There was one bed in which they alternated sleeping. There was no bathtub; they would sometimes sneak into a vacant apartment to bathe. During High School and college, Grandma Kay did her studying at the checkout counter in the grocery, her studies often interrupted by customers buying goods.
Your Grandma Kay was always a great writer. Her first jobs were writing and performing for radio. One job lead her to KATE radio, in Albert Lea, Minnesota where she met this weird sound effects engineer, 5 years her junior, named Bill Nee. Grandpa Bill courted Grandma on his Harley motorcycle offering her a ride home from the grocery store in his sidecar. On their first trip, his zeal got the best of him, taking off so quickly that Grandma lost the grip on her groceries sending them scattering all over Main Street.
World War II had begun and Grandma Kay breaking the gender barriers, as she would her entire life, enlisted to go overseas as part of an entertainment unit called Cinemobile. They would cheer the battle weary troops with songs and movies by driving a huge, specially appointed truck all over Belgium and Germany, sometimes not far from the front lines. Although, she did not carry a gun we have learned throughout history that the spirit of the troops is the essential fuel of the fight.
It was years before Grandma Kay would talk about witnessing the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. There was a time when the world, out of respect did not share the stories of atrocities. But, as time passed deniers of the Holocaust, in high political positions arose, proclaiming the pictures of mass graves and human incinerators merely fabrications. So, when she was called upon, Grandma Kay shared her experience, speaking of the horrors she saw first hand. Often she struggled to explain the grave error she and many well-meaning liberators committed, by giving chocolates to the starved, a food too rich to be introduced to the emaciated causing the suffering to suffer even more. Grandma received recognition from many people including the great Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author of the masterpiece Night.
Upon returning to the States, Grandma Kay and Grandpa Bill finally wed in a small ceremony in Albert Lea. Grandma made the early transition to television in which she became the first female TV director west of the Mississippi at WCCO-TV. Her stories of these days were always entrancing, both the romance and the comedy of the early days of a completely new medium. She directed everything from visiting elephants to the great Eleanor Roosevelt. Although, she fought convention and worked throughout her first pregnancy, (unheard of in those days) her career at WCCO-TV came to an end with the birth of their first child, Christopher. Nicole followed just 11 months later, children this close together are referred to as Irish Twins. Two young children, and a house on the Mississippi in Fridley brought a close her rising career in TV. But, she threw her heart, soul and back into raising children. Imagine having, eventually 4 children under the age of 5, with no microwave, dishwasher, hand washing dozens of diapers in the toilet and no ordering in. She was, and is a fabulous mother with a restless heart, not unlike asking a cowboy to hang up his spurs for a desk job. She continued as a performer and we often sat in the audience night after night watching her in plays because it was easier than getting a babysitter. She was amazing.
Although, Grandpa Bill was mayor, Grandma Kay was just as involved in politics. She was instrumental in getting Gene McCarthy elected as Senator and she eventually put her directorial talents into McCarthy’s groundbreaking run for the Presidency in 1968. Grandma Kay was also a delegate to the National convention in 1964 in Chicago. When the race riots broke out, at the 1968 convention she was nearly trampled to death. All this with 4 kids at home. Eventually, she used her fire to fight-the-good-fight as a lobbyist in the Minnesota legislature protecting the rights of unwed teenage mothers.
In the predawn hours of April 1967 she was woken by my sister at her bedside complaining, that it was hard to sleep with all the smoke in the basement. The four children huddled by the fireplace upstairs as we heard the screams of Mom and Dad in the basement. Mom did her best to negotiate calling the Fire Department while she pushed each of us out the door, scattering into the night. The house was gone. Before the ashes had cooled the four of us were dressed in neighbor’s clothes and sent off to school, we were in our seats before the bell rang. We lived without possessions in a trailer for a year yet, we wanted for nothing.
Grandma Kay was at the birth or arrival of all of her grandchildren except for Benny, Grandpa Bill was too ill to be without her when he was born. All was well when you saw mom pick up your baby, you too felt cradled.
Grandma Kay has not been without her personal demons, challenges that would have knocked a lesser woman out of the game of life, but play she did, with her heart wide open, never holding back and for that we are all so much the better.
So, as you look at my dear Mother, now 90 years old, in a wheelchair, straining to see and hear, know it does not hinder how she loves you. She is the daughter of David and Helena, the sister of many, the wife of one, the Mother of four and as she always liked to say “A person in her own right.” Evangeline Catherine Bonner Nee.