Finding Good Bones

Marion Lower and Tom Tuerff , Gary, Indiana 1940s. Tuerff Family Picture Album

Listening to “The Bones,” by Maren Morris in the car on an unsuccessful trip to research my blog, I realize “Bones” applies to much more than calcium deposits.

Like in the song, my mother weathered several moves with my father’s job, towing three children and usually a mutt, and believed if a house had “good bones,” the foundation would hold and so would the house.

Mom never told me, but I think she believed that applied to marriage too—if the bones of their relationship were solid, together they could weather whatever wolves or storm came to the door.

My parents grew up Catholic in Gary, Indiana, when his father worked as an accountant at U.S. Steel and hers painted and decorated the Cathedral, area businesses, and the homes of wealthy patrons. My dad was best friends with her oldest brother and later told stories about tripping Marion in her first pair of high heels. They didn’t date at Horace Mann High School, maybe Tom was “too old” or too much “in the family.” But back then many parents preferred someone they’d known for years.

While Tom served in the Air Force stateside as a plane mechanic during World War II (he’d wanted desperately to fly, but back then one attempt was all you got), Marion attended Indiana University, receiving a degree in elementary education as the war wound down. It wasn’t until Marion’s brother married her sorority sister from school that these two got together, becoming a couple soon after. Being close to Chicago, they rarely missed an opportunity to listen to Big Bands like Tommy Dorsey and Louie Armstrong and dance the night away.

They married before family and friends at Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary on December 29, 1948, vowing “to have and hold each other from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

After a short honeymoon to the Wisconsin Dells, a nearby location (though in December it could have been more convenience than choice), she began teaching public school in Milwaukee, where he attended Marquette University.

The first high watermark came as he completed his degree in business and advertising and got his second disappointment. Tom had wanted to go into advertising. As he was graduating, Coca Cola offered him an entry job that could have opened into something more, but then was mainly driving a truck. He couldn’t make it on that salary with a bride and a baby on the way (me). He went into sales and spent his life selling everything from Kitchen Maid cabinets to Huntington Labs’ chemicals for school hallways and gym floors to basketball backstops for Indiana’s champion fieldhouses. He succeeded, but not overly so—he would not attempt to sell the wrong product to the wrong client just because he could—maybe a bit of the Marquette Jesuit’s philosophy stuck with him. He knew it was bad business.

Encouraging youngsters to find their essential passion, develop a personal framework and discover what they’d rather do than eat, sleep, or now-a-days play video games–was my mother’s enduring personal passion. But when she returned from summer break in 1949 the school administrator (no doubt male) noticed she’d gained weight in her belly but nowhere else. Marion was summarily fired, not for faulty educational principles or mistreatment of a child, no, she was having her own—then, married or not, being pregnant would get you fired. (At least that practice does not exist here today, far as I know.)

That didn’t rock the foundation. Nor after a flawless first birth did three subsequent miscarriages, one on the kitchen floor where he scooped her up in his arms and hurried her to a hospital, thinking he would lose her forever. After that the antics of three children were a blessing, not a curse, and were taken in stride along with countless moves across northern Indiana and into Ohio. They were still standing tall like the Blue Spruce at the top of the tall drive in Mansfield, Ohio, before their final move back to Lafayette, Indiana, when I was a high school junior.

Into the home stretch, their lives took a hard turn when she was 52. Experiencing a migraine, she fell on the elementary school playground and it took EMS eight minutes to bring her around. An aneurysm on the right side of her brain had burst—high blood pressure may have triggered the sleeping “Horrible What-If” that cast a shadow on the next twenty years’ of our lives. Fortunately many stroke patients today have the advantage of the trials and errors of the past forty-five years.

We didn’t understand, though she tried to explain, that half her bowels and her stomach and, yes, in some places, her brain, were asleep. After surgery, even with the drugs that were available then, her brain swelled, which created damage that could not then be repaired. Fortunately Marion could talk. And most blessedly she could read after we figured out she saw in stripes (something no doctor could tell us then), so she accommodated and swiftly picked up book after book, becoming a regular on the library’s drop-off route, and as she did one-handed crewel work of children at play and birth announcements for family.

Her stroke nearly became a “full stop,” the everlasting, relentless storm that strained the marriage as they struggled to find the eternal humor that can put a veneer over the most desperate situations. But who could abandon her then? My mother referred to her left arm as “wounded wing,” though she never came up with a title for her left leg, which never regained use for walking other than with a four-pronged-cane.  After occupational therapy to recall simple household tasks, we realized that cooking would be off the plate, she couldn’t do more than three things in sequence. Dad learned to put an evening meal on the table for a while, then passed it on to my brother, then fifteen, who took to it like a bit in the teeth, fortunately.

Visiting nurses came in to help with bathing and basic care, but dressing and meals were up to my father, though sometimes Meals on Wheels helped bridge gaps. Marion, who became proficient with a phone, eventually found a way to use her muscle memory for reading instruction. Her former school would recommend her as a tutor to the parents of mainly reluctant male readers experiencing difficulty in the classroom. She took the time to talk with them, in conversation, giving the one-on-one attention some had rejected earlier. Quietly her sincere interest came through and even the most dejected revealed they wanted to learn more about basketball, baseball, or Indy cars (this was Indiana), which she had no difficulty discussing, even reading the books in advance of their sessions. She gained a purpose.

Growing up I’d always thought it would be my dad whose health crisis would upend my life. He’d smoked as long as I could remember, at the breakfast and dinner table, in the car taking us to school. But I’ll be the first to admit he stopped a life-long habit of smoking at home when he realized Marion would not stop until he did—and it could kill her if she continued.

An empty case of Stroh’s beer rested in the closet off the kitchen, forming a table for the next one coming in each week to lay on top. He had a favorite bar, where he stopped at the end of the day on his way back into town after serving customers, but he often spent Saturday there too, watching the game and becoming “coach” for his knowledge of the stats and players, no matter the sport. Dad was a working alcoholic and had the Irish-German genes to support it. Mom’s stroke dynamited his secure life, where he was the ruler of the roost, but the action—the key decisions, family structure, the mundane details had been handled seamlessly by Marion. Now that was gone.

After mom came home from the hospital, I took her to therapy and helped her learn to manage herself in new surroundings. Her library book routine became well established and she knew how to put peanut butter on bread situated on a small board with edges, so it wouldn’t slip. Not ideal, but she would not starve for lunch, and we had fruit. Squeezy applesauce and one-handed juice boxes weren’t available, but it might have been a caregiver who invented them.

My parents knew that life in Lafayette held no prize for me. I’d already lived in Manhattan. They sat together at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning six months in and invited me to go: “Your work is done here and you need to find your bliss out in the world.” (That was my mother talking, the word “bliss” would not have come from my father—he would have said a “paying job.”)

After that my brothers and I would drive in or fly in to help, but one finished law school and eventually landed in Washington, another went to work marketing food commodities in Oregon, then Chicago. My next job, writing a magazine for the Hospital Center in DC, wasn’t bliss as the doctors weren’t eager then to share their stories with a female, rookie reporter who “isn’t even a nurse.” I moved on and landed on the Hill.  Every year after my daughter turned seven, she and I would drive to Lafayette from Virginia to spend the Christmas holiday with her grandparents. As she got older, the trip lost its charm, but it was family tradition.

My parents learned how to practice “in sickness and health” up close and in living color. Both got frustrated and angry with circumstances that would test the patience of Job, but they stuck with it and held on to their spot in St. Mary’s far right pew nearly every Sunday. Tom would help Marion dress, then get her in the Oldsmobile and wrestle the wheelchair into trunk for the trip to church. They’d listen to a sermon that sounded somewhat like the Sunday before. After church, Tom would mix himself a Bloody Mary before whipping up the eggs for one of his famous omelets. Marion would start the conversation about the ball game the night before or nibble on the sermon.

Overtime they became eager for news of their grandchildren. They lived a life much different from their friends who had double paychecks for years longer and were able to travel to Europe and the American West. But they persevered to prove, “If the bones are good, the rest don’t matter.”

Years earlier Tom purchased a burial plot in a funeral wall in Lafayette. He knew that his far-flung children would not be planning their vacations to tend to their parents’ plot in the Midwest. After Marion died December 21, 1998, he told his son, “I had no idea how much I would miss that woman.” Less than a month before 9-11, this former member of the U.S. Air Force died, spared the knowledge that an American airplane could be used to attack his country. Now on a hill where the eastern and western sides of Lafayette come together, there is a drawer where the bones of Marion and Tom can be found resting together, but we hope their spirits are in Big Band heaven dancing like never before.

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